Mattie Chapman, first African-American elected to York County office, memorialized

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

From now on, all who enter the Office of the Prothonotary at the York County Judicial Center will see the welcoming face, or at least the likeness, of Mattie Chapman.

Chapman, who died of cancer in 1982, was many things to many people: impeccable dresser, eloquent speaker, top-notch professional and warm, welcoming presence.

But Chapman was also a trailblazer as the first African-American to be elected to countywide office as the York County prothonotary.

"I like her being a wall-buster or a ceiling-breaker," said Sandra Harrison, a Democrat running for prothonotary.

Harrison joined dozens of other people Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the York County Judicial Center for a ceremony dedicating a plaque in Chapman's memory.

The plaque now hangs at the entrance to the prothonotary's office.

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Harrison is one of five African-American women who were booted from Grandview Golf Course last year in an incident that drew allegations of racial and gender discrimination nationwide.

After deciding to run for prothonotary, Harrison began to research past officeholders and said she was "inspired to the point of goosebumps" when she learned more about Chapman.

Sandra Harrison, who is running for the Prothonotary office in the next election, talks about how she has been inspired by Mattie Chapman during a dedication ceremony honoring Chapman who was the first African-American to hold a York County office as Prothonotary in 1975, at the York County Judicial Center in York City, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Harrison said she learned about Chapman's attention to detail in crossing every t and dotting every i.

"Her reputation allowed her to be respected because there was no other like her," Harrison said.

Background: Chapman began her career as a clerk in the prothonotary's office in 1956 and was elected to lead the office in 1975.

She won re-election in 1979 and served until her death in 1982.

York County Commissioner Chris Reilly described Chapman as a true inspiration.

"Not only for women and African-Americans," Reilly said, "but all Yorkers who are mindful of the county’s troubled history in terms of race relations and race issues."

Cal Weary of Weary Arts Group produced a commemorative video in honor of Chapman for the county.

A portrait of Mattie Chapman hangs in the York County History Center Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. York County commissioners announced that a commemorative plaque will be dedicated in her honor outside county judicial center. The first African-American to hold a county office, she was elected to the office of prothonotary in 1975. Bill Kalina photo

The video, which was played at Tuesday's ceremony, features interviews with Doris Sweeney, the first black woman elected to the York City School Board; John Uhler, former judge for the York County Court of Common Pleas; former York City Mayor Kim Bracey; and York City attorney Glenn C. Vaughn, who served as Chapman's solicitor.

In the video, Bracey said she remembers seeing Chapman at church on Sundays and that Chapman exuded elegance and grace.

With Chapman being York County government's first black elected official, as well as a strong woman, Bracey said she feels proud to be in Chapman's company. 

"This is someone in our community that we need to make sure there’s a legacy and that many people will continue to know her and of her work," Bracey said.

Sweeney, 85, was a girl scout when she met Chapman. Sweeney and her twin sister were 9 years old, and Chapman was a young woman serving as a girl scout leader.

Sweeney said Chapman had a beautiful personality and that she spoke well.

"As a little girl, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, maybe I can get to speak like that at some point,'" Sweeney said.

Sweeney also recalled being on jury duty at one point, and she remembered being impressed when saw that Chapman was the person in charge of taking care of the jurors and bringing them to see the judge.

Vaughn, a York City attorney who served as Chapman's first solicitor after she was elected prothonotary, said serving in her office was one of the great joys of his legal career.

Vaughn said Chapman knew everything about civil practice and procedure and didn’t need to ask him for advice.

"I didn’t have to defend any claims against her because she didn’t make any mistakes," Vaughn said, "and everyone loved and respected her."

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The video also features audio of Chapman herself speaking about women in politics.

Chapman said that as far as managing budgets, women who entered politics had long been managing their family's household budgets.

"When she moves her expertise on to other areas, paying areas, I think that she carries with it a lot of clout that a man does not," Chapman said.

After the short ceremony, Prothonotary Pam Lee and President Commissioner Susan Byrnes cut the ribbon and removed the black cloth that covered the new plaque, revealing a picture of Chapman within an outline of the York County map.

Memories: Weary said he hadn't heard of Chapman until he began to do research for the project.

He said that when he began delving into Chapman's life, the friends and loved ones he interviewed told him the special stories and connections they remembered.

Cal Weary, of Weary Arts Group, talks about  the video he produced honoring Mattie Chapman, the first elected African-American to hold a York County office as Prothonotary in 1975, following the dedication ceremony during which the video was presented at the York County Judicial Center in York City, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Across the board, he kept hearing the same things from those who knew Chapman: that she was very professional and very open, and that when she walked into a room, she inspired awe.

"All of these people all said the same thing without being prompted from one another," he said.

Chapman was a first in many things, Weary said, but more than anything else, she was human, and she treated people well.

"Her impact is still making a difference in some people’s lives today," he said.

Editor's note: In the original version of this story, Doris Sweeney's relationship with Mattie Chapman was mischaracterized. Sweeney was a Girl Scout when she met Chapman, who was a Girl Scout leader at the time.