York Town Square

Part of the USAToday Network

Widespread rioting stopped after 1969, but the K-9 Corps continued, as seen in this 1970 picture. The issue of police dogs was a big topic in the York Charrette in the spring of 1970. The K-9 Corps was discontinued in 1973. (York County History Center photo).

Police K-9 Corps catalyzed York’s racial tensions in late 1960s


In 1969, there was a war in York, the second summer of racial unrest.

The city’s streets were erupting on those hot days 50 years ago this week, even as Neil Armstrong was taking that first small step on the moon.

In 1969, the violence turned deadly. One victim, Lillie Belle Allen, a black woman visiting York, lay dying on a city street the day after Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind far above.

On those July days, a white police officer, Henry Schaad, was suffering in York Hospital from wounds after a bullet penetrated the armored car in which he was riding just days before. He would die from his wounds.

Memories of those days of distress are burned in the minds of some African Americans in York County, afflicted by callous cops and other injustices at the time. We must not forget, they say.

Others have different recollections. Some suburban folks still won’t go to downtown York despite its burgeoning arts and entertainment venues because of their perceptions dating to those days 50 years ago.

Others in York County don’t want to remember. They’re tired of the topic and say it’s time to move on.

Some in York leadership believe the community has tried to move on without squarely dealing with crucial issues of racism and bias.

“There is a disease among us – a cancer that must be attacked – the cancer of division, fear and bias that holds us back as individuals and as a community,” a full-page newspaper advertisement from the county commissioners and seven community organizations stated in 2018. “ … We can do better. Indeed, we must.”

Clearly, these shaping summers have the power to evoke emotion 50 years later.

So here’s an explanation of what happened in the York race riots and their aftermath plus a brief look at the race riot trials 30 years later when the Schaad and Allen assailants finally were brought to justice.

What was the human cost of the riots? 

Numbers about the violence vary, but the rioting in 1969 ended with dozens of gunshot wounds and injuries from thrown objects and more than 100 arrests in addition to the two murders.

The violence showed no signs of abating until the National Guard came in to restore order.

York College of Pennsylvania history professor Peter B. Levy summed up this unrest in his 2018 book, “The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America During the 1960s.”

“ … York experienced the twenty-sixth most severe riot or urban revolt out of over 500 that occurred in the nation between 1963 and 1972. Adjusted for population, York’s revolt may have been the most severe of the era.”

What caused the riots? 

You can mix the 1960s in York into an equation, a formula for racial revolt:

Long racial oppression + neglect of services for low-income people + unfit mayor/bigoted police + boiling U.S. urban racial environment + K-9 Corps (police dogs, as a catalyst) = York riots of 1968-69.

York County was the destination for many black people from the South as an early stop north of the Mason-Dixon Line in the Great Migration after about 1915.

The movement peaked about 1930, when the Crispus Attucks Community Association organized in York to provide social and recreational services to the black community. Two segregated elementary schools went up at that time.

By the 1960s, deteriorating social and economic conditions faced by local people of color contributed to the York riots.

Now for the incompetent mayor and his police department’s unabashed use of the K-9 Corps:

Mayor John L. Snyder was from another time. Literally. He served in that position in the 1940s, was out of office for a decade and then held York’s mayoral post for most of the complex 1960s.

George Shumway, a printer and keen observer about those years, put it this way. Snyder governed “as if the 20th century had never taken place.”

And those dogs used by police to subdue people they considered perps? They were unpopular in the black community from the time they were trotted out in 1962.

This Farquhar Park memorial was a result of a search in the aftermath of the race riot trials in the early 2000s to bring peace and healing. The memorial is located near the site where then-police officer Charlie Robertson was part of a white power rally at the time of the riots. Robertson later became mayor of York and was acquitted in the race riot trials. The site is a stop on Kelsey Wisman’s app ‘The Predictable Past.’ (Photo by Jim McClure).

What kicked off the two summers of unrest?

The riots in 1968 were characterized by three main racial moments:

On July 11, about 50 black youths occupied Penn Park in what police viewed as a disorderly assembly.

A series of clashes between the young people and police ensued, and the unrest spread out. After a rock bounced off a police cruiser, a patrolman fired a shot into the air in an attempt to stop fleeing offenders.

On Aug. 3, Chester Roach, a white man who lived above a Penn Street meat market, yelled at youths for making too much noise. Roach fired on the youths with a pellet gun and then a shotgun, wounding 10. He was later charged and acquitted.

In Sept. 20, an altercation erupted after a York High-Cedar Cliff football game. Fighting among fans moved into York’s downtown where police reportedly targeted black youth with their police dogs, hospitalizing at least seven.

After these events in the summer of 1968 ended, the state Human Relations Commission identified the main causes of the violence: lack of responsiveness from city hall, a police force that generated hostility, housing discrimination and other related findings.

The city did not accept commission recommendations. In fact, officials escalated things.
Police expanded its K-9 corps, and a monument was constructed in their honor. Further, the police commissioner opposed a police advisory board long sought by the black community.

A York County School of Technology student uses the web version of an app to learn about York’s race riots of 1968-69. (Submitted).

What were the big events in the riots of 1969?

Let’s explain with this timeline:

July 17, 1969: The riots began when a black youth, Taka Nii Sweeney, 17, was shot in the abdomen and whisked to York Hospital in serious condition. He recovered.

Actually, tensions flamed before that action when a 12-year-old black youth claimed that a gang had doused him with gasoline. In fact, that claim was false; he burned himself playing with lighter fluid. But that set the stage for a rumble between black youths and a white gang.

Sweeney, part of a group of black youths, was standing by a police officer when a sniper wounded him. “That is how the violence of the summer of 1969 began,” researcher Jeffrey Hawkes later wrote.

July 18: Schaad, 22, was shot while patrolling in one of the city’s two armored trucks. He died Aug. 1.

July 19: Snyder declared a state of emergency. State police were called in to assist York police in fighting the violence.

July 21: Allen, 27, visiting her sister in York from her hometown of Aiken, S.C., was shot and killed on North Newberry Street.

July 22: National Guard troops rolled into town and Gov. Raymond P. Shafer declared a state of emergency.

July 23: The violence ebbed.

Why were the shooters not immediately arrested and brought to justice?

The assailants were known in the community for decades.

The best answer comes from this succinct summary offered 30 years later by then-Mayor Charlie Robertson.

“Everyone knew who was involved,” Robertson told Time magazine in 2001. “But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white – even.”

Why didn’t rioting erupt in the summer of 1970?

That year didn’t start well with violence at York High, closing the school.

Today, some credit the York Charrette in April as the salve that eased the pain. Others aren’t so sure.

This week-long event, tagged as a form of civic group therapy by Time, borrowed its name from the French “little cart.” Picture this: An architect being pushed to an appointment in a cart with his rolls of drawings as he’s cramming to finish his designs.

The charrette was a cram session to deal with the problems behind the problems.

The charrette, managed by a black man from the South – William L. Riddick – helped assemble all sectors of the community. They came together to intensely work on persistent community issues such as affordable housing, health service for the poor and public transportation.

And to address the deployment of those police dogs.

York’s Jeff Kirkland presents at a 2019 race riots forum, as Artie Messersmith, left, looks on. Messersmith was a defendant in the shooting death of Lillie Belle Allen.

Did the York Charrette accomplish its goals?

Some people have questioned whether the charrette was a charade, putting a glossy finish on an un-sanded or rotting surface.

They argue, then and now, that those issues are far from resolved, and poverty remains concentrated in the city, as described by urban planning consultant David Rusk in 1996 and 2002 reports.

Others would point to the fact that no widespread rioting took place in the summer of 1970.

Organizations formed after the charrette to enhance public housing – the York Housing Authority, for example – and health services for the poor – Family First Health today.

The York Transportation Club organized to enhance public transportation. It later contributed to the formation of Rabbittransit.

Later, the city Human Relations Commission formed in the climate of change fostered by the riots, though no direct link exists between the commission and the charrette.

In the 1970s, women and people of color started gaining elected and appointed political offices.

Significantly, the K-9 Corps was disbanded in 1973.

What prompted race riot trials 30 years later?

In 1999, newspapers in York County ran one of their regular five-year retrospectives about the riots. Determined prosecutors in the York County district attorney’s Office read them and decided, at last, justice needed to be meted out.

Let’s consider another formula in assessing what was going on in the York community in the year 2000:

Unfinished, unresolved murder cases + underfunded community services/concentration of poverty + unfit mayor + aggressive prosecutors (as a catalyst) = Race riot trials.

