When York County rolled up its red carpet to people of color
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama took a tour of the Voith Siemens Hydro Power Plant, in September 2008. His inauguration meant full houses at some York County hotels. (See additional photo below.) Background posts: Thomas Chatman Jr., pioneering police chief: ‘I thank God and the citizens of York for the opportunity to serve them’ and In 2008, 8 top candidates or their families campaigned in York County and York freedman Aquilla Howard chosen to honor slain Abraham Lincoln.
In my last York Sunday News column (1/18/09), I provide a glimpse at moments when York County pushed against newcomers of color.
I contrasted that with recent efforts tied to President Obama’s inauguration to bring outsiders – perhaps many diverse outsiders – into the area.
The motivator behind the inauguration push?
Visitors would help the economy.
Interesting, freedmen’s alleged negative impact on the economy was an argument used against such visitors in the Civil War era.
Here’s how I develop all this:
East King Street’s Aquilla Howard School stood as a 20th-century honor accorded to the former slave and community leader. The school was built in 1931 to accommodate a growing number of blacks from the South arriving in industrial York. The York city school district sold the building in 1962, and it was later demolished.
When former slave Aquilla Howard crossed the Mason-Dixon Line in the 1850s, he jumped off the northbound canal boat that carried him to freedom.
He grabbed a handful of soil — presumably Peach Bottom Township’s finest — and repeatedly kissed it.
Such is the story of how the freedman, later a leader in the black community, came to York County.
He settled in York, a city on the hill, at least so compared to Howard’s southeastern York County entry point. The intersection of the Mason-Dixon Line with the Susquehanna River is the county’s lowest elevation.
But York was by no means this metaphorical city on a hill, meaning a place that would serve as a spiritual and moral example to other locales and the whole world.
In his book “American Gospel,” Jon Meacham assessed early New Englanders’ thinking of the New World as such a symbolic city on a hill.
“Shine it would,” he wrote, “but it has also long been a place of shadows — of persecution, of slavery, of poverty. Still, with courage and with conviction, the settlers fought on.”
* * *
York, indeed, had plenty of shadows.
Still, Aquilla Howard and his new friends in York’s black community endured. Howard gained prestigious employment in the household of leading York merchant P.A. Small.
But York County was far from welcoming to
The county had strong, interwoven business and social ties with the South, particularly to Baltimore.
That Southern port city represented both a market place and distribution point for York County goods.
The common view around the county was that the slavery problem was not compelling enough to fracture the nation and interrupt the county’s way of life.
Abraham Lincoln was viewed as the chief architect of schism, and that led York countians to favor his opponents in the 1860 election. John C. Breckenridge, the candidate with the highest vote total in York County, was also the leading vote-getter in the South.
And as if to underscore distrust for Lincoln’s policies, county voters backed Democrat George McClellan, Lincoln’s foe in the 1864 election, by a wider margin than his opponents scored in 1860.
The York Gazette, the leading Democrat newspaper in then heavily Democratic York County, observed before the war that freed slaves could only mean two things to the county. If the freedmen gained jobs, York countians would lose theirs because work opportunities were scarce. If freed slaves did not work, residents would have to support them.
Many people in this Northern county, which faced South, embraced the Civil War-era mantra: “The Negroes where they are; The Union as it is.”
* * *
The South’s loss in the war meant blacks no longer needed to stay where they were, and a generally low view toward people of color persisted in York County for decades.
Some say it exists today.
An often-told incident provides one illustration of how certain visitors were viewed.
Gene Krupa and his band stopped into a North George Street restaurant after a gig at the Valencia ballroom in 1941.
Restaurant employees refused to serve the band’s trumpeter and a stagehand, both blacks.
Krupa refused to leave, dispensing profanity-laced advice about how the town should be run.
That brought in the police, who arrested Krupa for disorderly conduct, and the famous band leader posted a $10 bond.
He went on to his band’s next concert, forfeiting the $10.
“We have made at least ten stops in Pennsylvania in the last month,” he later stated, “and never had any trouble until we ran up against that hamburger joint in York and that police officer.”
Such practices were not unusual. Blacks could shop in York’s stores but not eat at lunch counters in certain five and dimes.
Some York hotels refused accommodations to black visitors, and many stayed at designated homes in the black community.
People of color could not enter many private clubs, dotting the streets of York County’s cultural hub, that symbolic city on a hill.
* * *
Against this shadowy backdrop comes Tuesday’s Obama inauguration and the need for hotel rooms all along the Eastern Seaboard, stretching north of the Mason-Dixon Line into York County.
The York County Convention and Visitors Bureau is promoting overnight arrangements to inauguration-goers this week. Those staying in the county can cross the line into Maryland and grab southbound mass transportation into Washington, D.C.
So this sets up a telling irony: The county’s leadership is recruiting visitors, probably a diverse crowd, to its hotels.
And, as officials have noted, these visitors have to eat somewhere.
Interesting, inauguration goers are flocking to this area to watch the historic installation of a black president, a chief executive who also was not the favorite of local voters.
Clearly, economics played a role in its view of newcomers, then and now.
Many York leaders railed against freedmen — and the Civil War — in the 1800s because of a perceived negative impact on economics.
And today, leaders are promoting the county as a destination for lodging because of a positive impact on economics.
These situations are not exactly parallel, of course.
One would like to think that York countians are increasingly welcoming to people of color today because of the richness and understanding that diversity adds to a community.
That view was often lost in York County in the past.
Often, but to be fair, not always.
When Howard crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and smooched the earth, the lime boat captain reportedly made an observation that stuck with the freedman.
“Now, my man, you’re in Pennsylvania,” the captain said, “and on free soil.”
That comment should stick with us, too, even when economics is not at issue.