"Many people … who are members of this community may prefer to see these issues … buried and put away. However, until they are resolved one way or another … no amount of tamping them down is really possible."
— Bucks County Senior Judge Edward G. Biester, in his ruling that even though 32 years had passed, the murder trials should go forward.
For 11 years, from 1994 to 2005, the United States went through a period of judicial reckoning, of sorts, for its racist past.
Prominent Jim Crow-era racial murders were being brought to trial, decades after the killings. Spurred by a new generation of reporters and prosecutors willing to dig into their communities’ racist past, they were helped, in some cases, by local memories and bystanders and witnesses finally willing to stand up to the truth of what happened.
The most famous of those cases included:
- First Mississippi Klansman Byron de la Beckwith was convicted in 1994 for the 1963 assassination of NAACP and civil-rights leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith shot Evers in the back in front of his wife and children.
- In 1998, Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan Sam Bowers was convicted of killing civil-rights and NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer after the Klan had firebombed his home in 1966.
- In 1999, Mississippi state investigators reopened the infamous 1964 "Mississippi Burning" case, in which three civil-rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were arrested on a traffic stop and later abducted and murdered. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, then 80, was convicted for orchestrating the murders.
- Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing in which he planted dynamite in a historically black church, killing four little girls.
As these trials and investigations were taking place in Mississippi and Alabama, a grand jury had also been convened in York to investigate the city’s 1969 race riots. As with many of these cases, the renewed investigation prompted some in the community to argue that no good could come from resurrecting the past — that it would hurt local business and possibly lead to renewed violence.
But others believed that without reckoning, the city would never be able to heal.
“What’s done in the dark will come out in the light,” Hattie Dickson said in 2000, the day after she learned the York County District Attorney’s Office had reopened the investigation into her sister Lillie Belle Allen’s murder.
But what made York unique among these nationally watched cases was that it was the only one reopened north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
'Everyone just thought it was even': The York riots that took place 50 years ago this summer left dozens injured, many severely wounded, houses and businesses firebombed and destroyed, and two people dead.
For decades, no one was charged for the murders of Lillie Belle Allen, a black preacher’s daughter visiting from down South who was shot by a white gang of mostly teenagers, and Henry Schaad, a rookie police officer shot by a black mob while out on patrol and riding in an armored vehicle.
Because both had been shot at by a large group of people — up to 100, according to some accounts — police believed they could never identify the individuals whose shots struck Allen and Schaad. Police always said that everyone knew who did it, but no one would cooperate.
But a retrospective piece in The York Dispatch on the 30th anniversary of the riots prompted the local DA’s office to begin reinvestigating the murders at the behest of then-Assistant District Attorney Tom Kelley.
The article had examined Pennsylvania’s accomplice liability law, making the point that even if prosecutors couldn’t identify who fired the fatal shots, they could still prosecute anyone who fired a gun at the victims with the intent to hit someone. Because there is no statute of limitations on murder, the article pointed out, the killings could still be solved.
Within weeks, the DA’s office had investigators out talking to witnesses.
But some said there was another reason why the killers had never been arrested — an excuse made most famously by then-York City Mayor Charlie Robertson. In a twisted sense of fair and balanced, people thought justice essentially had already been done.
“Everyone knew who was involved,” Robertson, who had been a patrolman at the time of the riots and was the first police officer at the scene of Allen’s murder, told Time Magazine in 2001. “But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white — even.”
The powder keg: Much of the violence that plagued York actually started in the summer of 1968, at the same time rioting raged in larger cities. But those stories are often forgotten amid the killings that took place a year later.
In July 1968, neighbors around Penn Park reported 12 police officers chasing black kids through the park, firing shots into the air. At first, officers denied it, but a day later, Chief Leonard Landis admitted an officer fired a “warning shot” while trying to kick kids out of the park as the 10 p.m. curfew neared.
Then, in August, Chester Roach, a white man living above Hoffman’s meat market near a black section of town, stepped outside the store with a shotgun and a revolver. He fired into a crowd of gathered black people, wounding a man and a woman. When police arrived, he explained he was stopping a break-in at the store and that he had a right to protect himself and his property. Inexplicably, police took Roach’s wife and left but allowed the man to go back upstairs with his shotgun and revolver.
