Witnessing York: Challenging moments that teach and inspire
In the summer of 2019, I brainstormed several local history ideas for projects to tackle after I finished my doctorate.
One involved the mapping of sites of interest and importance around York County – places worthy of remembrance.
That sat on my in my Google Drive as I tackled the grueling work on my dissertation, focusing on York County’s agricultural past.
Then with my doctoral diploma in hand this past August, I revisited the list and that mapping idea.
Jim McClure and I, who often connect on a variety of local history projects, talked about applying the mapping concept to particular types of sites – places where our forebears struggled. And sometimes succeeded.
Jim had benefited from a visit to York earlier this year from a representative of the Sites of Conscience, a New York-based non-profit organization. Hanover’s Matt Jackson had invited Jim to that meeting. That group, among other good things, urges communities to remember critical places that can teach lessons today.
So Jim and I set to work in developing a digital platform that adapts some of the Sites of Conscience ideas, exploring past challenging moments and places in York County that teach and inspire.
Indeed, all around York County, we have found sites of meaning – places where people engaged in important movements, decisions or conversations. Yet, few monuments mark these locations.
Without intentionality, even the most memorable people can be forgotten.
So Jim and I today launched the project called Witnessing York – a digital site designed to showcase examples of social struggles and, at times, resolution of those challenging moments in York County’s past.
We live in a civil society where people can openly talk about disagreements. But we still wrestle over justice. We recognize that York County’s past is a blend of good and bad and those moments that cut both ways. And today many good people are laboring on those issues that need work.
On the Witnessing York site, we discuss stories of people who endured lengthy journeys of trial and doubt. We have some challenging parts of our heritage, and we need to own those. However, within many stories we find elements of redemption, even if that means using the stories as an educational tool to teach about possible resolutions for the present and future.
There are so many more lessons to learn. That is why each story posted on the site also includes questions. For example, when exploring the cultural significance of the Vietnamese Alliance Church on North George Street, we ask questions about language, perspective and communication. Concerning the first York home of Edwin Rivera, York’s pioneering Latino physician, we pose questions relating to ethnicity, cultural borders, and connection.
Another story, scheduled soon, is penned by guest columnist Matt Jackson, who has continued to be an inspiration. He writes about the life of William Henry Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s valet, who passed through York County with Lincoln on the way to and from Gettysburg in November 1863.
We tie each moment or person to a location. Since Witnessing York is also mobile friendly, we’re hoping people actually visit the sites, taking time to witness the spot for themselves.
Here is one of the sites you can visit:
Resting place of sanctuary
At 22 years old, John Aquilla Wilson feared for his life, finding himself entangled in a war.
In 1863, Confederate soldiers threatened to cross the covered bridge from Lancaster to York County. To stop their advance, Union troops engulfed the bridge in flames.
Wilson, a soldier, carved a rifle pit from the earth and then placed his body in the ground to protect him from Confederate guns. One year later, he marched with the United States Colored Troops, 32nd Division, in South Carolina.
A threatening enemy force loomed as Wilson conquered a fear few of us will ever encounter. War can have lifelong impacts on the human psyche. How does war change people like 22-year-old Wilson? What are we doing here and now that could have devastating effects on the well being of other people?
These are the questions Jim and I pose to remind you of the past while stimulating thought around the present.
Fortunately, Wilson lived to see the end of the war and came home to York County. In fact, he lived another 79 years, witnessing the assassination of Lincoln and two other presidents, the stock market crash, and America’s involvement in World War II.
He was one of the last surviving Civil War veterans in York County. Today, you can visit his grave at the Fawn AME Zion church cemetery, along with 17 other Civil War veteran graves.
Before the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States, Black residents in Fawn Township wanted freedom from fear. They constructed a place to worship to achieve this goal. Building a log church out of the local woodlands, locals found a place of healing, safety and assurance – a sanctuary.
Being vulnerable can make us feel exposed. Considering the tense racial relations during the 1850s, Blacks in southeastern York County wanted their own place of worship. Today, the church and cemetery still represent safety. It makes me think, “In what ways do we continue to build places of safety?”
Please visit Witnessing York to read more about the situation, the witness and the questions HERE.
Offering a place to reflect
Reflecting the rich agriculture and natural lands of York County, Witnessing York’s color theme is largely green. However, you’ll notice the bold red logo with a “Y.” The red, suggesting the color of blood, symbolizes the troublesome aspects of our history.
No one would ever wish for bad things to happen in the future, but we need to be ready. Examining the past means we’re preparing for the unfortunate but real possibility of emerging conflicts.
The witnesses in these stories have already laid the groundwork for open dialogue. Now, we’re hoping to use that framework to arouse further reflection and action in our home – the York County community – and to pinpoint sites that might be lost to history.