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York vastly different community than during racially tense 1969

YORK - Amid the swirl of campaign rhetoric in the Democratic primary for governor, she's the often nameless, always faceless African American woman killed long ago.

Rob McCord (right) has used the York murder of Lillie Belle Allen (center) to cast doubt on Tom Wolf's (left) judgment due to his link with a defendant in the case.
Rob McCord (right) has used the York murder of Lillie Belle Allen (center) to cast doubt on Tom Wolf's (left) judgment due to his link with a defendant in the case.Read more

YORK - Amid the swirl of campaign rhetoric in the Democratic primary for governor, she's the often nameless, always faceless African American woman killed long ago.

But to the residents of this hardscrabble industrial city south of Harrisburg, Lillie Belle Allen remains a symbol of the violence and racial hatred that raged here in 1969.

"I've heard stories," said Shawn Markel, 23, who lives a few hundred yards from the spot where Allen was gunned down by a white mob a generation before he was born. "The last time I thought about it was when they put up a memorial to her in the park."

Allen's slaying resurfaced this spring when Democratic candidate and state treasurer Rob McCord launched a battery of attacks against Tom Wolf, the front-runner among four primary candidates. In a TV ad and on the trail, McCord has accused Wolf of poor judgment for his ties to York Mayor Charles Robertson, one of nine men charged in Allen's death decades after it occurred.

Wolf, a York business leader, was the mayor's campaign chairman when Robertson was arrested in 2001. Robertson had been a York beat cop in 1969, and was accused of inciting the white gang members who killed Allen.

Robertson acknowledged he had once been a racist, but insisted he had changed. Still, he abandoned his 2001 reelection bid, and was later acquitted of any crime.

Wolf severed professional ties but the two remained friends.

McCord contends that Wolf was too slow to distance himself from the ex-officer or his actions when the charges came out in 2001. But his attacks prompted backlash from Democrats including U.S Sen. Bob Casey and former Gov. Ed Rendell. York's current mayor, Kim Bracey, who is African American, appeared in an TV ad in support of Wolf.

Still, McCord has said he is sticking by his ad, even if it costs him votes.

In the neighborhood where the killing occurred, few appear to have noticed the new focus on the incident.

"Who's the bad guy?" wondered Anthony Mims on Wednesday, admitting he wasn't paying attention to the election. Mims, 48, said he grew up with Allen's nephew but that they rarely discussed her death. "We didn't give it too much thought," he said.

With 43,000 people, York now has more black and Hispanic and interracial residents than whites.

The melting pot is evident at the infamous intersection where Gay Street meets North Newberry Street just blocks from the city center. White and black folks buy empanadas from a Hispanic woman behind the counter at what was once a cigar store.

"Everybody fits in," said Markel.

But in the 1960s, this was a solidly white working-class neighborhood in a city under siege - with firebombings, shootings and police patrolling with dogs and riding in armored vehicles.

On July 21, 1969, the Newberry Street Boys, an all-white gang in the north end of the city, were angling for a fight, waiting on a white car said to be carrying armed rivals from a black gang.

It was just up the hill from Farquhar Park, where Robertson, then a well-known beat cop, had attended a rally the day before and allegedly led "white power" chants with other uniformed officers. Many had become unhinged by the racially tinged shooting of a white officer. Witnesses at his 2002 trial also said Robertson had egged on gang members to defend the neighborhood against black intruders.

Allen, a 27-year-old preacher's daughter from South Carolina, had been in town visiting her sister, Hattie Dickson. The family was out riding in their white Cadillac that evening when they took a fateful turn onto Newberry Street, where officers allowed the car to head right into the clutches of an angry white mob.

Dickson, at the wheel, panicked and stopped the car on the railroad tracks at Gay Street, afraid to keep driving. Just as Allen stepped out of the car, with her hands raised, a fusillade of bullets let loose, literally blasting her out of her shoes.

Witnesses later testified that Robertson was among the first at the murder scene, telling the shooters to hold their fire. "It's me, Charlie," he told them.

Allen, the mother of two children, died that night. Her devastated parents returned to South Carolina in their bullet-ridden car.

No one was charged.

Robertson spent 29 years on the force before becoming mayor in 1994. He was popular with black and white residents and had won reelection once when a series in the York newspaper prompted the local prosecutor to reexamine the case and bring the charges that derailed his campaign for a third term.

In October 2002, an all-white jury found two men - Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff - guilty in Allen's death. Six others took plea deals. Robertson - who admitted saying "white power" but denied giving ammunition to gang members - was acquitted.

Since the trial, Robertson has lived quietly in the same vinyl-sided rowhouse where he grew up, less than a mile from the Newberry Street railroad crossing.

In an interview Wednesday, he said that he has tried to put the past behind him and has stayed out of politics, though he said he believes Wolf would be a great governor. He also said he hasn't seen any of the attack ads against his friend - and doesn't want to.

"It just gets my blood up," said Robertson, now 80. "I'm not interested in nasty politicians."

Others look back on the trial and recognize that it helped bring closure for the community.

"In general, nobody knew entirely what happened with the riots," said Eugene DePasquale, a past Democratic party leader in York and now state auditor general. "During the trial it was uncomfortable for many people, but it shed light on a lot of things that happened. It helped the community move forward."

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