FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fear and fury — Remembering the riots of 1969 on 30th anniversary
Editor's note: This article was originally published on July 25 ,1999.
In 1968, Randy Graham was a 16-year-old white gang member looking for a fight.
His gang, Roosevelt Park Inc., gathered with the Newberry Street Boys and Girarders, two other white gangs, at the York Fair that September looking for blacks.
"One sideways look was all it took, and we'd be fighting," he said. "Knives were pulled, or guns. It's just the way it was. I thought it was exciting at the time."
During one rumble, Graham was arrested and charged with aggravated assault for stabbing a black youth.
The arrest didn't stop Graham and his gang buddies; for the next year, the frequency of rumbles increased.
Although the trouble in York didn't make national news until July 1969, those involved remember interracial violence in the fall of 1968. "I think I was one of the ones that first started the riots," Graham recalled recently. "It started at the York Fair."
Thirty years later, many remember the riots of 1969 as a single incident or a passing flash of rage and violence, blaming "outside agitators," a national climate of civil unrest or heavy-handed K-9 corps for what they would like to believe was an isolated incident.
But in the sultry summer of 1969, York City was a powder keg waiting for a match.
A Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission study completed the year before had warned officials that the city was in danger of race riots if the "status quo as York knew it didn't change."
Many residents only blocks away from each other lived in separate worlds — a de facto segregated and discriminatory system supported by city government.
Racism, substandard housing, discrimination in employment opportunities, police misconduct, and a growing number of angry minority residents — each helped lead the city over the brink on July 17, 1969, when six days of bloody rioting began.
Two people were shot dead — a white police officer and a black woman. More than 60 were wounded, many by bullets in sniper fire and ambushes.
Businesses closed; others burned to the ground. Firefighters were attacked as they raced to calls. Many residents hid in fear in their basements. Police worked 12-hour shifts every day for two weeks protecting a city that many officers no longer understood. And teen-age boys, eager for a chance to prove something to someone, carried knives and guns like badges of honor.
Patrolman Henry C. Schaad, 22, was killed the third day of the riots, shot by sniper fire. He is the only York City police officer ever killed in the line of duty.
Lillie Allen, 27, from Aiken, S.C., was killed on the fifth day of the riots. She was visiting family in York when she was shot by unknown white assailants while stepping from her car at the corner of Newberry Street and Gay Avenue.
Neither murder has been solved, and the cases remain open.
Now, 30 years later, officials say the riots are a moment of disgrace for everyone, but York City is still dealing with their ramifications.
Many of those old enough to remember 1969 insist the riots and their aftermath produced positive change, such as a string of social service agencies that grew out of the communitywide Charrette the next April. For others, the issues ignored prior to 1969 — poverty, racism, unequal economic opportunity and the lack of responsiveness by city police and government — still plague York City today.
Just last week, the local NAACP president, Leo Cooper, told the York City Council that conditions people faced before the riots of 1969 are comparable to the issues facing city residents today, including aggressive police tactics, unresolved complaints against officers, systematic discrimination and minority unemployment.
"Does racism still exist in York? Are people still treated differently because of race, gender and ethnicity? Undoubtedly, yes," said Steve Bush, who in 1969 was a senior at William Penn Senior High School and is now executive director of the York City Human Resources Commission, an organization born of the aftermath of the riots.
"We're not where we should be," said York County Sheriff William Hose, a city policeman during the riots. "There isn't total equality - not in job opportunities, education or the justice system."
The past is prologue: By the mid-1960s, civil rights had become the law of the land. The U.S. Supreme Court had struck down school segregation, blacks were asserting their voting rights and the changes brought protests and demonstrations, mostly in the South.
But if legal racism had been swept away, de facto segregation and economic inequality were stubborn facts of life in both North and South.
The national civil rights movement, from lunch counter sit-ins to the march on Selma, Ala., to Martin Luther King's "march on Washington (D.C.) for jobs and freedom" in 1963, inspired thousands of other demonstrations.
A younger, more militant faction, led nationally by such leaders as H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Black Panther founder Eldridge Cleaver, was growing in opposition to the older, established black leadership and its efforts to gain freedoms through dialogue and working with the "establishment."
Not immune to the national movement, York City black residents were marching on City Hall to call attention to segregation, poor housing, and exclusion from city government management.
When many think about racism in York, they point to the riots, "but they forget there was a pattern of racism and violence. The riots are one of many incidents that took place over a period of time. Everyone remembers the riots, but the protests are ignored," said Peter Levy, an associate professor of history and political science at York College.