Remember that the shooters of Allen and Schaad had never been brought to justice. And in 1996, Rusk pointed out that York was in the top tier of U.S. cities in concentration of poverty.

In the 1990s, York elected and reelected another mayor who was not equipped to deal with these and other complex, unrelenting city problems. This mayor, former police officer Charlie Robertson, would become part of court proceedings in connection with Allen’s 1969 death.

And by now, young, aggressive prosecutors and a brave, veteran district attorney were ready to take on the politically sensitive issue of prosecuting a 30-year-old case that would no doubt roil the city and reach into the city’s top office.

Note the conditions of York housing in the 1960s. Lack of affordable housing and scarcity of jobs were major issues in 1969. Proposals from the state Human Relations Commission to address these issues and others were not followed. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel)

What happened in court?

In 2001, District Attorney Stan Rebert and assistant DA Tom Kelley and other prosecutors, acting on a grand jury recommendation, brought charges against a group of 10 white men – most of them involved with gangs at the time of the riots – in the death of Allen.

Robertson was in that group, charged with shouting “White Power” and other activities as a city police officer in 1969 that gave white gang members a green light, leading to Allen’s death.

“Murder is the charge. Murder is the charge,” Robertson said. “I’m standing here in disbelief as to the charge, which they must prove. And to this, I maintain my innocence.”

Robertson was later acquitted of the charge after a trial. The rest pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.

The DA also charged three blacks in the death of Schaad. All were convicted or pleaded guilty and sentenced to prison.

Those legal proceedings probing the Allen and Schaad slayings seemed to bring a degree of closure.

Predatory hate groups largely from outside the county picked at the scab covering the healing wound but gained no edge and soon slunk away.

The Schaad and Allen families met and embraced. A memorial was constructed in memory of Allen and Schaad in Farquhar Park.

And the city, with private investments, began rebuilding its downtown core, a recovery that is accelerating today.

A photo taken from the coroner’s report of York City Police Officer Henry C. Schaad of West College street facing west toward the intersection with South Penn Street. The armored truck Schaad had been riding in drove up this street before it was hit with gunfire that fatally wounded officer Schaad. (York Daily Record file).

York County on the 50th anniversary of the riots?

But some York residents will tell you that the race riot trials did not bring true closure, that the concentration of poverty has not been adequately addressed and institutional racism has not been checked.

Earlier this month, Bobby Simpson, influential community leader and head of Crispus Attucks Community Center, graded the city in its progress. He had in mind inappropriate social media posts by York police officers revealed in a 2019 national investigative effort:

“The 50th anniversary of the York riots is fast approaching, and, yes, some progress has been made. Back then, I would have given our community an overall F, but today, based on the progress we’ve made, I would give our community a C+. I did have our Police Department also at a C+, but since the Facebook article I downgraded them to a C-. If our city is going to continue to make progress, our business leaders and our Police Department have to lead the way.”

After a nationally prominent racial incident at York County’s Grandview Golf Course in 2018, community leaders put forth the newspaper ad pointing to the disease of racism. The Grandview case was the biggest among a litany of county racial incidents in 2018 and earlier this year.

The community has responded with 10,000 Acts of Kindness and Confronting Racism Coalition initiatives and a series of well-attended public forums. The state Human Relations Commission also has held a series of public meetings around the county exploring those recent racial incidents.

The optimistic might point to the greatness of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing this week.

Indeed, in the minds of some in York County, the moment of Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk in 1969 will always be aligned with the escalation of rioting in York.

A lesson to take away from this anniversary week is that if America can send men to the moon, York County can win the battle over racial discrimination.

Sources: James McClure’s “Almost Forgotten”; Jeffrey S. Hawkes’ master’s thesis, “J.W. Gitt’s Last Crusade”;  York Daily Record files; Kim Strong’s York Daily Record stories about the riots and trials, “As he lay dying” and “Silent no more”; Raul Urrunaga’s “The York Charrette, April 19-27, 1970,” Journal of York County Heritage, 2012; Peter B. Levy’s “The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America During the 1960s,”  2018.

This aerial view from the camera of a York, Pa., Daily Record/Sunday News photographer shows where railroad tracks cross Newberry Street in York. Lillie Belle Allen, visiting York, was slain when the car she was riding in stalled on those tracks. Police officer Henry C. Schaad also died from a gunshot wound sustained during the same rioting in 1969.