Ironic story behind office offering Latino advocacy

Site of Mayor John L. Snyder’s insurance office

221-225 East Princess St., York

The situation

As York’s mayor in the latter part of World War II, John L. Snyder foreshadowed lapses of judgment that would plague him in the 1960s.

A proposed Snyder-led noise ordinance strictly banned the loud playing of radios, phonographs, jukeboxes, musical instruments, singing or other noises between midnight and 7 a.m. in consideration of the need for defense workers to sleep.

The proposal in 1944, defeated by council, would have had an unanticipated impact.

“If this ordinance should be passed,’ council member Theodore Freed said, “there will be no Christmas caroling this year.”

Mayor John L. Snyder walks a German shepherd in his second administration in the 1960s.

When he tabled his insurance business and took over as mayor for a set of two four-year terms in the 1960s, he and his second administration seemed to have lost his grasp of all downstream impacts.

Downstream was the right word: He brought in a rainmaker – an old guy with a big box – to combat the drought of the mid-1960s. The carving out of Lake Redman was a better solution.

Further, he lacked a filter and discernment on racial matters so vital for those times, or any times.

He used a racial epithet, for example, in a newspaper interview about a garbage dispute with city refuse workers. Most of the city garbage workers were Black.

And most poignantly and memorably, he supported the city police’s K-9 Corps, police dogs that many Black residents felt were used disproportionately against them.

Snyder as mayor and head of city police supported the K-9 Corps. But the Republican officeholder took that support to another level by walking York’s streets with one of the German shepherds.

The siccing of the dogs on Black people was so abusive that the practice helped catalyze two summers of race riots on York’s streets, uprisings also spawned by long-running institutional racism, neglect of social services for the poor and other factors.

Snyder died in the fall of 1969, and as the new decade dawned, so did a new era in York. Snyder’s racially heartless administration and the riots served as a community disruptor that spawned change.

Mayor John L. Snyder operated an insurance business in this East Princess Street building.

Women and minorities started gaining elected and appointed community positions. Professionally led transportation, health and housing services came in.

Snyder was succeeded by a woman, Jesse M. Gross, appointed as York mayor until the administration of Eli Eichelberger was voted in. She was the first woman to hold that office.

The York Charrette in April 1970, a multiday problem-solving event, led to an improved conversation between white people and minorities in the community. The K-9 Corps was disbanded in 1973.

As for Snyder, his legacy was summarized by an observation from George Shumway in his official Charrette Report. Snyder governed “as if the twentieth century had never taken place.”

The city’s Renaissance Park, in the 200 block of East Princess Street is a popular gathering place for the surrounding, diverse neighborhood.

The witness

In the first years of the 1970s, the York City Human Relations Commission and the York Spanish American Center were formed, both with the goal of improving community life for minorities.

The Human Relations Commission, among other things, monitors and reports bias-related incidents.

The Spanish American Center for years offered support and services for the Latino community.

So it comes as a great irony that both organizations occupied Snyder’s former insurance office in the 200 block of East Princess Street in York.

Indeed, the Spanish American Center succeeded the Human Relations Commission in that building in 2007, becoming the José E. Hernandez Centro Hispano.

The 200 block of East Princess Street is dedicated to kinsmen of Jose Hernandez, Edwin and Delma Rivera.

The Latino center’s namesake, José E. Hernandez, and his wife, Gloria, arrived in York from Philadelphia in 1958, where he continued his work for Cole Steel at the local plant.

His kinsman, Dr. Edwin Rivera and his wife, Delma, also from Puerto Rico, later joined them. The two families led the Latino community in these early years.

He became deeply involved in the York County Latino community and hosted a Latino program on a local radio station.

Hernandez became an interpreter and translator for county courts and city police, aiding Spanish-speaking people through the court system. He translated the Miranda Rights statement for carry cards.

His service to the Latino community influenced, after his death in 1971, the formation of the Spanish Council of York Inc., also called the York Spanish Center.

So it’s a rich and ironic idea, indeed, that the business of a mayor with such insensitivity to minorities would become home to organizations that sensitively sought to serve people of color.

But there’s more.

In 2019, 200 block of East Princess Street was dedicated to Edwin and Delma Rivera. Racially diverse people of all ages use the city’s Renaissance Park across the street from Snyder’s former office at 221-225 East Princess St.

And CASA, an organization that advocates for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, is based in the old insurance office today.

On Dec. 29, news of state redevelopment grants came out. CASA was awarded $1 million for renovations to this building – a place that holds so many ironies.

The Latinos Unidos will continue the legacy of advocating for Latinos to be included in the cultural and civic life of the city.

The questions

The racially insensitive choices of Snyder’s administration infuriated enough people that they helped ignite change. It’s unfortunate that such hostility was common in the first place. And it’s a sad and terrible note in local history that it took violence – the race riots – to help disrupt the status quo and bring change. Thankfully, however, locals seized the opportunity after the riots to bring action. In what ways can the average person spawn change? It doesn’t always require officials or leaders, but anyone who wants to make a difference. 

Related links and sources: Jim McClure’s Celebrating past and emerging leaders of York’s growing Latino community; Visit of rainmaker indicates much awry in York. Also, expanded version of this post: York building faces expansion, improvements.  José D. Colón-Bones’ Jose Hernandez left ‘great legacy of service and love towards the Hispanic community’ Top photo: York Daily Record; Photo of Jose Hernandez, submitted. Photo of John L. Snyder with police dog, York Daily Record. Jim McClure provided other photos.


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