By 1963, for example, Freys Avenue, a predominantly black neighborhood, had earned the reputation as one of the city's poorest areas, where many of the row houses were owned by absentee landlords and city government paid little attention to the area.
Some of the homes lacked running water and were considered fire risks because of bad wiring. Outdoor toilets were still in use. Walls bulged. Roofs and flooring needed repairs.
But when residents approached city officials for help, they were often ignored.
Also, many blacks were becoming increasingly concerned with the police department's use of force. In 1963, the department initiated a police dog program, but almost immediately there were accusations of dogs being used solely on black citizens. The German shepherds were bought by white businessmen, and blacks envisioned the dogs as being used to keep minorities down, said Hose and Charles Robertson, a former police officer who is now the city's mayor.
Wayne Wilson, now York City's Block Watch Coordinator, was an elementary school student living in the Freys Avenue neighborhood in 1963.
"I remember a police dog attacking a man. The man was on the ground, defenseless, and the dog was chewing him up," Wilson said.
The incident prompted black leaders to meet with then-Mayor John L. Snyder in July 1963 to protest the use of the dogs. They also wanted a biracial police review board.
The mayor refused, prompting 300 York residents — many from the Freys Avenue area — to march on City Hall.
After a second meeting to discuss rising racial tensions, the mayor announced that York City businesses needed to obey state laws prohibiting racial discrimination.
But tensions continued to build. In July 1965, Mary E. Brown and two men were arrested on Freys Avenue. Police clubbed Brown's face, and one of the men was bitten by a police dog, according to newspaper accounts.
Three days later, residents flocked to a city council meeting to demand an investigation. More than 100 black residents — joined by the York County Labor Council and area churches — marched in front of City Hall.
Civic groups wrote to the state attorney general's office and, according to newspaper accounts, the FBI agreed to a preliminary investigation.
Throughout 1965, residents continued to push the city council for a biracial police review board, but city officials continued to deny there were racial problems in York.
In February 1966, Freys Avenue residents rallied again, this time to survey their neighborhood, looking for housing code violations and to bring absentee landlord problem, once again, to the attention of the mayor.
Black youth were bitter: One complaint was that residents reported 30 violations a month about the housing problems, but in 11 years of city code enforcement, only one arrest was made and one fine given to a landlord, according to the state Human Resources Commission report.
In one incident, the mayor reluctantly agreed to a tour of some of the unsafe housing and fell though the floor of an occupied home. But still, no action was ever taken to address the complaints.
Then, in March 1966, the all-white York City Council voted against the creation of a biracial police review board.
It was a move that disheartened many black residents, who thought they had just lost an opportunity for a voice in city government.
Over the next two years a number of disturbances led to the Human Resources Commission hearings in August and September 1968 in York. The commission's 65-page findings warned that the racial tension was building to a crisis.
"This trend is not self-reversing," cautioned the report. York City officials must shoulder the "responsibility for past, present and potential future racial tension in the city of York," the report said. Although the majority of police, schoolteachers and public service employees did their jobs well, there were individuals in those institutions who," by insensitivity, racist attitudes and practices," instigated the racial tension and fed the apathy of the majority white population.
The report also told city leaders that by failing to recognize the racial problem, they had in fact created and perpetuated "two separate and distinct communities identified by race."
The report also found the police department had "reflected extremely poor judgment and callous racist attitude on the part of canine officers, of officers siccing the dogs on black youths, and of police firing pistols as they chased black youth through city streets" that "demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the use of firearms." This behavior "added to crowd hysteria and endangered the lives of residents," the report said.
Youth movement: By 1968, many of York City's teens were fed up with inaction.
The nation's cities had seen riots since 1964, and after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, the racial tension in York grew more intense.
"The thought was, if you removed one of the leaders — a reverend, a man of God — then it was time to organize and bond together," Wilson said.
Across the country more riots were sparked by the death of the black leader, and the rhetoric and images from those events were not lost on York's youth.
"A recognizable fraction of the black youth of the community had totally seceded from and was combatively alienated against the 'whitey' dominated community structure," the report stated.
"That was a belief at that time — that violence could be used to achieve certain objectives — that was one of the assumptions of the national black political movement," York College's Levy said.
And there were a number of white gangs — the Newberry Street Boys, Swampers, Girarders — described in the commission's report as "armed-mob vigilantes."
Even after gang-member Graham's arrest, he said it didn't curb his involvement in the rumbles.
"It was a continuous thing. They were black. We were white. If there were blacks somewhere, we were fighting them."
Graham, now director of York-based Jamming with Jesus Music and Ministry Outreach, doesn't justify his actions. "Somewhere along the line, someone taught us this, but it was wrong."
