'History does not repeat itself; people repeat history'
(Editor's note: This article originally was published July 15, 2019.)
There’s no such thing as someone else’s war
Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for.
Still breathing, it’s not too late
We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fight
— “White Man’s World,” by Jason Isbell
AIKEN, S.C. — The family of Lillie Belle Allen wants the world to know one thing about her murder.
Many of the family members who were there 50 years ago are no longer alive — including the five people who were in the car that night. But for those who are — and who were willing to talk to a reporter — the shooting at the hands of a white mob was not unique.
Despite the fact that the story and trial of Allen’s killers was covered nationally and had become a media obsession in York and central Pennsylvania during the early 2000s, it was never an isolated incident of time and place.
Rather, the family wants to make clear that Allen’s killing, which left her two young children without a mother, is a part of the historical narrative of this nation that stretches back to the days of slavery and continues today.
It is imprinted in the family’s DNA. Perhaps it’s also imprinted in the DNA of the men in York who fired on Allen and the police officers who handed out ammunition to the mob, urging them to kill as many black people as they could.
“History does not repeat itself,” said Allen’s daughter, Debra Grier, 61. “People repeat history.”
What happened in July 1969 has been repeated so many times that the family has grown weary of talking about it. They are reluctant to put themselves through the emotional turmoil that comes each time they are asked to dig down into their memories and repeat the details.
Last year, they shared their story with a television crew, "People Magazine Investigates," and they say that people both in York and Aiken told them they shouldn’t be talking about it anymore.
“Well, we should,” said Allen’s sister Jennie Settles. “Because it’s part of what’s happening today. Still. In the 21st century, people still have that hatred. Still have that prejudice. I look at what’s going on now with a lot of minorities. Jews, blacks, Muslims, immigrants. They’re going through the same things that we were going through in the riots. Shooting up schools, bombings. Police shootings. What’s going to make it change?”
The two men convicted of killing Allen, Bobby Messersmith and Greg Neff, were released from prison in 2007 and 2011. The third man charged, then-Mayor Charlie Robertson, was acquitted.
The checks from the 10-year, $2 million settlement reached in the wake of the family’s civil lawsuit stopped coming years ago. A planned plaque on York City’s Continental Square never came to fruition, and the anti-racist organization founded after the trial fizzled out.
“The story needed to be told,” Grier said, sighing. “How do you effect change if you don’t tell the story?”
Allen’s family members who were willing to talk about the 50 years that have passed since the York riots — about where we were then and where we are now — are all still living in and around Aiken, South Carolina, the place where Allen was born and raised. Grier, her brother, Michael Allen, and two of Allen’s sisters, Settles and Secina Toole, spoke with a reporter in May. The only family member who was there that night and who still lives in York — Allen’s baby sister Gladys Oden — declined to be interviewed for this story.
'We were going home': Allen, like millions of other African Americans living in the south, had been part of the Great Migration of the 20th century — a mass migration to northern cities for jobs and to escape Jim Crow segregation. Aiken, which sits in South Carolina’s sandy midlands, had historically been a winter playground for rich white northerners. Their staff would work for them in Aiken and then follow them to New York in the summer.
Divorced and without financial child support, Lillie Belle Allen had continued the historical tradition of spending time between the north and the south. She was a seamstress but worked a variety of different jobs in New York City — postal worker, cook, housekeeper.
She frequently worked long hours away from her children, but Grier and Michael Allen loved the freedom and independence of living in a large metropolitan environment and the interconnected network of family and friends who helped look out for them.
A year before the riots, Allen had moved back to Aiken, where she and her children had been staying with friends and family. Grier says she hated the rural provincialism and segregation of Aiken, preferring the rich cultural diversity of New York City in the late ‘60s. She and her brother were miserable in South Carolina. They begged their mother to take them back north.
“I sounded different, not like a typical southern girl. Girls pointed out our differences. I didn’t sound like I was from Aiken, because I wasn’t.”
Allen listened to her children’s complaints and told them to pack up their belongings. Every summer, Allen’s parents, the Rev. James “Pete” and Beatrice Mosley, took a vacation to New York City to visit family.
Allen decided to drive north with her parents on the vacation — along with Allen’s little sister, 13-year-old Gladys, who still lived at home. But Allen, Grier, then 11, and Michael Allen, then 9, wouldn’t be coming back.
“We were going home,” Grier said.
Their first stop on the family’s annual vacation was always York, where one of Allen’s sisters, Hattie Dickson, lived with her children and husband, Murray “Bubba” Dickson. But this year, about the same time they were driving across the Mason-Dixon Line, police officers in the city were leading a white power rally at Farquhar Park, handing out ammunition and urging white gang members to shoot black people.
