Has anything changed 50 years after York burned?

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Sitting on the Lillie Belle Allen memorial bench at Farquhar Park, Eric Kirkland talks about racial tension in the York community Monday, July 15, 2019. He was shot by a white man in York City in 1968 when he was 15. Allen, a black woman from South Carolina, was killed nearby on Newberry Street during the 1969 riots in York. Bill Kalina photo

The degree to which race relations have improved in York City since the riots of 1969 depends on who is asked.

Politicians say good-faith efforts over decades have attempted to address the lingering poverty and disproportionate policing of the city’s black neighborhoods, but they admit more needs to be done.

Police department officials say outreach efforts have built trust between officers and African American residents in the city, whose numbers have nearly doubled since 1970 — from 6,525 to roughly 11,514. Even longtime activists say some progress has been made.

But to Eric Kirkland, one of more than a dozen shot when leaving a basketball game in 1968 by a white man who was never charged — which some say contributed to the riots a year later — all the talk from officialdom doesn’t jibe with the economic realities faced by the city’s poor minority communities.

“Race relations have improved at a snail’s pace compared with the other advancements that have been made in this community in the last 50 years,” he said. “They have not kept up with the development of downtown. Individually, collectively and institutionally, there has been very little to no progress.”

Kirkland, a 67-year-old York City resident who owns a local consulting firm, recalled having good friends who were white. Not everyone embodied the racism that was on display during that time. And he says he's an example of how those who faced systemic racism can still make a name for themselves.

But he still remembers, in granular detail, the day he was shot — from when he woke up to play in a widely advertised basketball game to when he was discharged from the hospital the next morning. He also carries a physical reminder, with shotgun pellets still embedded in his body.

The fallout from the deadly race riots 50 years ago that left two dead and many more injured has lingered for decades.

And with a skyrocketing Latino presence that totals nearly 14,000 — in 1970 only 254 individuals identified as something other than black or white — race relations are more complex than ever, making a direct comparison with the 1960s difficult, Kirkland said. 

A community forum known as the charrette was held over nine days in April 1970, seeking to tackle the reasons for the riots and address the systemic racism in York.

The forum resulted in the creation of Family First Health, Rabbit Transit, the Housing Council and York Housing Development Corp. 

But whites still hold a significant majority of management positions within local government, Kirkland said, adding that investments in the city of roughly 45,000 are hyperfocused on downtown and the Codorus Creek corridor, which do not benefit minorities, specifically those in poverty.

Blacks and Hispanics now make up nearly 60% of York City’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of 2016, the city’s poverty level was 36%, roughly three times the statewide average. Housing, income and educational disparities remain. 

For example, the Codorus corridor accounts for 35% of York County's minority population and 25% of its poverty, yet that area accounts for less than 1% of the county's land area, according to the York County Economic Alliance. 

The York City School District, which has a student population that is roughly 50% Latino and 32% African American, has the lowest test scores in the state. In 2012, the state placed the district in financial recovery, and it narrowly avoided having all of its schools transformed into charters. District officials say its test scores and finances are improving.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich’s administration has implemented initiatives to bolster relationships with the minority community, but he acknowledges systemic oppression and generational poverty remain in the city.

“We are in a place where we’re trying to address the social conditions that helped provide the kindling for the fire there,” Helfrich said, referring to 1969. “Economic inequality is the next civil rights issue. I think a lot of the negativity associated with race differences is more about economics and fear of change.”

In September, the city will announce plans for microloan programs for small business owners and local sourcing, in which the city would contract local businesses for goods and services.

The city already has initiatives aimed at bolstering race relations and communication, such as the Community Ecosystem Initiative. York City also continues with its Group Violence Initiative, which aims to curb violence by reaching out to at-risk youth to provide them with resources and bolster relationships with city police.

It also works with independent groups such as the Confronting Racism Initiative, the Black Ministers Association and the Community Street Soldiers.

But even so, these initiatives won’t address systemic inequalities that result in disparate treatment of people of color, local advocates have said.

Crispus Attucks CEO Bobby Simpson, right, talks about the vast improvements that have been made to the neighborhood, including its new park, during the South Duke Street Block Party hosted by Crispus Attucks and South Duke Street Neighborhood Association is shown in York, Pa. on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015.   Dawn J. Sagert - dsagert@yorkdispatch.com

That’s especially true, Crispus Attucks Association CEO Bobby Simpson wrote in a recent op-ed, when speaking about the York City Police Department, which is populated by officers who are 90% white.

“Our police department deals with life and death issues in their relationships, and how they feel may depend on the outcome of a situation, particularly when split-second decisions have to be made,” Simpson wrote.

Neither boosting the number of minority police officers nor cultural sensitivity training will, on their own, be enough to end systematic oppression and individual prejudice, said Simpson, who was present during the riots in 1969 and a witness in the trials decades later.

Simpson did not respond to requests for comment.

York City Police Chief Troy Bankert said building relationships within minority communities is key to defusing potentially explosive situations. The department strives to provide accurate information before rumors that may fuel racial tensions spread.