"Blacks just wanted more freedoms. They were fighting for their rights and, unfortunately, we fought them."
Graham now says he is "color blind" and ashamed of the fighting. "Now, when I think about it, it makes me want to cry."
Igniting the spark: The 1968-69 school year began with an incident at a home football game between William Penn and Cedar Cliff high schools on Sept. 20.
It was a come-from-behind victory for William Penn's football team, and after the game the crowd turned violent, although the media reports at the time do not imply the disturbance was race-related.
Motorists were dragged from cars stopped at intersections and beaten, windows were broken in at least five stores, and garbage cans were rolled over into the streets.
All available police were called in, including K-9 corps. Four people were arrested, and nine were treated for dog bites — use of the K-9 force that again drew community criticism.
"I was there that night," recalled Hose. "As a person who didn't think it was appropriate to use dogs on human beings, being in the middle of that, at that moment, I was glad we had them. Some of the individuals were more out of control than words can describe."
Rumors sparked more violence: By the summer of 1969, the same week Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, a rumor was all it took to ignite York City.
In Penn Common, two black youths had put lighter fluid inside their mouths, lighted the fluid and spit it out, causing a stream of flame. One youth burned his face and the inside of his mouth, but at the hospital he told police he was burned by a gang of white boys. The youth later retracted his story, but not before rumors spread throughout the city.
"We didn't have a way to dispel the rumor, and unfortunately all hell broke lose," Hose said.
On Thursday, July 17, a white group of Newberry Street Boys, and a group of black youths, both heavily armed with handmade weapons, were fighting at Newberry Street and Gay Avenue.
"It got started because of white and black battles. They hated us. We hated them. They didn't come in our neck of the woods, and we didn't go in theirs," said David Phillips, who was a 5-year-old in 1969 and lived on the corner of Newberry and Gay.
For the next week, parts of the city were under siege. By day the streets were deathly quiet, but by night the city resounded with gunfire.
Residents remember the sound of bullets whizzing past them or thudding into their homes. Rioters sent bottles and rocks crashing through windows and car windshields. Businesses and homes were firebombed. Block after block of inner-city street lights were shot out, and the darkness clothed snipers armed with powerful rifles hiding on rooftops and in back yards.
A state of emergency was declared while curfews and other restrictions ordered. Gov. Raymond P. Shafer deployed the National Guard in armored vehicles that rumbled through the streets, the sound of which lingers in the memories of those who lived in the area.
"The streets were like a war zone. We weren't permitted on the streets. Everything was at a standstill," said city resident Doris Sweeney, now 66. "We'd lay on the floor when the guns went off. I even fixed up the basement with toys, food, and drinks in case we had to go down there."
Hose, who grew up on West Princess Street, said, "I thought there was a togetherness in York, but I was obviously wrong. I wonder if my skin was black if I wouldn't have been fighting along with Bobby Simpson."
"You learned not to take it personally. They weren't shooting at individuals, they were shooting at the establishment," Hose said.
Simpson, now director of the Crispus Attucks Community Center, was a known fighter in the riots. His home was allegedly shot at by police while Simpson, his wife, Linda, and their son were sleeping. But when they tried to press charges, the case was thrown out of court because there wasn't enough evidence, Simpson said in a 1997 interview.
The riots were a catalyst for him, Simpson said then. He was standing on a corner of College Avenue and Penn Street when some of his friends surrounded him, excited about a fight that was going to take place against the Newberry Street Boys. His friends thought Simpson had organized the fight and were willing to go on his say-so.
That moment, according to Simpson, caused him to consider the responsibility of leadership, and by the week's end he was telling his friends he would no longer fight.
Many buildings were burned: During the riots, the police barricaded the neighborhoods where many blacks lived, but not the neighborhoods where white gang members lived; it was a move that angered some.
York City firefighters received hundreds of calls that week, but often the reports would turn out to be false alarms and firefighters would be ambushed with heavy gunfire by snipers or hit with rocks and bottles.
Jacob W. Hose, then public safety director of the City of York and William Hose's father, ordered that they not respond to fires unless the blazes had been checked out. Most times, firefighters were escorted by police.
Tom Gibbs, then a volunteer firefighter, said many buildings were burned: Jacobson Cleaners Dry Cleaning on Cottage Place and Queen Street, Waltimyer Blind Co. on College Avenue and Newberry Street, 7 Up Bottling Co., New Way Cleaners and many corner grocery stores and meat markets. No one was ever charged with the arsons.
When a section of Hope Avenue was torched, firefighters couldn't get to the neighborhood because of the sniper fire. Four homes burned to the ground, and two others were severely damaged.