After police left, Roach shot 10 more people before he was tackled and disarmed. By the time the night was over, the meat market had been firebombed and burned to the ground.
Following the summer’s violence, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission released a scathing report on conditions for black residents in York. It painted a picture of systemic discrimination in everything from housing to medical care to recreational opportunities.
Because blacks, for the most part, were kept out of the unions, the decent-paying factory jobs were closed to them. Doctors refused to accept the state assistance cards for the poor. Rather than allow black teenagers to use the sole public swimming pool on the white side of town, the city closed it. Realtors red-lined housing districts and kept black homebuyers out of white neighborhoods. Renters were steered to five informally designated ghettos on the south side of town, where many of the houses were dilapidated.
The report said John L. Snyder, York’s mayor at the time, rejected federal and state money so he wouldn’t have to comply with fair housing laws. He argued that no outsiders should be able to tell him how to run his town.
In perhaps the most egregious example, the report also described police as little more than Keystone cops, who ran through black neighborhoods firing their guns indiscriminately and using dogs to maul and terrorize residents.
The report concluded that York was headed for another riot.
In September, Mayor Snyder assessed the summer’s violence and decided more control over black neighborhoods was necessary. He expanded the K-9 unit from 10 to 13 dogs.
The spark: The next summer, as the rest of America was distracted by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing their tiny spacecraft on the moon, York was about to explode.
The following details of what happened in July 1969 have been taken from witness testimony, court records, numerous eyewitness interviews with Dispatch reporters over the years and newspaper accounts from the 1960s and early 2000s:
On July 17, 1969, Clifford Green, an 11-year-old black boy, burned his mouth playing with lighter fluid and matches. Afraid of being punished, he blamed the accident on members of the white gang the Girarders, whose members lived near the elementary school where he had been playing.
Green later recanted his story and admitted that his own foolishness was responsible for his burns. But by then, it was too late. Rumors spread to Penn Park of the alleged attack. A group of mostly teenage boys headed north.
They crossed Market Street to the white side of town, headed for the public pool behind Farquhar Park, where black children weren't allowed to swim and where they would most assuredly find confrontation. To get to the pool, they would have to cross the turf of the Newberry Street Boys.
But as they neared the Philadelphia Street bridge, word had spread to the white side of town.
Bobby Messersmith, the 23-year-old leader of the Newberry Street Boys, grabbed his rifle and scooted across a narrow steel trestle railroad bridge that spans the Codorus Creek.
Just as the group of black kids was about to cross the creek, an officer in his patrol car saw them and stopped them. As the officer leaned out the window, speaking with the boys, Messersmith balanced on the edge of the tracks and took aim. With the officer in sight, Messersmith fired into the crowd.
The rifled shotgun slug, known as a "pumpkin ball," struck 17-year-old John Washington in the elbow and 17-year-old Taka Nii Sweeney in the abdomen.
As Sweeney writhed on the ground, severely wounded, the officer cradled the boy’s head before running back to his car and radioing for an ambulance.
The following night, July 18, Stan Gilbert, a 23-year-old white man, was riding home on his motorcycle from his job at the old Borg Warner plant on the west side of town. The day had been quiet, but after the sun set, the violence returned.
As Gilbert crossed the College Street bridge, he passed Sam’s Café, a local black bar, where he would sometimes stop for a beer. He saw five or six men standing outside and didn’t think they would give him trouble. But as Gilbert rode past, one of the men shot him in the back, ripping a hole in his lung and exiting his chest. Still, Gilbert kept riding until he lost consciousness at the Oak Lane intersection.
Meanwhile, Officer Schaad was sitting on a milk crate in the back of “Big Al,” one of the department’s three steel-plated and supposedly bulletproof vehicles. The officers inside had been helping firefighters put out a mattress fire when the call came that a man had been shot off his motorcycle.
As Big Al headed east toward Gilbert, climbing the College Avenue bridge, the men outside Sam’s Café pointed their guns at the vehicle and opened fire. One of the bullets from a Krag .30-40 penetrated the flimsy quarter-inch plating and hit Schaad. The 22-year-old slumped to the floor, calling out for help.
