York Town Square

Part of the USAToday Network

A tale of two challenging moments of racial testing and how York County scored

Earlier this month, a night of storytelling about the York Race Riots and their aftermath at Logos Academy drew a large audience.

Two separate events earlier this month created a way to measure York County community growth in its quest for racial equality and improved understanding.

In a York Daily Record-sponsored forum exploring the 50th anniversary of York’s race riots, a couple of storytellers told stories about clashes with police and the county judicial system as barriers faced by York’s black community in the late 1960s.

Jeff Kirkland, in citing one of many examples, told about an incident involving Chester Roach, a white man who lived above a meat market on South Penn Street.

Roach yelled at a group of black youths for making too much noise one evening in August 1968. The youths yelled back, and Roach began firing on them, wounding 10. Police initially did not arrest Roach, sparking questions in the black community about access to justice.

Roach was later charged but acquitted of all offenses – the failure of police to gather his gun and other physical evidence were among the factors that hindered prosecution.

Think about this. A man shoots 10 people and is reluctantly charged and then acquitted.

Such a shooting would be international news today.

This episode 50 years ago indicated a major roadblock, a systemic barrier, in access to justice in our court system.

This was one of many low points in those tumultuous summers and, in fact, in York County’s long history.

Access to justice key to Golden Venture support

A group of Chinese immigrants – formerly aboard the Golden Venture freighter that ran aground in 1993 off New York carrying about 300 passengers – listen during a news conference in 2006. Some were detained in York County Prison for four years before their release. A forum sponsored by the York County Bar Association and the York College Center for Community Engagement explored local efforts to free these prisoners. York Daily Record file photo.

Interestingly, access to justice also was a key point raised in the second forum, a gathering at York College observing the 25th anniversary of the Golden Venture cargo ship running aground off Long Island. It carried about 300 undocumented passengers from China, many escaping forced sterilizations and other abuses.

A large group ended up  in York County Prison, and more than 50 stayed there four years without being formally charged.

Panelists at the York College forum told about how the legal community and other concerned residents mobilized after seeing basic rights that Americans hold dear being undermined by the Clinton administration.

The immigration system wanted to send a message to the rest of the world: Your immigrants are not welcome here.

Craig Trebilcock, now a county judge but then an attorney in private practice, told a story about approaching an immigration judge’s bench midway through a hearing. He noticed that an order denying his case was before the judge, already signed.

Lawyers in York County, outraged by such hurdles to access to justice, mobilized, trained up, fought for the detainees at no cost and lobbied people of influence. Finally, with the help of Congressman Bill Goodling and others, Chinese detainees in the county prison gained their release.

This was a high point in justice for minorities in York County, and one of the finest moments in the county’s long history.

How is York County progressing today?

Outcomes in the race riots and Golden Venture cases raise a question: Are we progressing as a community in the fight against inequality, racism and eliminating barriers to access to justice?

The Golden Venture moment, showing such great legal and community concern for inequalities against nonwhites, happened about midway between the summers of 1968-69 and today.

The race riots and Golden Venture moments came 25 and 50 years ago. How are we doing today?

Some people point to progress, saying that the riots disrupted the status quo that had long oppressed minorities.

After those 1960s revolts, organizations formed to address reasons at their root: affordable housing, public transportation and access to health care.

Minorities and women filled seats on important community boards, became administrative leads in key community organizations and gained significant political offices. At roughly the same time six years ago, women, including some minorities, held the office of York mayor, York school superintendent, newspaper publisher, York College president, Penn State York president and hospital president.

But some people aren’t as convinced that the community has progressed.

They immediately point to multiple racial incidents in the past two years.

They say proposals initially raised in the Rusk Report 20 years ago to address the concentration of poverty in the city and beyond have not yet been addressed.

In fact, a YorkCounts report from 2016 indicates that children living in poverty increased two percentage points from 2004 to 2015. Meanwhile, Rusk’s predictions that poverty would move to bordering districts if the city’s situation wasn’t addressed came true. Dallastown Area School District’s rate of children living in poverty about doubled between 2004 and 2015 and Central School District’s rose by about one-third in that period.

Meanwhile, YorkCounts found that black households earned 34% less than white households locally, while Hispanic households earned 47% less than white households in 2015.

It’s time that those who see progress not become satisfied with these advancements, but keep pushing against inequality and injustice.

And it’s time that those who are dissatisfied with progress recognize that well-meaning people are working hard to clear obstacles in the race against racism and inequality.

Work in progress on racial issues

Debra Newman Ham, a retired Morgan State history professor and York High graduate, spoke at a recent gathering of the York African American Historical Preservation Society. She told of efforts at the turn of the 1800s for states in the North to abolish slavery.

“The whole North was working on the freedom of slaves,” she said.

Those words can be applied to York County today. The community is working  on issues of inequality, injustice and racism – and must accelerate those efforts.

A telling moment that points to progress on these fronts came at the YDR’s storytellers event on the race riots.

Arthur Messersmith, convicted in the killing of a black woman visiting York as part of revolts in 1969, was there hearing speakers tell about injustices in those years and efforts to bring Lillie Belle Allen’s gunmen to justice 30 years later. Messersmith was one of those sentenced to serve time. Patrolman Henry C. Schaad was the other person to die in 1969 as a result of the unrest.

Messersmith sat quietly and attentively as Jeff Kirkland, speaking just feet away, told about the violence and racial discrimination in the 1960s. He listened as Tom Kelley, the prosecutor whose efforts sent him to prison, told the story of bringing those responsible for Allen’s death to justice.

At last, representatives of the black community, law enforcement and a former white gang member were in the same room and part of a discussion about how we can work on the racial problems that have beset York County since, really, its founding in 1749.


Jeff Kirkland presents at the YDR-sponsored race riots forum, as Artie Messersmith, left, looks on.