It took 30 years for the York County District Attorney’s Office, in response to a retrospective on the riots by The York Dispatch, to reopen the investigation into Allen’s murder and the murder of the riots' other victim, York City Police Officer Henry Schaad. The DA’s grand jury investigation and the resulting trials are now a long time ago, too — almost two decades.
Even so, the memories of how many in the community reacted to the family’s presence in York for the trial — as if they should have to defend their reasons for being there — still cuts them.
One memory in particular haunts Grier. Moments after the jury in October 2001 convicted Messersmith of second-degree murder for firing the fatal shot, his wife turned to Grier and said, “I hope you rot in hell.”
“Why should I rot in hell?” Grier asked 18 years later. “Because my mother got killed?”
After all, she said, they were just going home.
Grier talks about the trial while sitting inside her family’s church, Cumberland AME in Aiken. No signs or security are posted. A 2½-hour drive away is Emanuel AME Church — “Mother Emanuel” — where nine black congregants and church leaders were shot and killed by a white supremacist in 2015 at a Wednesday night prayer service.
The only change to security since then at Cumberland is that during church services, the doors are locked and someone has to stand by to let in late-comers.
These are the connections that Lillie Belle Allen’s family lives with.
Grier wears her hair long in braids, just as she did 18 years ago during the trial of her mother’s killers. Other than a softening about the face, she has aged little. But the years have taken an emotional toll. After the trial, a therapist diagnosed her with PTSD. She still has nightmares of the killing five decades later. The night before the interview, she was up all night fighting off panic attacks.
In an interview in his home, just outside Augusta, Georgia, Michael Allen, 59, meanwhile, presents himself as having gotten used to dealing with it. The only change in his appearance since the trial is that he has shaved his head. He has his mother’s large brown eyes, which grow softer when he speaks of her. As he does, one can see the traumatic memories of the little boy he once was emerge.
“I didn’t know what (trauma) meant then,” he said. “As a family, our family didn’t understand what it meant. Because they were going through it, too. You cry together, give each other encouragements. That was the extent of it. I tried to deal with it.”
At one point, he wanted to find the men responsible for killing his mother and take out revenge on them. It wasn’t until he was in his late teens that his Aunt Secina realized he needed help and paid for him to take karate lessons. He took to it right away, building his self-confidence and earning his black belt. He credits it with helping him heal.
“It helped me deal with the anger still inside myself,” he said.
Allen’s sisters meet reporters in the cheerful, brightly lit community room of Toole’s apartment complex. Toole’s neighbors are only vaguely aware of the story. She doesn’t talk about it too much with them.
The spark: Three days before the family arrived in York, Bobby Messersmith, the head of the white gang the Newberry Street Boys, fired the first shot in the riots. He had targeted a group of black teens as they were talking to a police officer. The bullet struck John Washington, 15, in the elbow and Taka Nii Sweeney, 17, in the stomach, almost killing him.
A day later, Henry Schaad, a 22-year-old rookie police officer, rode on patrol with two other officers in the York force’s armored car “Big Al” two blocks from Hattie and Murray Dickson’s house. The officers were on their way to rescue a white motorcyclist, Stan Gilbert, who had been shot in the back by a black mob and was lying in the street.
As the supposedly bulletproof vehicle crossed the College Avenue bridge, the same group of black men who had fired on Gilbert fired on Big Al. A bullet pierced the quarter-inch steel-plated siding. Shrapnel ripped through Schaad’s lungs, mortally wounding him.
As Schaad was dying in York Hospital, police vowed revenge. Word went out to all the white gangs, including the Newberry Street Boys, Girarders, Yorklyn Boys and Swampers, to meet at Farquhar Park. Police brought Big Al to the rally and showed white teenagers the bullet holes in the side.
Charlie Robertson, who was a patrolman in 1969 and well-known by the gang members, raised his hand in a salute and led a chant of “white power.” In trial and hearing testimony, witnesses remembered Robertson and other officers handing out ammunition. Robertson told the teens to “shoot as many n—s as you can.”
The next night, the white gang members, pumped up and armed with guns, gathered in the Newberry Street neighborhood.
After a day spent fishing, Allen, her parents and the Dicksons stopped by the house, where the children were playing. They told Gladys and the others to keep playing, that they were going out for groceries and would be back shortly.
Fifty years ago, on the southern side of York, Newberry Street was one of the city’s most solidly segregated black neighborhoods. On the north end of town, on the other side of Philadelphia Street, Newberry Street was a white enclave of working-class houses. During the riots, barricades separated the two sides of town.