Gibbs and the other Eagle Fire Co. firefighters took the trucks as close to the fire as they could — about a block away — and hooked the hoses to fire hydrants.
"We got the equipment ready, then black residents would take the hose down to put the fire out. I know there were many nights when black men came and helped us because of where the fires were ignited," Gibbs said.
As the riots continued throughout that week, National Guardsmen or Pennsylvania state troopers were ordered to ride on the fire trucks with the firefighters for every fire.
By the sixth day, things had slowly come to an end, but nobody was sure what cooled the riots — the National Guard or the rain that fell on the city the last days of the week.
Outside 'agitators' behind violence: With all the warning signs of violence and the strife on York City's streets, many still find it difficult to understand what happened that week in 1969.
People of different races and color had lived side by side in York City, but many whites didn't understand the problems blacks were facing. They could understand southern blacks being dissatisfied but not here in York, Gibbs said.
"To this day I don't know what caused the riots. I don't know the reason for the riot," said Patricia Hildebrand, who in 1969 was a 19-year-old who lived in the city and worked at McConkey's Insurance on Continental Square.
Gibbs said he also has problems trying to make sense of what occurred.
"(I've) wondered about that for a number of years. With all the weapons available, there could have been 30 killed. Maybe they didn't want to hurt us, just show the anger."
Some blamed police insensitively, others pointed at youth gangs and many Yorkers believed outsiders contributed greatly.
"I don't think it was a black population from York. It was outside people coming in stirring up the neighborhoods, because at that time York was not a bad place," said Harold Ditzel, who in 1969 was in his 40s and living on King Street across from City Hall.
Lowell Gettys, a city resident and delivery truck driver in his 30s in '69, doesn't understand all the reasons even today, but, "it was people from outside that started it. There were good black people that lived there, and they were having the same problems as the rest of us during that time."
But outsiders weren't needed, said Thomas V. Chatman Jr., a retired city police chief. "You had some angry fellows here in York."
"There was a sense of polarization and despair against some people who thought they were mistreated," Hose agreed. "In retrospect, I think we could have avoided the riots with better communication between authorities and the populace. There was a lot of frustration in the minority community.
"And it wasn't just some of the individuals from the black community. There were segments of the white community that also acted out," Hose said. Those whites, he said, "were of the criminal element."
Blacks, whites lacked shared experience: It was difficult for some white residents to understand the need for better housing or health care because whites' and blacks' paths never crossed.
"In 1969, few whites had black friends," said Busch of the city Human Relations Commission.
"Whites didn't go to black churches or shop at black-owned businesses. Most places of employment were not integrated. Many of the minorities were concentrated in poor sections of the city — and unwelcome in other areas. So blacks and whites did not have shared experiences."
"It's not simply that people were bigoted. Many whites just didn't see race issues as their problem," York College's Levy said. "Probably most York citizens were in favor of integration, but they saw it as a southern problem."
The riots obviously drew attention to the racism in York City, but are there still negative results that York residents blame on the riots?
"Did it reinforce some of the worst stereotypes whites had about the black community?" Levy asked.
Some York residents have pointed to the decline of the urban area as the answer to that question, citing "white flight" — the white residents who moved out of the city after the riots.
Gettys, whose delivery truck route was rerouted during the riots, decided to move from the city. In 1972, he settled in Mount Wolf and raised his four children.
"The riots ruined a lot of things for everyone. You were scared to walk on the streets, and businesses moved out and went to the malls. It deteriorated the city," he said.
But Levy, from a historical perspective, wonders if "the riots" is just a "short answer for a very complex issue."
He said white flight was already taking place around the nation for a variety of reasons. "Housing opportunities, taxes, urban transportation — Realtors were encouraging suburbanization then because they could get higher commissions."
And it wasn't just whites moving out. Black middle class residents were also buying homes in suburban areas.
Sweeney remembers after the riots "a lot of people, white and black, pulled their kids out of the school district and moved out of the neighborhoods.
"Streets that blacks couldn't live on before, now became available," she said.
Also, Levy said, going back centuries, there has always been a "long-standing mistrust of cities — an assumption that they were more immortal than the country."
Poor housing conditions were an issue then as they are today. The city had to look at the substandard housing available then and the concentration of minorities in certain areas.
White housing initiatives grew following the riots, by 1996 minorities were still concentrated in certain city neighborhoods, according to the Rusk Report, a comprehensive study of York and Adams counties commissioned by businesses and community leaders of Better York Inc.
Steve Busch said one reason we still see the pockets of minorities is because "some people want it that way."
"We know that because, when talking about minorities, some whites still say today, 'not in my neighborhood,'" Busch said.