York College professor to confront city race riots at lecture

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch
Peter Levy, a history professor at York College of Pennsylvania, will give a lecture on the York race revolts on Feb. 6  at 7 p.m. (Photo courtesy of York College of Pennsylvania)

A talk this week at York College aims to discuss the city's history of race revolts in an attempt to better understand today's race relations.

"The reason I'm looking at York is not to pick on the city or peel back any kind of old wounds but as a way to try to better understand why these revolts took place and their legacy," said history professor Peter Levy. 

Levy will lead a lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 6, in the college's Waldner Performing Arts Center. His talk will address topics brought up in his 2018 book, "The Great Uprising: Race Revolts in Urban America During the 1960s." 

Levy's book examines three case studies of race revolts between 1963 and 1972, focusing on three cities: York, Baltimore and Cambridge, Maryland. In his lecture, he'll specifically speak about York's revolts in 1969. 

Although Levy will mention certain points of contention, such as the charges brought against former York City Mayor Charlie Robertson 30 years after the incidents, he's not looking to readjudicate history, he said. Rather, Levy is examining the roots and historical origins of what led to the revolts, he said. 

Even referring to them as revolts as opposed to riots, as they're often called, is an important distinction, said the college's Center for Community Engagement Dean Dominic DelliCarpini.

"What we're looking at here is what were the underlying human characteristics, underlying human challenges, that led to that moment," DelliCarpini said. "And more importantly, what can we do differently now to avoid those kinds of things."

'York's Hidden Figures': Levy's lecture is part of a yearlong series the college launched in September, "York's Hidden Figures," to look back on the community's history. 

In addition to Levy's lecture, the college will be collaborating with the William Goodridge Freedom Center to highlight the abolitionist's work in York. The Center for Community Engagement also will host a Human Library exhibit focusing on diversity.

As part of the series in March, the college will feature an exhibit in collaboration with the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, DelliCarpini said. 

"We're trying to (cast) a wide net here, looking at all different groups of people and how perhaps their stories have not been fully told," he said. 

The race revolts fit into that conversation because there's a tendency to want to look past difficult history, Levy said. 

"We tend to favor the comfortable rather than the uncomfortable," Levy said. 

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More known and famous race riots, such as the ones in Detroit, conceptualize riots as events associated with big cities, he said. Residents new to the York area might be unaware of the city's past, Levy said. 

Levy, who lives in Baltimore, said he worked in York for about five to 10 years before he realized York had revolts. 

Others, however, are vary familiar with the revolts — they lived through them. 

"We really do hope the community members turn out," DelliCarpini said, adding that the goal is to have a diverse audience, not solely the academic community. 

"What we'd really like is people who actually went though this to be there. We can all really together digest this past historic event," he said. 

Registration is free. Anyone interested can RSVP online at eventbrite.com

Why talk about it? Levy's lecture will be capped on each end with a question he was confronted with when he first started his research: "Why should we talk about these events?"

"Why peel back that scrape? Nothing good can come from this," Levy said he was told by others. 

For Levy, there are two reasons.

The first is to help limit similar revolts from happening today, he said. 

"If I had a house that had a weak foundation, I guess I could just ignore the cracks in the walls, but eventually the house is going  to fall," he said. 

Many of the causes of the revolts of the 1960s are similar to the causes of recent turmoil and race relations today, he said. Mainly, there's a feeling among the black community that the criminal justice system is not color blind, he said. 

"I think we see that the revolts grew out of unequal social and economic conditions and that those persist," Levy said. "And if we don't want them to take place again, we should grapple with the conditions." 

His second reason for discussing the revolts is more ideological than his first. 

Even if there were no chance of revolts recurring, the history is important to remember, he said.

"If we are a society dedicated to certain ideals, we should try and live up to them," he said. 

— Rebecca Klar can be reached at rklar@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter @RebeccaKlar_