Cpl. Sherman Warner floored the vehicle, passing by Gilbert, still in the street, as he rushed to get Schaad to York Hospital.
'White power!': The bullet that ripped through the back of the armored car shredded Schaad's lungs. On a respirator at York Hospital, he struggled for each breath before dying 14 days later. On July 19, Mayor Snyder declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile, outraged at the attack on one of their own, police talked of revenge.
On July 20, officers sent word out to the white gang members: Get to Farquhar Park.
Bobby Messersmith marched a group of Newberry Street Boys over to Girard Park to talk to their crosstown rivals the Girarders. Messersmith told them of the rally and said they needed help, that the blacks were set on attacking them. Messersmith told the Girarders to bring their guns and come with them.
In the shade of towering oak trees and before a crowd of white young men and boys, officers took their places under the gazebo's roof. They told the crowd that outsiders were intent on invading the city. Just as in many cities across America at the time, white residents were terrified of Black Panthers shooting up their neighborhoods. Bob Traettino stood in the crowd as officers told them that they needed to gather their guns and ammunition because those outsiders planned to burn down the city.
Cops told the gangs to protect their neighborhoods, to shoot at any black people that came down their streets. As a patrolman, Charlie Robertson recognized many of the faces in the crowd. He had coached them in basketball at the YMCA and knew their parents. Before the cheering crowd, Robertson pumped his fist in the air and chanted: "White power! White power!"
Robertson then led a group of teenage boys down the hill to where Big Al had been parked along the street. The car served as a reminder of what had happened three days earlier and why police were urging the boys to protect themselves. He showed the boys the hole where a bullet fired from a World War I-era rifle had ripped through the vehicle and into Schaad's back.
Officers, back at their cars, stopped gang members. They had something else they wanted to say. They opened the trunk and asked those gathered around who needed ammunition. Robertson grabbed a fistful of .30-06 bullets. He handed them to Rick Knouse and his fellow Girarders. According to at least three witnesses, Robertson told them, "Shoot as many n—s as you can."
They left the rally and headed for their neighborhood's lone black family. Her husband at work, Marie Meyers sat alone in the living room of her Cottage Hill rowhouse when the first bullet shattered the window. Bleeding from the flying glass, Meyers crawled across the floor to the telephone. A Molotov cocktail struck the back of the house.
Later, her son Sherman Spells confronted Bobby Messersmith. He said that if anything else happened to his mother, Spells would hold the Newberry Street Boys responsible.
Officers were directed to barricade the streets and to keep black and whites out of each others’ neighborhoods.
Bob "Hump" Stoner, a YMCA counselor during the riots, remembered seeing boys as young as 14 years old strutting up and down the streets with guns slung over their shoulders. He called police but said officers never responded to his calls. Instead, he saw them driving down Newberry Street, handing out more ammunition to the already-armed boys and men.
Lillie Belle Allen and her family were unknowingly about to drive into a war zone.
Allen, her parents, the Rev. James and Beatrice Mosley, and Allen’s two children had been visiting from Aiken, South Carolina. On their way to New York City, they had stopped in York to visit Allen’s sister Hattie Dickson and her husband, Murray.
On July 21, after a day spent fishing, they stopped back at the Dicksons' home on Pershing Avenue before heading back out to get food. Allen, the Dicksons and the Mosleys were in the car. With Hattie driving and her husband next to her, the white Cadillac headed toward the white side of town.
Dickson approached the intersection of Philadelphia and Newberry streets. Ronald Zeager, a state police officer stationed at the barricades at the intersection, admitted in trial testimony that he waved the car through as Dickson turned into the armed neighborhood.
As the car crested the hill toward the railroad tracks, the family could see silhouettes of armed men. Dickson tried to turn around, steering the car up over the edge of the tracks. The boys and men opened fire, striking the car with countless bullets. Allen scooted across the back seat and jumped out of the car. Yelling at Dickson to move over, she tried to take the wheel.
Bobby Messersmith charged out into the street. He raised the shotgun, loaded with a rifled shotgun slug, to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The round struck Allen in the chest. By the time the shooting stopped, she was dying in the street, wedged under the car.
