One of the "kindness coins" is seen on June 12, 2019, at The Parliament Arts Organization in York. As part of the 10,000 Acts of Kindness initiative, people who receive one of the coins are invited to a free dinner at Penn Park. The dinner was originally scheduled for June 30, 2019, but is now taking place Sept. 15, 2019.
Ed Mahon is a reporter for PA Post.
Previously, he was an investigative and political reporter at the York Daily Record/Sunday News, where his work revealed holes in Pennsylvania’s system for protecting victims of domestic violence.
He grew up in Delaware County, graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia and has lived in Pennsylvania most of his life.
Carla Christopher wasn’t alive in 1969, when civil unrest flared in several U.S. cities.
And she didn’t grow up in York, where a race riot that summer left two people — a young black woman and a white police officer — dead.
But after she moved to the city about 12 years ago, it was easy for her to see the long legacy of those riots, when city blocks burned and the National Guard arrived to quell the violence.
“There is still a sense of pain that is very current,” Christopher said. “When people tell those stories who remember them, it’s as if those incidents happened just a few months ago, not 50 years ago.”
Now, she’s in the middle of an effort in York to help the city move on from its divisive past. It was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the riots this month.
As part of the 10,000 Acts of Kindness initiative, people receive kindness coins. And those coins serve as an invitation to a free, community dinner scheduled to take place Sept. 15 at the city’s Penn Park. Organizers are hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the longest table.
The list of kind acts includes doing yard work for a neighbor, going with someone to pick up groceries, organizing a concert or writing a poem.
That last category is what brought Christopher, the vicar at Union Lutheran Church and a former poet laureate for the city, to an art space in downtown York on a June evening.
David Smith, co-owner of i-ron-ic in York, is seen at his coffee shop on June 12, 2019.
A sign for the Confronting Racism Coalition is seen in York on June 12, 2019.
Mary Jo Fero, a member of the communications committee for 10,000 Acts of Kindness, greets people for a poetry awards contest ceremony on June 12, 2019, at The Parliament Arts Organization in York.
Sayani Stokes, a student at Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy in York, recites a poem on June 12, 2019, The Parliament Arts Organization in York.
“Kindness coins” are displayed on a table at The Parliament Arts Organization in York on June 12, 2019.
Sayani Stokes, a student at Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy in York, is seen with her mother, Kiesha Jackson, on June 12, 2019, at The The Parliament Arts Organization in York.
Carla Christopher, vicar at Union Lutheran Church, is seen on June 12, 2019, at The Parliament Arts Organization in York.
York community members work on art projects at Union Lutheran Church in York on June 12, 2019.
Amy Mummert is seen inside Union Lutheran Church in York on June 12, 2019.
On the street outside, a sign showed people of different races holding hands in front of an image of the Earth and a heart. The sign said “York…together we are stronger” with a website for the Confronting Racism Coalition.
Inside, a few dozen students, family members and educators gathered for an awards ceremony, given for people who wrote poems about kindness. Christopher helped judge the contest.
She said the 10,000 Acts organizers knew the 50th anniversary of the riots would bring a lot of attention to the city. She thinks it’ll take more work to heal divisions in York. But she sees the 10,000 Acts initiative as a way offering “a brightness that would show that there’s more to us than York at its worst.”
What happened in 1969
To understand what Christopher and other people in York are trying to accomplish with 10,000 Acts, it helps to understand what York at its worst looked like.
Jeff Kirkland grew up in York and is a former school board president there. He has become an expert in the city’s history. That history, Kirkland said, included segregated housing, the vicious use of police dogs against black people, and employment discrimination.
On July 18, 1969, a white police officer — Henry C. Schaad — was shot while inside an armored police vehicle.
Three days later, a 27-year-old black woman was in a car that stalled on railroad tracks in the city. Lillie Belle Allen was a mother of two visiting York from South Carolina. When she got out of the car, a group of white people fired at the car, killing her.
No one was held criminally responsible for the deaths for more than 30 years.
In May 2001, the mayor of York city, Charlie Robertson, was charged with murder in connection to Allen’s death. He was a police officer at the time of the riots, and he was accused of providing ammunition to white gang members and inciting violence against black people. He admitted saying “white power” to a crowd but denied handing out ammunition.
“Everyone knew who was involved,” he told Time magazine in 2001. “But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white — even.”
Two men were convicted of second-degree murder, and seven pleaded guilty or no contest to lesser charges.Robertson was acquitted. He died in 2017.
The county of nearly 450,000 people has continued to receive occasional national attention for racial conflicts. For instance, the day after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, a video on social media showed students at the York County School of Technology carrying a Trump sign in a hallway, and someone could be heard saying “white power.”
