Many shout-outs of appreciation to my colleague Greg Godels for shredding one of the big lies associated with the myth of the 1960s “black riot”– that disturbances such as the 1968 eruption in the Hill District caused “white flight” and led to our present patterns of urban segregation. That process was started years earlier by the racist disregard for — no, animus towards — African-American communities under the federally-supported policy of “urban renewal.” (Check out “Sorry Chapters in Urban Arrogance,” elsewhere on this site.)
Black riots are blamed for white flight, black middle-class flight, capital flight, urban blight, and so on. In its most benign forms, the mainstream narrative sees rioting as an understandable but misguided, angry reaction to kind of legitimate grievances. At its most fearful, the popular imagination sees these eruptions as anti-white, self-defeating proof of the hopelessness of “those people.” In all cases, black people are seen as aggressors to one degree or another.
You don’t see “black” riots justified as acts of self-defense on the part of African Americans in the mainstream media. Nor are modern (post-Depression) riots thought of as acts of aggression against blacks and other people of color. It seems like we’ve forgotten about the 10-day York riot of July 1969. Even the city of York acts like it has forgotten.
I was hanging out with a coworker in downtown York, Pa. one evening while on a business trip last year. I have to say that if I were younger and whiter, I might really enjoy little York: it has a downtown that Pittsburgh hipsters would die for! The area was packed with bars, restaurants and cafes, all of them bustling and all of them overwhelmingly white.
We found a bar and ordered our beers, and while my friend was in the rest room, I made small talk with the twenty-something bartender, commenting favorably on York’s downtown scene. Seemingly out of nowhere, he told me that, according to his father, York used to be a really nice town until the riot (I don’t remember if he said race riot) in the 1960s changed everything. The young man paused and looked at me with sincere eyes, as if he expected me to solve a riddle.
I am not from York — as I had told him — and I was the only African American I had seen for a block or more, so I declined to answer. I told him I had never heard about that riot. He shrugged and, looking both sad and confused, moved on to other business.
I had never heard of this York riot, but now my curiosity was aroused. I particularly wanted to know what had happened that was so terrible for the white people. Everything downtown looked just like it looks here in the ‘burgh, only more so: during the day, I saw a smattering of black and Hispanic people downtown, but few were dressed in business attire, except those whose business was to serve. All the restaurants and cafes seemed to cater to the “right” kind of people.
To me, these were all signs of white economic, political and cultural dominance. I had heard that there were sizable black and Latino communities, but they apparently hadn’t been integrated into the high life of the downtown district. Was this why the bartender was so sad-eyed? Did the young man want to see more integration?
York is an historic little town (about 44,000 people). Named for an English snob, York was briefly America’s capital at the end of the Revolutionary War. It also has the distinction of being the biggest northern town to fall into the hands of the Rebs during the Civil War. Fortunately, they only stayed a few days before being summoned to destiny at nearby Gettysburg. By the early twentieth century, the city of York, surrounded by farmland, had settled into life as an industrial, working-class town.
I have stayed in York on three separate occasions, each time at the historic and rundown Yorktowne Hotel, an art-deco-style, pimped-out relic that must have been a big deal back in its day. The photographs in the lobby, the impressive list of famous guests — ballplayers and boxers, Presidents and First Ladies, actors, politicians and celebrities — all attest to this fact, implying also that, once upon a time, York was hot shit .
Of course, York Peppermint Paddies are all over town, as are references to York as “Muscle City USA” and the nation’s “first” capital. But I never saw anything about any riots. They say that the Yorktowne is haunted, but I was never visited. The biggest ghost I encountered around York was this riot — the bartender is the only person to ever mention it to me. I soon forgot about the York riots until “Sorry Chapters . . .” jogged my memory.
The Gangs of York
York’s whites always had a hard time accepting the area’s initially small but steadily growing African American population. In 1947, the city closed its huge municipal pool rather than allow blacks to use it. By the early 1960s, blacks were protesting police violence at the all-white City Council and unsuccessfully demanded a biracial civilian review board.
Retired York newspaperman Art Geiselman told the Baltimore Sun in 2000:
That town is just north of the Mason-Dixon line, but it might as well have been in the South for all the terrible, terrible hatred of blacks that existed at the time.
Racist policing practices continued, with the small town’s police-dog unit deployed to curb protests. The mayor at the time openly referred to African Americans — about one-tenth of the population — as “darkies.” The period also saw the rise of racist white youth gangs. At least one gang, the Newberry Street Boys, was mentored and supported by a young cop who would eventually become mayor in the 1990s.
A series of street brawls and fire-bombings in 1968 set the stage for July 1969. When black rage erupted, the armed white gangs were ready but they were confronted by a black community that shot back. In 1o days of rioting, 60 people were injured, over 100 arrested, and houses and buildings were fire-bombed.
There were two deaths: a rookie white policeman was shot while on patrol in a black area, and an out-of-town black woman was killed on Newberry Street when the car she and her family were driving in was riddled with bullets, Bonnie-and-Clyde style. The first cop to respond to Newberry Street was Charlie Robertson, the future mayor. No arrests were made — for decades — in either death.
In 1999, York’s daily newspapers ran articles on the 30th anniversary of the riots. The county prosecutor decided to reopen the case, again questioning witnesses. One of those questioned committed suicide not long after talking to investigators in the spring of 2000; he left behind a detailed taped confession and the words, “Forgive me God.” According to a deputy prosecutor at the time, eight people involved in the riots had committed suicide over the years.
In 2001, two-term Mayor Charlie Robertson was arrested and charged with murder, just days after winning a close Democratic primary over the first African American to run for mayor. He dropped out of the race, admitted that he had been a racist in those days, but insisted on his innocence. The trials attracted hate groups like the National Alliance, who came to York and clashed with anti-racist protesters. Two men were convicted of the death of the black woman; Robertson was acquitted. Two black men were convicted of killing the rookie officer.
York’s population has held steady over the past two decades, but of its 44,000 people, about 28 percent are black and 28 percent are Hispanic. (For the county, it’s 6.5 percent black, 6.5 percent Hispanic, and 85 percent white). When Obama and Hillary faced off in Pennsylvania eight years ago, the city was 55 percent white. A decade before that, it was 70 percent white. Is this white flight?
African American Kim Bracey is in her second term as York’s first black mayor. Is this progress?
Sandra Thompson, York NAACP president, noted that the board members of government bodies and nonprofit agencies are mostly white. “That tells you how far we’ve come in this community.”
— Jim Collins
York, PA’s the Sunburst Band, promoting heavyweight champ, Larry Holmes: