50 Years Later, Lingering Lessons from Harrisburg, PA’s 1969 Race Riots

This June 18, 2019, photo shows the corner of 13th and Market Streets in Harrisburg for a story on the Harrisburg race riots of 1969. (Sean Simmers/The Patriot-News via AP)
This June 18, 2019, photo shows the corner of 13th and Market Streets in Harrisburg for a story on the Harrisburg race riots of 1969. (Sean Simmers/The Patriot-News via AP)

Fifty years ago this month, a woman entered a drugstore on Market Street in Harrisburg but was denied service after being told the store was closed.

Mary Yancey, a former Harrisburg school teacher and an African American, was about to intersect the path of history.

The events that unfolded that evening after she protested the treatment by the drugstore and her arrest on a disorderly conduct charge would spark a wave of civil disturbances that would leave an enduring imprint on Harrisburg.

The demonstrations and disturbances in response to her arrest by an angry and frustrated black community would come to be known as the Harrisburg “race riots.”

The upheavals bear witness to the enduring debate in the city – and the country – over race relations, racial inequality and injustice.

Indeed, the passage of time affords a new perspective on the troubled times, but more importantly, of its enduring legacy and place in the current national discourse.

Richard James argues that what played out that summer in Harrisburg were disturbances – some violent – but were not riots.

“There were mass demonstrations but there were no riots,” said James, who at the time ran the Tri-County Commission on Economic Opportunity, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

“Students were very much upset. The nation was upset. Students left school. Hundreds left classes and walked out and flooded the streets.”

If anyone knew the kids in Harrisburg, James did.

He ran a community center that offered a youth basketball team, a boxing program and martial arts classes. He worked with low-income kids, kids from middle-class families and kids involved with gangs.

“My role was to prevent violence and stop the outbreaks and channel positive energy in a positive direction,” James said.

Another Harrisburg resident on the street in those days was John “Joe Smooth” Manigault, who as a member of the Harrisburg American Legion Post 733 Emergency Police, was called out to assist law enforcement during the disturbances.

“There was no fighting,” said Manigault, now 87. “They just burned a couple of stores down….It was a lot of bottle throwing and breaking windows…but there wasn’t too much fighting or beating up of people. There was just a lot of young people doing crazy things.”

Amid the turmoil, as demonstrators – most of them Harrisburg school students – took to the streets, pelting firefighters with bricks, and throwing bottles and stones, one life was lost.

Charles A. Scott, an 18-year-old enrolled in summer school at John Harris High School, was shot by a police officer, Raymond S. Kertulis. The patrolman testified that he shot Scott after seeing him throw two Molotov cocktails at a service station. Scott, who had no gun, received five pellet wounds from a shotgun. He died 20 minutes later.

Manigault, who is black, recalls that tensions in Harrisburg – both among the white and black communities – were high.

“People were frustrated,” he said. “Nothing like that had ever happened in Harrisburg. They didn’t know what to do….Harrisburg was a quiet town.”

During those troubled times, James helped lead hundreds of students in peaceful demonstrations, urging them to resist violence.

Adults also took to the streets, led by a core of black and white clergy. Thousands of residents participated.

The peaceful demonstrations got little attention, James said. Instead, the disturbances involving fires, arson and rock throwing captured the headlines of the day.

“There were no riots,” James said. “It was a demonstration. It was a positive thing and it wasn’t the only mass demonstration that we had.”

James argues that any time a black community stages a protest or a demonstration – whether in the wake of police shootings in Ferguson or the countless other demonstrations following fatal shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of police – it is labeled a “riot”.

“The black community does not get a label for a demonstration,” James said. “They characterize any demonstration as a riot.”

Homer Floyd, who as a former director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, led efforts to diffuse tensions in the city and address issues, reflects that excessive police force and brutality underscored the violent eruptions.

“There was a great deal of concern about police and how they handle it,” said Floyd, who ran the commission for 41 years. “There was a great deal of anger that produced some of the explosion.”

The city’s black community had for decades been marginalized by discrimination, substandard housing and denial of opportunity in housing, education and social services, Floyd said. By the summer of 1969, the conditions were ripe for civil disruptions.

At the same time, an equally racially fueled and volatile situation was playing out 30 miles south in York. There, the National Guard was called out after dozens were injured in riots, leaving in their wake the killing of Lillie Belle Allen, a black woman who was visiting from out of state, and Henry Schaad, a white York City Police Officer.

Central Pennsylvania reeled in uncertainty and fear.

“There was community anger,” Floyd said. “But there wasn’t necessarily a lot of gunfire or tearing up of entire communities. It was never that great … certainly there was some violence and a great deal of healing that needed to be done as a result of the anger…but it was not widespread. It was not the entire community.”

Lingering legacies

By the early 1970s, the social and economic forces that would reshape the city of Harrisburg were well under way.

The East Mall, which later became Harrisburg Mall, had opened and was draining business from the city’s downtown. No longer were shoppers willing to jockey for limited downtown parking. The suburban malls offered ample free parking.

Then in the early 1970s, Harrisburg was buffeted by two destructive forces: a recession and a devastating flood. Against this backdrop, an enduring legacy of the racial disturbances pitting Harrisburg as a dangerous city took hold.

“It’s a paradox,” said Peter Levy, professor of history at York College. “People wrongly blame the riots for the decline of cities. They’ll say whites fled cities. Small businesses were burnt down because of the riots and the white population dropped dramatically. But downtown shopping was already in trouble. Department stores had moved out. They were vulnerable and it probably reinforced the view that the downtown area was dangerous.”

Jeb Stuart, whose family for decades ran the high-end men’s clothing store, Alan Stuart, on 2nd and Pine streets in Harrisburg, recalls the early 1970s as a time of significant change in the way people shopped.