“(Our initiatives) allow (minorities) to have input into what goes on in the city,” the chief said. “The basis of what we're doing is the honesty and transparency. The idea is that it’s a partnership — but I have to take the lead.”

Shiloh Baptist Church pastor Larry Walthour, who works with the Community Street Soldiers and Black Ministers Association, said these initiatives that often involve city and police officials have built trust and exemplify a different York City than existed 50 years ago.

"I see a beginning," Walthour said. "I think if the conversation and commitment to the work follows through, you'll see progress. I think conversation leads to collaboration. But it's too soon to tell."

Walthour noted he's fighting for not only minorities but also whites in poverty who may be in similar situations throughout York County.

"Racism has been used as a means to divide this community, but it’s not only black and white," he said. "It’s classism. When I talk about equality and equity, I’m talking about everybody."

Some residents, including Ophelia Chambliss, spokeswoman for the York NAACP, also recognize the progress of such initiatives. But those strides, as Kirkland said, may come at a snail's pace.

"Getting into the situation we're in didn't come overnight," Chambliss said. "Long-term problems will take long-term solutions. These are not immediate things people can put their finger on. They're systemic."

After the riots trials in the early 2000s, attempts were made to heal the community and foster unity. However, organizations such as the York County Community Against Racism dissolved because of inactivity.

The grassroots movements seen in the city today show a different trend, Chambliss said, adding that minorities taking empowerment into their own hands in a visible manner precipitates more tangible progress than decisions that are made higher up the ladder. But larger-scale reform will come from the top, she added.

That includes local and state government leaders, corporations, landlords, police and everyone else who is in a position to work toward such changes, she asserted.

Confronting Racism Coalition representatives Jean Treuthart, CEO of the York YWCA, and community activist Ophelia Chambliss speak during a CRC press conference outside the Jewish Community Center's IDEAS Center in Cherry Lane Park Wednesday, May 8, 2019. During the event, members of the CRC shared its vision for creating equality in the York Community. Bill Kalina photo

"There are going to be tough decisions," Chambliss said. "Ultimately, those organizations have to make the decision for themselves — this is a long-term investment, and if they make things better, it's better for everyone. As long as everyone's working toward the same goal, we'll get there."

Some progress is also being made in the ever-growing Latino community, said Lou Rivera, chairman of the Latino-advocacy nonprofit Latinos Unidos. But as with the African American community, there is much that is yet to be seen.

"The Latino community has been more involved," Rivera said. "We've seen the Latino community become more galvanized and engaged. They're owning businesses, buying homes and getting involved in the civic process on boards and commissioners. And that's going to continue. That will not end."

Rivera appears positioned to seize a seat on York City Council next year. 

Latinos Unidos Chairman Lou Rivera speaks as community leaders gather to announce details for the 2019 Latino Health Summit during a press conference at the Appell Center for the Performing Arts in York City, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. The City of York will host the second annual Latino Health Summit and Expo at York Expo Center April 17-18. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The Latino community wouldn't have grown as much as it has or be as engaged without the African American community or the race riots, Rivera asserted, as the riots allowed the black community to grow and have a voice.

Fifty years later, Latinos have struggles similar to those in the African American community, such as health, education and income disparities. There are also no Latinos in leadership positions in the city.

What must follow is Latino and African American representation in positions of power in the city, people who can have a voice to advocate for their disenfranchised communities, Rivera said.

Some observers have said the push for progress has seemed more necessary at times in the last couple of years, as several incidents caught the attention of the national news media and raised the question of whether York ever really made strides.

Last year, former York County Commissioner Steve Chronister called the police twice on five African American women golfing at Grandview Golf Club in Dover Township.

The incident garnered national news coverage and prompted two hearings by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Neither Chronister nor any representative from the golf club attended.

The commission has since has held four town halls in York County to address acts of racism within county borders, including KKK flyers in West Manchester and Dover townships and racist literature targeting Hanover Mayor Myneca Ojo, the first female African American mayor of the borough.

Latinos have often called for more representation in leadership positions and more vocal support by city officials for immigrants. 

And as Helfrich says he is making economic equality a priority, he’s also come under fire by minority groups because of his economic policies.

Last year, the city considered outsourcing economic development to the York County Economic Alliance. During several City Council meetings, residents of color said the majority-white alliance would further gentrify the city.

Helfrich revived the issue when, in May, he appointed Blanda Nace, a former alliance employee, as the city’s chief opportunity development officer without City Council approval. 

Critics of all backgrounds lambasted Helfrich, alleging the move lacked transparency and that he didn’t give enough consideration to minority candidates.

There was a clear disconnect between the city's residents and the Helfrich administration. But unity is what is going to make the difference going forward, Kirkland said, as he sat on the bench commemorating Lillie Belle Allen in Farquhar Park.

"We have a lot of work to do to be able to go where we want to go," Kirkland said. "But it's going to take everyone. It can no longer be black vs. white or black vs. Hispanic. This is going to take a shared approach. From the top to bottom and from the bottom to the top."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.