A dark time never really stays in the past

Last Thursday, as The Eye perused what passes for the paper of record in these parts, it noticed a very small article buried toward the rear of the local coverage section.

The piece briefly described a tentative financial settlement between the family of an African-American woman murdered by white gang members during racial violence in York, Pa., in 1969 and that town's civil authority.

Why would this be of interest here, one might ask?

The victim was a local girl.

Lillie Belle Allen of Aiken was killed by a gunshot wound on July 21, 1969, while trying to avoid a group of armed white men. They opened fire on her after her car stalled out on a railroad crossing and she had exited the car to remove her young son and daughter to escape the mob.

Allen, who was 27 at the time of her death, was in Pennsylvania visiting relatives.

The summer of 1969 in York was characterized by racial tensions periodically erupting into individual acts of violence or riots.

Not unlike the rest of the country, noted The Eye.

Allen was murdered at the height of the race riots and her death followed the sniper-style murder of a white rookie police officer named Henry Schaad a few days earlier. The violence left 60 people wounded and entire city blocks burned before the Pennsylvania National Guard was called in to quell the violence.

No arrests were made at the time in either killing, although Allen's family did file a civil suit that went nowhere.

In 1999, efforts by Allen's family and the York news media to call attention to the 30th anniversary of the incident resulted in the arrests of nine members of the gang (the Newberry Street Gang) and then-mayor of York, Charlie Robertson on a variety of murder and conspiracy charges.

Robertson, a York police officer at the time, was alleged to have shouted "White power!" during the riots and specifically to have provided ammunition to the men who eventually killed Allen.

Robertson, who maintained his innocence but did admit to the "white power" exhortations, was acquitted by a jury in 2002.

Allen's family then re-filed a civil suit against the city citing several facts that came out during the criminal prosecutions.

Which brings The Eye to the present.

The tentative financial settlement between the Allen family and the city of York was being subject to final approval after The Eye's press time and would potentially provide $200,000 annually for ten years.

The funds would come entirely from the city's revenues, as its insurer was absolved of any responsibility following disclosures that, as mayor, Charlie Robertson had misrepresented any future civil liabilities faced by the town when it applied for coverage in May 2000.

Nice guy, this Charlie fellow, mused The Eye.

Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff were convicted of second degree murder in the matter of Lillie Belle Allen and are currently serving state prison terms.

Two African-American men, Stephen Freeland and Leon Wright, were convicted of second degree murder in the matter of Officer Henry Schaad and are currently serving state prison terms.

These convictions arose from the 1999 reexamination of the events and a former gang member's suicide audiotape to authorities.

The point remains that a few people refused to surrender their dead to the past and derived some sort of satisfaction/justice for their efforts.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the past has an ugly habit of returning, and it's not that reassuring to know that this kind of nasty racial violence isn't confined to the South.

The less we as Americans do to reexamine this country's tortured racial history and to rebut the cultural and financial inequities and petty resentments among the races, the less likely the nation as a whole can lead internationally.

And the more likely that what happened to Lillie Belle Allen and Henry Schaad almost 40 years ago will happen to other families.


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