Robertson was the first officer to appear. He told the mob to stop shooting, yelling, “It’s me, Charlie.”
Weeks after the riots, a federal class-action suit was filed against the city. Residents of the black neighborhoods alleged a range of abuses by police and included testimony about police participating in the white power rallies. Ultimately, U.S. District Court Judge William J. Nealon denied residents’ request for injunctive relief; however, in his decision, he wrote that Robertson’s behavior as a police officer during the riots was “outrageous and reprehensible.”
'Murder is the charge': Thirty-one years later, on June 14, 2000, District Attorney Stan Rebert announced that his office had reopened the investigation into Schaad’s and Allen’s murders and was seeking an investigative grand jury. Robertson immediately spoke out against it, arguing it wasn’t the right time.
Schaad’s widow, Sonja, later testified that when she introduced herself to Robertson at a church service, he told her that he didn’t think detectives should be looking into her husband’s killing.
Based on the grand jury’s recommendations, 11 men were arrested, nine for Allen’s killing and two for Schaad’s. One of the men was Mayor Robertson. In a news conference, he tearfully said, “Murder is the charge.”
With Tom Kelley as lead prosecutor, Allen’s case went to trial in the fall of 2002 and lasted almost a month. Bobby Messersmith and Greg Neff were convicted of second-degree murder. Robertson, who had dropped his reelection bid after he was indicted, was acquitted.
Rick Knouse, Arthur Messersmith, Clarence “Sonny” Lutzinger, William Ritter, Thomas Smith, Chauncey Gladfelter and Ezra Slick — who was not one of the men originally arrested — all accepted plea deals in connection with Allen’s death.
In March 2003, with Bill Graff as lead prosecutor, Stephen Freeland and Leon “Smickel” Wright were convicted of Schaad’s murder. Michael “Picklenose” Wright also was convicted after he incriminated himself while testifying that he fired on Big Al.
The investigation and trials attracted the attention of the national media, as well as the interest of various national white supremacist groups, who viewed the attention as a recruitment opportunity.
While York was still trying to reconcile race riots from more than 30 years earlier, racists tried to fan the flames of new rioting. On Jan. 12, 2002, Neo-Nazi Matthew Hale of the white supremacist organization World Church of the Creator spoke to a crowd of 70 supporters at Martin Library in York City. Outside, Hale’s supporters clashed with anarchists as police in riot gear tried to keep the groups separated. About 25 people were arrested, and the damage was minor.
After the trials, Allen’s family filed a wrongful death suit against York, pointing to the police misconduct during the riots. The city eventually settled for $2 million in payments spread out over 10 years.
“They deputized a community to commit murder,” Harold Goodman, the family’s attorney, said in 2002.
Reconciliation: Jerry Mitchell, a former Clarion-Ledger journalist whose investigation of civil rights-era murders helped convict four Klansmen, said that the impact on a community from historical racial violence can last decades.
“Certainly, the ripples that played out then will play out now,” he said.
As to whether a community responds well or poorly to a judicial reckoning of that violence, he said, “it depends.”
Some communities reconcile their history better than others.
“There will always be those who say it’s going to open the old wounds.”
For instance, Mitchell said, some in the Neshoba County community had been outspoken against the “Mississippi Burning” trial in the killings of the three civil-rights workers, saying the case shouldn’t be revisited. However, in a survey after the trial, a number of people who had been opposed changed their minds, saying it was good Killen had been convicted.
As one who has spent his career tracking unsolved civil-rights era murders, Mitchell said it’s unlikely that any more can yet be solved. He believes that the window has mostly closed because of the passing of time and the deaths and age of so many who were involved.
In those communities that have never revisited their past, justice is denied for the victims.
“And in order to have reconciliation, to have healing,” Mitchell said, “you have to have justice.”
— Lauri Lebo is a former York Dispatch reporter who covered the reopened investigations into York City’s 1969 race riots homicides and the resulting trials beginning in 2000. She also covered the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District intelligent design trial and is the author of “The Devil in Dover,” a 2008 book on the case. Lebo currently works for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.