Even though no one who was in the car is still living, they shared their story many times with family members, with reporters and in court testimony.
Hattie Dickson, behind the wheel of her white Cadillac, drove north on Pershing and made a left onto Philadelphia Street. Her plan was to drive out to Route 30 to J.M. Fields. She wanted to show her visiting family members the fountain at the department store.
“I thought it was pretty,” she recounted in 2000.
Dickson turned right from Philadelphia Street onto Newberry Street just after 9 p.m. that night. Those in the car remembered seeing state police moving the barricades that had been placed to keep people — especially black people — out of the white neighborhood.
As the car reached the rise at the railroad tracks, they saw a man with a gun leaning out of a second-story window. Men and teenagers carrying guns were illuminated in the headlights. Terrified, Hattie Dickson tried to turn the car around, but it got stuck on the tracks as the white gang members opened fire on the car.
The armed white mob shooting that night may have thought they were firing on a different black person in a similar-looking car, who they believed might have been coming to attack them. Or they thought they were exacting revenge for Schaad. Different versions of the story have been told. But no matter which version one believes, the result is the same.
Allen jumped out of the car from the back seat and yelled at Dickson to move over. But before she could take the wheel, she was struck by a single rifled shotgun slug — a pumpkin ball, as it was known. The force of the blast knocked her out of her shoes. Bleeding and crying for help, she wedged herself under the car as the gunfire continued. Her family was pinned down by the bullets, unable to help.
After the shooting stopped, the family remembers Allen, dying, was loaded into one of the armored cars. Robertson, the first officer on the scene, said he thought it was an ambulance.
Meanwhile, at the house on the other side of town, Debra Grier and Michael Allen heard the sound of fireworks. “At least, I thought it was fireworks,” Michael Allen said. “Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow.”
And then, later, “Bloop. Bloop. Bloop. Bloop,” Grier remembered. “It scared the kids. We crouched down in the living room.” When they peeked through the window, they could see the Dicksons’ car coming up the street on rims, the tires and windows shot out, the lights off.
Michael Allen remembers how his grandparents walked in the door, their hair filled with what looked like glitter to a little boy but was actually the pulverized glass of car windows shattered by bullets. He remembers them telling the children to turn off the porch light and keep it off. They told them to stay away from the windows.
As he recalled the images, it became evident that his grandparents weren’t just responding to the violence of that night. They were responding to a history of black people fearing violence of white men in the Jim Crow South.
“My grandmother had her share of stories and stories from friends and families,” Michael Allen said. “You learn that you are at a risk, just because you are a minority. They knew this. In subtle ways, they let us know about it.”
But escaping the Jim Crow South didn’t keep his mother safe.
Michael Allen pauses at this notion. “Yeah … definitely,” he said, speaking softly. “That puts it in perspective that racism is everywhere.”
To illustrate this shared history of violence on black communities, Grier and her husband, Lionel Grier, take reporters to see the ghost town of Hamburg, South Carolina — a half-hour drive from Aiken on the Georgia border.
The Hamburg riot took place at the end of the Reconstruction Era in July 1876, started by white men who had formed “rifle clubs” to intimidate black and pro-Reconstruction white voters in that year’s gubernatorial race. One white person and two black people were killed in the attack on black militia men. Twenty-five to 30 black men were captured, and four were executed. Eighty-seven white men were charged in the massacre but were never tried for it.
The massacre and others like it across the state that year were successful. An anti-Reconstruction governor was elected, and apartheid laws were enacted in South Carolina for 90 years.
Grier says Hamburg and York are linked by a thread of racism that winds through America’s history.
That same thread, she says, links the murder of Allen and Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was tortured and murdered in 1955 by white men for the supposed offense of flirting with a white woman.
“In my mind, I don’t see any difference,” Grier said.
She also sees the connection to the role of police officers in Allen’s death 50 years ago and the killing of many of this country’s black citizens today.
“We have the cops shooting unarmed people,” Grier said. “We got (policemen) sitting on a man’s back (Eric Garner) and he ends up dead.
'I can't let it go': For 30 years, the refrain to Allen’s and Schaad’s murders was “One black. One white. Even.”
Even Robertson said it a year before his trial to explain why no one had ever been charged.
“Everyone knew who was involved,” Robertson told Time magazine. “But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white — even.”
It took more than 30 years for York to reckon with its past, but the family members all say that they are grateful Allen received some measure of justice. They are thankful that the district attorney's office was finally willing to reopen the investigation.
