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York black history society comes together

Sean Philip Cotter
505-5437/@SPCotterYD
  • Kirkland will speak at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 13 at the York County History Center, 250 E. Market St.

Black history is York history, Jeff Kirkland wants to remind black and white Yorkers alike.

"It's just so much the history of York," he said.

Kirkland, 67, is creating the York African-American Historical Preservation Society, which he hopes will help the area recognize and celebrate the history of black people in York. And, he hopes, it can help people learn from that history so, as the saying goes, they're not doomed to repeat it.

He'll be making the first presentation for the society at the York County History Center's Second Saturday lecture series, 10:30 a.m. Aug. 13 at 250 E. Market St., in a talk titled "York's African-American Experience."

Kirkland talks about "the schizophrenic experience of blacks in the community."

Jeff Kirkland, talks about York's African-American history Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, at his home in York City. Kirkland is starting up the York African-American Historical Preservation Society  and will give a presentation  at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 13  for the York County History Center's Second Saturday lecture series. Amanda J. Cain photo

On one hand, you have a history of successful black men; for example, there's William Goodridge and William Whipper, two wealthy, respected businessmen. And there was a significant number of white folks who tried to help the black community — faith organizations in particular gave black people places to pray and organize.

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But the systemic aspect of society weighed heavily on the shoulders of black folks. When slavery was legal in the South, the Fugitive Slave Act allowed slave catchers to come grab black people who'd made it even to a free state such as Pennsylvania; and then after slavery, the state used eminent domain to seize land where black communities had started to thrive.

Inside his home in York City's Doctors Row neighborhood, Kirkland quickly picked up steam, cruising through the Fugitive Slave Act and up into the post-Civil War period. There are anecdotes about black people who managed to make names for themselves mixed with quotes from James Baldwin and W.E.B. Dubois. He could do this all day, he said, though he's going to have to give something of a Reader's Digest version to the folks at the history center.

And then there's the 1969 race riots.

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"Oh, the riots," he said, standing up and pointing to a big bulletin board covered in newspaper clippings. "We got all this on the riots."

"It was a logical build from the discrimination that'd been happening in York," he said.

Jeff Kirkland, holds books by William Keisling, as he discusses York's African-American history Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, at his home in York City. Kirkland is starting up the York African-American Historical Preservation Society and will give a presentation  at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 13  for the York County History Center's Second Saturday lecture series.  Amanda J. Cain photo

He remembers it well. He said his brother still has some buckshot in his back from when a white man fired on a group of black teens in the time leading up to the riots.

"It was an angry time, during those '60s," he said.

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And, he said, many of those issues that caused the riots never quite went away.

"The tension is not as great as it was then," Kirkland said, but it's still there.

Surrounded by African-American memorabilia, Jeff Kirkland talks about York's African-American history Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, at his York City home. Kirkland is starting up the York African-American Historical Preservation Society and will give a presentation  at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 13  for the York County History Center's Second Saturday lecture series. Amanda J. Cain photo

"We haven't reached our greatness because a large part of our human capital is being neglected," he said.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.