Race and place

A story in documents about racial struggles in York County, Pa., through the lens of written sources. As we shall see, it’s an intertwined story about race – and place.

Civil War era

In his 1987 master’s thesis, Dr. Mark Snell writes about York County’s strong handshake with the South, a relationship that has shaped the county as a border county sitting on the Mason-Dixon Line. Until the Civil War ended slavery, York County shared a 40-mile-plus border with the slave state of Maryland. More: 10 moments that changed York.
An 1850s York newspaper outlines the thinking of many York County residents about the freeing of enslaved people. The argument? If freedman crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into the county, residents would either have to care for them if they didn’t find work or they would take scarce jobs from white working men.
This Civil War-era headline from a York County newspaper outlines the Copperhead or Peace Democrat position, the majority view in the county and common in borders counties in this era. That position stood against the abolition of slavery because that would be infringing on the U.S. Constitution. Peace Democrats were against the war and for maintenance of the Union. That position would have left enslaved people in bondage in slave states. More: What were Copperheads?
The majority of York County residents saw election of Abraham Lincoln as a vote for war. So residents voted against the Republican Lincoln in 1860, as seen here in this York newspaper account. In that vote, they sided with those cast in the South. In the 1864 presidential election, the margin for Democrat George McClellan and against Lincoln was larger. More: Lincoln in 1864 election.

A century ago

York County is north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but Jim Crow perched here. The Rev. W.E. Williams, the pastor at York’s Faith Presbyterian Church, a Black church, lays out the separation of Blacks and whites and the general discriminatory practices against people of color in this community address published in the York Gazette on Dec. 15, 1916. More: Faith Presbyterian.
In his autobiography published late in his life in 1922, A.B. Farquhar reflects back on the prevailing views about slavery in York County in the Civil War era. He attempts to place York County in a middle position between abolitionism and pro-slavery forces: Slavery was wrong – York County had counted no enslaved people for decades – but cruelty to slaves in the South was rare. This was the Peace Democrat view, a terrible weakness being that slavery would remain in place. Farquhar seems to be holding to that position more than 50 years after the war ended. More: Decisions today impact future.
More evidence of Jim Crow less than a century ago: The 1924 plans for York’s premier hotel, the Yorktowne Hotel, provided separate white and Black employee restrooms. For many years, people of color could not lodge in the Yorktowne. By 1957, the Yorktowne was listed in the Green Book. More: The Yorktowne.
For decades, Blacks could only eat and stay in specific places in York and in other American cities. The “Green Book” – “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book” – was a guide to those establishments. Here are York’s overnight places in 1940, according to Green Book listings that year. More: The Green Book.

Restricting York

Alphabet-soup agencies in the Great Depression redlined neighborhoods, meaning people in those districts were less likely to gain refinancing and other relief on their homes. Those studying such practices point out that the poor had just become poorer, and the government with its red ink played a major role in coloring that so. More about this practice in York: Redlining.
At the same time, home owner associations and individual property deeds restricted the sale of homes to people of color. These types of covenants and restrictions kept minorities concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods, specifically York city. Here is an example from No. 4: “At no time shall any of the land, or any building erected thereon, be occupied by any Negro, or any person of Negro extraction, excepting domestic servants or other persons, while employed in or about premises by the owner or occupant thereof … “ Subdivision plan for Fayfield housing development, Springettsbury Township, Sept. 1, 1947.
Notice that the restriction on this property along Keesey Street in Springettsbury Township goes beyond Black people. The property: ‘Shall not be sold: “… to a negro nor to any person not a white American citizen … .’
Here is another restriction picking up the phrase ‘not a white American citizen … ” This language clearly refers to Blacks but also to Asians, among other people. For example, a restriction on a deed in Wyndham Hills found in a 1931 subdivision plan prohibited home ownership or occupancy by any “negro,” or “Mongolian.” The latter terms relates to people of Asian descent. More: Wyndham Hills.
This is a recension of restrictions on a property in Yorkshire, Springettsbury Township, perhaps to qualify for a Veterans Administration loan. Notice that the restrictions had been extended to ‘creed,’ which might have related to Jewish people: “You should receive the usual certificate that no restrictions as to race, color or creed have been recorded since February 15, 1950.”

The 1960s

This is a FBI file in the criminal case against the assailants in the York race riots-era murder of Lillie Belle Allen in 1969. Prosecution of those involved, including York mayor Charlie Robertson, took place about 30 years after her death. Defendants in the 1969 riots murder of police officer Henry C. Schaad were also brought to justice concurrently with the assailants of Allen. The riots or revolts came after decades of racial oppression and discrimination, some of which is evidenced by the documents on this page. An incompetent mayor in the 1960s, a racially insensitive police force and its targeted use of police dogs against Blacks caused revolts in the summer of 1968-69. Also, this YDR story summarizes the buildup to the revolts, the unrest in the late 1960s and the race riots trials of the early 2000s. Related documents: Charlie Robertson’s FBI file; FBI file, 1/16/70, v. city police (3 residents victims); FBI file, 1/12/70, v. city police (Michael Cronan, Gazette and Daily report, victim).
Mayor John L. Snyder’s racial insensitivity surfaced when he used a racial slur in a conversation with a Gazette and Daily reporter in discussions about a refuse workers’ labor issue, reported Feb. 4, 1967. The refuse workers in the city were mainly Black. Snyder also headed the York city police department, which reflected the mayor’s racial views. More: John. L. Snyder.
Not all racial unrest has erupted in York city. Two evenings of riots or disturbances broke out in Hanover on July 13-14, 1991. The matter later reached federal court. The court decision is here. And more about the unrests.

Today, recommending renewal

This is the cover of the first of three reports about York County issued by nationally recognized urban planner David Rusk. This 1996 report identified the concentration of poverty in York city and offered solutions mitigating that longstanding problem and other county economic and social issues. More: Rusk Reports 1.0, 2.0, 3.0.
This table from the Rusk Report 3.0 in 2019 explores the issue of home ownership. Rusk about the 2008’s Great Recession impact: ‘Often victimized by sub-prime lenders, many Black and Hispanic homeowners were faced with falling home values and ballooning mortgage payments and lost their homes, dropping to 38% and 37% homeownership, respectively.”
This table from Rusk 3.0 notes that the overall poverty rate in York County is rising, indicating poverty is not just a city problem, but a county problem. Despite some gains by Blacks and Latinos, Rusk notes:  ” … the black family poverty rate is three and a half times the white family poverty rate – and the Hispanic/white family poverty rate comparison is over five times greater.”
Another table from Rusk 3.0: Rusk observes that as the decades pass, ownership is the primary way to gain wealth. This shows not only a net worth disparity but also wide gaps in home equity among white, Blacks and other groups.
YorkCounts issued a community analysis in 2017 with many telling indicators. Here is the assessment of house income for York County: “After a tumultuous decade in York County, average household income has returned to its 2006 level. White alone and Hispanic households in York County had lower household income than in Pennsylvania, while Black household income slightly exceeded state averages. In 2015, York County Black households earned 34% less than White households, while Hispanic households earned 47% less than White households. The disparity between White and Black or Hispanic households increased in 2015. More YorkCounts findings: YorkCounts Indicators Report 2016.