The legacy of the riots, court cases and racial tension was on display at a community forum in April, when more than 100 people gathered inside a York school. There were black and white residents, the city’s mayor, people from the city and suburbs, some representatives of the 10,000 Acts effort, and others.
Logos Academy in York hosted a community forum on April 23, 2019.
Historian Jeff Kirkland speaks to a crowd at Logos Academy in York on April 23, 2019.
Serena Frost Gillespie speaks during a community event on April 23, 2019, at Logos Academy in York.
Tom Kelley speaks during a community event on April 23, 2019. Kelley was one of the prosecutors in the Lillie Belle Allen murder case. He later became a York County judge before leaving the bench for private practice.
York Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks during a community event on April 23, 2019.
The Rev. Ramona Kinard, one of the organizers of the 10,000 Acts of Kindness initiative, speaks at a community event on April 23, 2019.
Kirkland was there to talk about the city’s history.
Kirkland, who works professionally as a dual diagnosis therapist, described the relationship between blacks and whites in the community as somewhat “schizophrenic” with periods of cooperation as well as continued “conflict and strained co-existence.”
Tom Kelley, who prosecuted the case against Robertson as an assistant district attorney and went on to serve as 12 years as a judge, brought up the failure to convict Robertson.
“You must understand. He wasn’t the shooter,” Kelley said, but he said Robertson “gave those kids the go-ahead.”
Some people in the crowd applauded.
So did Serena Frost Gillespie, who was sitting on stage.
She graduated from York’s high school 1970, and she said teachers in the district made “racial, disparaging remarks” about her and other black students. She talked about some advice her father gave her that stuck.
“What you have to do in York is — to survive you have to run harder than them. Learn harder than them,” she recalled him saying. “…You got to learn what they know. Know what your enemy knows.”
York’s mayor, Michael Helfrich, who is white, was in the audience. He raised questions about the convictions of Stephen Freeland and Leon Wright for the death of Schaad.
“I think there’s a scab that needs to be pulled off here yet,” Helfrich said, later adding, “There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence, and they got the same sentences at the same time. And it seemed to just be … a ‘we got one, so we got to do the other.’ That is something I’ve heard in the York community.”
One of the founders of the 10,000 Acts of Kindness initiative spoke after Helfrich.
She said the fact that they were all sitting in the same room, without a rope separating them, was a sign of that.
“We believe we are greater than the hate that is still trying to reveal itself,” Kinard said. “We believe there’s more kind people than there are hateful people. So let’s stand up together and show them.”
How 10,000 Acts started
The idea for the 10,000 Acts initiative started with conversation between Kinard and the Rev. Joan Maruskin, a retired United Methodist minister.
“We wanted to do something that would be more reflective on how far we have come since 50 years ago,” Kinard said nearly a year ago, during a meeting of the Rotary Club of York.
One day, they were talking about the idea at i-ron-ic, a coffee shop and art store in York.
One of the shop’s owners, David Smith, overheard. He had some ideas, and he become another leader of the effort. They decided the acts of kindness could be planned or impulsive.
They ordered 12,000 coins, figuring not everyone who received one would manage to make it to the final dinner, which was originally planned for the end of June but was rescheduled to September.
They picked “kindness ambassadors” who handed out coins. Smith said they ran out of coins a few months ago, but people are still sharing their acts of kindness on the group’s Facebook page.
Amy Mummert, 52, received a kindness coin for leading World Art Drop: York. Members of the group give out free paintings, jewelry, books and other art they created. They leave a note, telling people that it’s free art for them to take.
“I was so excited,” Mummert said of receiving a coin, “because I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s kind of something that goes unnoticed.”
The idea of honoring often unnoticed things was a theme at the poetry awards ceremony Christopher attended.
An elementary-school student won for a poem about the importance of opening doors, smiling a lot and opening your heart.
A middle school student wrote about hate vs. kindness, with the words stupid, weirdo, unimportant and ugly battling with love, important, smart, beautiful and unique.
A high school student wrote a poem about school shootings, suicides, teen body image and other topics she said might seem too heavy.
“All of these acts of kindness are just rippling through York,” Mary Jo Fero, a member of the communications committee for 10,000 Acts, told the crowd.
Sayani Stokes, an 11-year-old student at Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy in York, was one of the students who read her poem in front of the crowd.
“Kindness — a word or doing that can lift people up like a sunrise in a night sky,” she began.
Sayani’s mother, 29-year-old Kiesha Jackson, grew up in York.
Jackson knows about the riots of 50 years ago, and she knows York is well known for them.
But she sees the 10,000 Acts initiative as one way to improve things in York — and change what the city is known for.
“I’m hoping that we can just build up some better, I guess, history for the kids that are coming on,” Jackson said. “The future kids can build up some better — just legacies for the city to live.”