Suburbia was booming, he recalls. Families were moving out of the city and into the suburbs. His family’s retail venture – which catered largely to the well-heeled – began to suffer as a result.

“It just wasn’t as convenient,” Stuart said. “Retail as a whole was a challenge. Sure from a residential standpoint, what happened in the city, really everywhere in the 1960s played a role. The riots branded Harrisburg in a negative way. People were scared to come into the city. They saw the riots and there was damage. They were fearful this could occur again. The white flight. The suburban shopping. The riots. It all went hand in hand.”

By 1975, his father closed shop.

The racial upheaval in central Pennsylvania garnered headlines across local media outlets, but went largely unnoticed by the national media.

The reason, Levy said: By 1969, the nation was tired of racial revolt stories. Instead, news coverage centered around the anti-Vietnam war movement, Woodstock and the “counterculture,” and the “women’s liberation” movement.

“These were issues that people were focusing on,” Levy said. “There was a lot happening.”

For years, the country had regarded racial issues and racism as a southern problem. But the racial unrest that swept across northern cities debunked that notion, Levy said. The racial unrests in mid-size cities such as Harrisburg and York underscored a more nuanced reality.

At the time blacks comprised a small percentage of the population in mid-size towns like Harrisburg. Political empowerment for the black community was limited if barely detectable.

“In many ways blacks were invisible in these communities,” Levy said. “It was harder to ignore them in Newark and Detroit. Politicians could ignore them at the time. They didn’t need their vote.”

The 1969 racial unrests ushered changes in Harrisburg. Some were immediate and tangible. Others took years if not decades to manifest.

Police underwent sensitivity training and in time became more racially integrated. Officers were assigned to walking beats. Urban renewal projects got underway, as well as an effort to rid substandard housing from the city rolls.

In 1970, the city’s Human Relations Commission was established, and the city began busing students across the city in an effort to desegregate the schools. It would take nearly another decade before the first African-American woman, Judith Hill, would serve on the Harrisburg City Council and nearly 20 years before the city had its first black police chief. Alexander Whitlock served as Harrisburg’s first black police chief from 1988 to 1991. Whitlock died in 2018 at the age of 78.

Despite progress in race relations, significant economic and educational disparities remain across the board. Harrisburg remains a predominantly black city, and much of that community falls below the economic and educational indices of the white minority population.

Harrisburg NAACP president the Rev. Frank E. Hairston-Allen notes that the gulf between blacks and whites will endure as long as parity in economic and education opportunities continue.

“There will always be issues for the minority community as long as there is white privilege,” he said. “A hungry man will kill and fight and that is where America is pushing 18.5 million Americans.”

He said Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh remain choked by gentrification and red-lining forces.

“We are corralled and as long as the dollars are kept from us, the devastation will continue,” Hairston-Allen said.

Some argue that the 1969 racial disturbances have had a lasting negative impact on city schools.

“The Harrisburg School District has never been the same,” said Calobe Jackson, a Harrisburg historian. “The problems just seem to multiply. What we have now started, in my opinion, as a result of the race riots. The city became polarized after that and has been that way almost since then. Especially with the schools. Schools never recovered from the race riots.”

Harrisburg schools have been beset by financial troubles and chronically failing academic standards among students. The district is poised to go under state oversight.

Homer Floyd, the former director of the city’s Human Relations Commission, said that the racial unrest of 1969 put in motion a slew of positive changes in Harrisburg, including focusing attention and resources on racial disparities in housing, employment and education.

Over the decades, the progress trajectory at times has crawled, but largely sustained an upward direction.

“We have seen progress,” Floyd said. “A lot of the issues that we had at the time many of them were addressed to the extent that solutions were proposed.”

The city, like many predominantly black urban centers, continues to deal with shaky relations between police and residents. The city has undergone urban renewal in commercial and residential developments – but arguably by measured degrees.

Stuart acknowledges that the troubles of the school district drive a lot of families out of the city, or at the least to private schools. The city resident remains committed to Harrisburg.

“I think we’ve grown more mature from a social standpoint,” he said. “In my mind the city has come a long way from where it was in the 1960s in terms of being more integrated, more accepting of all races.”

Some years before her death in 1993, Mary Yancey, reflecting on that troubled summer, told The Patriot-News: “We didn’t intend violence in Harrisburg. We intended to have a march.”

Now, 50 years after the troubles of the 1969 summer, young activists and elder statements from the city’s black community bemoan the lack of substantive change – even in spite of representation in government.

Lamont Jones, a Harrisburg community activist, notes that racism is alive and, in many ways, overt. If the community fails to heed the lessons from 1969, he adds, it risks a repeat of the unrest of the 1960s.

“We are still feeling the pain but from centuries of abuse and mistreatment of brown and black people,” Jones said. “It’s now becoming a genetic thing. The fear factor was embedded in a lot of our children. At some point the powder keg will blow up.”

Elder statesmen warn of what they say is a dangerous resurgence of factors that ignited the revolts.

Floyd points to widespread racist and hateful language. He is concerned about the resurgence of hate groups and hate activities across Pennsylvania. And he is troubled by the enduring police brutality and excess of force against black men.

“I think there is anger in the community in terms of police community relations,” he said. “There’s a lot of effort to improve that area…but at the same time, when young people get shot..some of whom are running away from police and get shot in the back and nothing happens, police get exonerated, I think that is something that we certainly have concerns about.”

Levy suggests that it is imperative to study the riots; that only by doing so, will communities prevent a repeat of history.

“We are looking in the mirror,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of continuity. It’s a warning call saying ‘Let’s deal with it.’ We shouldn’t want to see people become so frustrated that the only way their voices can be heard is to riot.”

SOURCE: IVEY DEJESUS, PennLive.com, via AP