Wandering in York County

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Debra McCauslin wrote this book on Yellow Hill - an abandoned 19th century African American colony in Adams County.

‘Realizing I was white’ at 12: Blacks, Latinos learn much earlier

I was 12 years old when I realized I was white. It was 2003, and my cousin Logan, three years my senior, took me to Ocean City, MD on the bus. The vehicle rumbled into the station, and I could see seagulls flying overhead. When the doors opened, smoldering heat smacked us in the face — a perfect day for the beach.  

Some of my family live in Maryland and Delaware. In this photo, I’m with my Uncle Barry (left) and my cousin Logan (right) on their pontoon boat in the Chesapeake Bay. Jamie Noerpel Photo.

When my feet hit the pavement of the station, I noticed the people waiting on the platform were Black. It was the first time I was the only white person in a particular space. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable; I just remember noticing

In Judith Porter’s book, Black Child, White Child: The Development of Racial Attitudes, racial awareness means possessing knowledge of both the visible difference between skin color as well as perceptions that classify people into these categories. 

Yes, I had been taught about civil rights in school. But I made it 12 years before I truly became aware of race. I grew up in Yoe in the 1990s, so I didn’t see much diversity (Even today, Yoe Borough is 85% white). My play groups were simply limited to the circumstance of my birth.

Unlike me, a white person who made it to the double digits, my students of color report being as young as four when they realize physical differences carry social meaning. 

For a class activity (I teach history at a high school in Dauphin County), we share childhood experiences from our hometowns. Roughly 30 percent of my students are white, 30 percent Hispanic, and 40 percent Black. My Black and Hispanic kids tell vexing stories: being called a racial slur while walking down the street, being followed in a department store, a woman passing by grips her purse tighter — things I can’t say I experienced as a white person. 

Unfortunately, my students’ stories aren’t rare. A study by the American Psychological Association looked at 4th graders. The researchers found that Black and Latino children were more likely to be aware of racial and ethnic bias when compared to white children. 

This research was done in the modern era with children who live in a world of relative equality. Imagine a study conducted for children who experienced slavery. 

There’s a place called Yellow Hill where the people were constantly reminded of their race. Located in Menallan Township near Biglerville in Adams County, this African American community reached 95 people by 1850. Residents came from Maryland and Virginia as well as other routes along the Underground railroad. 

Yellow Hill is #42 on this map of northern Adams County. York County History Center document.

Yellow Hill gets its name from the light-complexions of biracial families who lived in this segregated colony. Together, they logged their own roads, built their own homes, and buried their dead. The homes functioned as a sanctuary for others along the Underground Railroad as well as Blacks escaping the bloody skirmish of the Gettysburg Civil War battle. 

They had to be constantly aware of their physical appearance, their skin color, because being Black, even above the Mason-Dixon Line, could be dangerous. They did find some white support — that of their Quakers neighbors with whom they worshiped alongside prior to building their own church. 

Unfortunately, this segregated sanctuary disappeared. And we don’t know what happened to it. Read the full article on Witnessing York: The abandoned African American colony of Yellow Hill

Debra McCauslin gained attention to the area by hosting tours. Before her work, little was known about Yellow Hill. She pieced together the history using tax records, census records, and newspapers. You can read her book, “Reconstructing the past: Puzzle of a lost community,” available in the York County History Center’s archives and on Amazon.

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