A Pennsylvania town faces up to old race tensions

A gaggle of black and white kids are walking, sometimes skipping and running together, down the tree-lined sidewalk on Newberry Street toward the baseball diamond at the end.

A few blocks up, opposite the corner where a black preacher's daughter was gunned down in a hail of bullets by white gangs 32 years ago, a Confederate flag hangs defiantly in the window of a battered gray town house. A sign on the window: "Warning: Dog Bites First, Asks Questions Later."

Welcome to York, Pa., where Mayor Charlie Robertson and five other white men are now on trial for the murder of Lillie Belle Allen, the South Carolina woman whose wrong turn while looking for a grocery store at the height of the race riots cost her her life.

The long-delayed case has put on display York's as well as the nation's unresolved racial hatreds and indignities - and their hard-won triumphs. The outcome of the preliminary hearing now under way is sparking fears of new riots - as well as tentative hope for healing.

The drama is playing out in a 19th-century marble courthouse that stands on the site where the Articles of Confederation, the foundation of the nation's Constitution, were adopted in 1777.

But the drama hasn't stopped here. It's rippling through the community, reviving old tensions for Annie Lipe, then the young wife of a police officer whose colleague was killed three days before Ms. Allen, as the officers sat together in the back of an armored vehicle. And for Chris Day, who remembers tanks rolling through the alleys of his neighborhood as a child.

Even now, he feels that racism rules York's and the nation's governing structures. "You've got more opportunities now, yes, and you've got to make the best of them," he says, leaning on his bike across from the courthouse. "But you still see the difference, especially in the courts."

Wreaths and flowers

There is no question that York has changed in 32 years. Once a solid manufacturing town that made peppermint patties and Harley Davidson motorcycles, it took a fall in the 1970s and '80s.

But now it looks burnished by the boom times of the '90s. Many of its downtown 18th-century treasures have been renovated, along with the neighborhood's brick and clapboard row houses, freshly painted with wreaths on the doors and flowers flowing from window boxes.

But in 1969, the town was a racial war zone. Rioting erupted, buildings were burned, and armed gangs, black and white, roamed neighborhoods divided by skin color.

Mayor Robertson was a cop back then. The indictment charges that the night before Allen was shot, he chanted "white power" at a rally. Then it is alleged that he handed out ammunition to white gangs, telling them he would be "leading commando raids" if he weren't a police officer.

The mayor, a big, backslapping man, admits to chanting at the rally. But he says he changed his racist views a long time ago. He also denies handing out ammunition or inciting anyone to kill. This week, at the preliminary hearing, two former colleagues backed him up. But one of the gang members, who agreed to testify in exchange for pleading guilty to a lesser crime, told the court: "We'd been given a license to kill ... by police."

In the days before, another killing

Don Billet, sitting in a rocker in the bright sunshine outside his Buy Rite New and Used Furniture store, says he's not surprised Allen's killing was never investigated. A few days before that, rookie police officer Henry Schaad was shot while patrolling the streets with Mrs. Lipe's husband. He died two weeks later.

"I think that's why a lot of police didn't care back then if a white man killed a black, because they shot one of their own," says Mr. Billet.

Like the Allen case, officer Schaad's murder went unsolved for 32 years. The two deaths became deep civil secrets that ate at the city's heart as it tried to move ahead. It wasn't until 1999, when the local newspaper did a retrospective on the riots, that a new prosecutor from out of town decided to reopen the cases.

"Tasha," who didn't want her real name used, is angry it took this long for Allen's murder to be brought to trial. She's already disappointed that three of the men who were implicated will get off on lesser charges in exchange for their testimony.

"If my brother had shot the mayor's daughter, I guarantee you he'd have been in jail long ago," she says, as her two children walk with her along the neatly tended park by Codorus Creek.

But Tasha is hoping that revisiting old tensions will bring some healing - as is Lipe, who prefers to focus on the positive. Lipe's husband, like Schaad's, was a rookie cop in 1969. The family lived in the city, near the epicenter of the riots. They were regularly threatened.

"My husband would go to work at 7 at night and come home at 7 in the morning," she says, as she unwraps donated crystal at the Junior League thrift shop. "We had black friends who looked out for us. When Jim would go to work, one of the men would sit up and watch our house for us."

She is still close friends with some of those neighbors. As much as she hates to relive those difficult times, she believes good can come of it.

"I really hope that once they get all of this resolved, including the people who shot Henry Schaad, and everything is out and in the open, then maybe we can all move on again," she says.

"I hope that because I still live in this city and I love this city and I want to see it get better, real fast."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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