York’s Leroy Atwater helped build three black military memorials. He’s dreaming about No. 4.
Several years ago, Leroy Atwater was working in North York’s Lebanon Cemetery with Tommy Montouth, John Palmer and other volunteers.
The men were talking during their cleanup work in this historically black cemetery when Montouth said: “It’s a shame we don’t have a marker up for veterans.”
Those words spun up action, county veterans affairs director Barre Shepp got involved and the marker went up.
That is one of three monuments to honor black veterans in the York area that Atwater has assisted from idea to completion.
The thing is, Atwater, 74, is not a military veteran.
“I’ve been around veterans all my life,” he said. His father was a World War I vet, and his son grew up around the American Legion.
Some of the guys working the Lebanon Cemetery detail that day were vets. Montouth served in the Korean War, and Atwater called Palmer a “war hero,” a “gutsy” bronze medal winner in Vietnam.
“I just wanted to do something to recognize veterans,” Atwater said in a recent interview.
Plus two more memorials to black military veterans
Atwater, a York resident, phoned several weeks ago to recall our previous conversations.
He remembered a column I wrote in 2013 contrasting the honors accorded a possible Confederate spy who died near the Susquehanna River and the unsung black fighting man who was killed in the trenches at Wrightsville battling the rebel attack on the town and its mile-long bridge.
The Confederate soldier was honored with much pomp and pagentry as a replacement marker was erected to replace one that washed away. Meanwhile, the brave Union man had never been memoralized.
Atwater told me that my story contrasting unequal recognition of the two Civil War fighting men “lit a fire on my behind.”
Atwater’s Social Friendship Lodge No. 42 Prince Hall got to work and a bold marker went up in Mount Pisgah Cemetery near Wrightsville. A somber, history-filled ceremony dedicated the marker, complete with Buffalo soldier reenactors astride Harley motorcycles.
Then in 2016, Atwater and fellow Social Friendship Lodge members Lewis Peco and James Parker led an effort, with American Legion 127, to erect a plaque on York’s South Penn Street Bridge honoring black veterans. Atwater is always quick to give others credit for these initiatives, including County Commissioner Chris Reilly and Silbaugh Memorials in the Lebanon and Mount Pisgah cemetery projects.
The location of the South Penn Street marker had particular significance in the black community. The predominantly black neighborhood near the north bridgehead produced several Vietnam War veterans. Atwater said at least three never came home.
Another monument in Continental Square?
Atwater has been laid up from a stroke for the past year.
He often thinks about other ways to recognize black veterans and was glad to hear about a proposed statue to recognize ex-slave William C. Goodridge. That would supplement the historical marker outside the former East Philadelphia Street home of the Underground Railroad operator.
One idea he’s been pondering is a monument to York County veterans of all races, perhaps in Continental Square.
“Right now I get to sit here and dream and pray,” he said from his Fireside home.
“When the Lord gets me back on my feet, I have some ideas about what I want to do.”
Upcoming: A night of storytelling
The York DailyRecord will host a free public event – “Personal stories and lessons from York’s race riots” – at 7 p.m. April 23 at Logos Academy, 250 W. King St., York.
Fifty years ago this summer, York was the scene of public violence that resulted in the deaths of two people, scores of injuries and profoundly affected the community for decades. The storytellers for this evening will be people who experienced the racial unrest in York City in 1968-69, the aftermath of the riots, as well as from those involved in the investigation of the deaths launched 30 years later. A panel discussion will follow.
The YDR thanks the storytellers: Jeffrey Kirkland, Serena Frost Gillespie, Tom Kelley, Dorothy King and Mark Woodbury.