But the part that the family fears may have been forgotten in the almost two decades that have passed since the trial, and Robertson’s acquittal, is the role police and the politicians played in the riots and the killing of Lillie Belle Allen.
In addition to the white power rally and the distribution of ammunition, the family still thinks about the barricades that were moved to allow the car to enter the Newberry Street neighborhood.
“Not enough was said about ... the part that the state troopers played,” Settles said. “Because if it hadn’t been for the fact that they allowed the car to go down the street that was barricaded, she may not have been killed.
“The gang members were waiting down the street from the barricade for whoever they was going to let in. They were down there waiting with guns. They’re black, they going to kill them. Not enough was done to those people that allowed that to happen.
“I still think about that today.”
The family members all bear scars. Allen’s parents were never the same. Beatrice Mosley, especially, spent the rest of her life quiet and withdrawn. She refused to talk about the details.
Toole still thinks of what happened to Allen after the shooting stopped.
“She wasn’t dead when the shooting stopped. She was on the ground pleading for help,” Toole said. “When they got her, did they (police) finish killing her?”
She wants people to know that Allen was a hero, not a victim. “She died trying to save her family,” Toole said.
Settles said that Hattie Dickson was harassed in York and lived in fear after the trial — because York residents felt that the family should have just let it go.
“Well, I can’t let it go,” Settles said. “Because it’s part of me. And if I have the opportunity to talk about my sister, and what her siblings, her children, her family, missed out on, I want people to know.”
After Allen died, Settles became the eldest of the eight siblings. She tried to fill the role of the responsible big sister. When Allen’s body was brought back to Aiken, she was the one who identified it. “I still remember the pellet marks in her face and on her body where they dragged her.”
Of all the family members, Toole may be the most disappointed in the outcome of the trial.
“Those boys, and they were boys when that happened,” Toole said, “they were young and impressionable kids.”
She stressed that those who fired on the car should have been held accountable, but she feels the ones who should have been held most responsible were let off the hook.
“They were being coerced. By older people. And it’s the older people who should have taken the blame for it. They were young and impressionable kids, and they were inciting them, pushing them to do things and supplying them with the things they needed to do their dirty work.
“They hid behind them boys.”
When Michael Allen ponders the 50-year stretch from his mother’s murder to police brutality today, he finds it gut-wrenching. “What do people have to go through, to get them to take it seriously enough to make a change?”
He references the incarceration rate of black men today. According to Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” more black men are behind bars or involved in the criminal justice system now than were enslaved in 1850. African Americans make up less than 14% of the U.S. population, but black men make up 40% of the prison population.
“People think it’s OK to do this (disenfranchise African American men) because they believe that they are a second-class citizen.
“I know that it’s not everybody,” Michael Allen said. “I know that. But if we don’t protest it, it never changes.”
But some Yorkers say change is taking place. And the riots investigations, while causing bitterness for some residents, helped spur some of that change.
Ophelia Chambliss, spokeswoman for the York NAACP, said strides are being made confronting and dealing with racism in the York community, pointing to the Confronting Racism Initiative; the Black Ministers Association, a multi-faith, multi-ethnic organization; and the Ten Thousand Acts of Kindness event to take place in September.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Chambliss said. “We have to be very careful not to have knee-jerk reactions. We need to deal with the root of the issues, rather than in a case-by-case basis.”
After the riots trials, attempts were made to heal the community and foster unity. However, organizations such as the York County Community Against Racism fell apart because of inactivity.
“It’s different this time,” Chambliss said. “Progress is being made within the black and Hispanic communities in terms of them operating on their own behalf.”
Still, a couple of incidents in the past couple of years that briefly caught the attention of the national news media raised the issue of whether York ever really made strides.
Most notably, there was the Grandview Golf Course incident last year, in which the owners called police on five black women because they believed they were golfing too slowly and the women refused to leave. (The golfer behind them testified at a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission hearing that the women weren’t golfing slowly.) Also, there was a blackface incident last summer in which a white principal in the Southern York County School District dressed up as black TV host Steve Harvey.
“There is no magic,” Chambliss said. “There’s no, ‘OK, the trial is over …’ There will continue to be people who do things like that. What’s important is the reaction to that, how we respond. How we require people to be held accountable for their actions.”
When asked about the family’s feelings that the true instigators of the riots were never held accountable, Chambliss said, “It goes back to addressing the systemic problem of why things happen. Would these guys have done what they did if not urged to do so? And should the officers have been held responsible and bear the weight of what happened?
“It’s just like today.”
— 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.