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How North York tells the story of York County’s change for the better

About a century ago, the mayor of North York, the borough council and members of the playground association rode in two cars leading a parade.

Five hundred uniformed marchers followed.

Attendees gathered in the community playground, where 5,000 people watched an induction ceremony for 51 men, 23 women and 13 junior candidates dressed in full costume: robes and balaclavas.

The final evening of the three-day convention ended with the firing of a 60-foot cross and 15 15-foot-tall crosses. The Ku Klux Klan’s Konklave state in Pennsylvania had ended.

Ten years later, the KKK returned to North York for a reduced conclave in the Queen Street Auditorium.

Endorsement of President Franklin Roosevelt’s plan for America’s neutrality in the build-up to World War II was the main theme of the day. The 200 Klansmen gathered titled their resolution “It’s time to help our own people and stop crying about aliens.”

The rally ended when a large cross was burned on the hill behind the auditorium.

This was the time when, as historian June Burk Lloyd discovered, Klan members and sympathizers were casting a wide net in York County.

“Anyone who is not a white Protestant was a legitimate game to be threatened by these men who hid their identity under white hoods,” she wrote in 2014.

I thought about how the Klan escalated calls for separation, division, and isolation in these two gatherings at times of impending distress: the Great Depression and World War II. We rightly lament our divisions today, but political, racial and class differences did not begin with us today.

It took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, for America to finally ignore calls for isolation, come together and enter World War II.

This 1939 York newspaper article sets out the resolve of the Ku Klux Klan in its North York conclave to support American isolation in the build-up to World War II in Europe.  The KKK met in the North York Auditorium near Laurel and Queen streets.  The auditorium, built in 1928, was demolished in 1973, for the expansion of Central York High School.

After:Cold War talks conjure up stories about East Berlin on the York/Adams border

After:The Changing View of Coventry Road in York Township, 1999 and 2022

And I thought about how the very borough that hosted the Klan in both events, North York, has changed.

The diversity of people in North York today, like much of York County, would mean the Klan would not be welcome there. And the Klan would not feel welcome today with neighborhoods in North York filled with people whom KKK members disparage.

Lots of landmarks

Indeed, if a white supremacist group planned to gather in North York today, its members would be greeted by a changing community.

Today, four landmarks testify to the very diversity that extremists eschew, all within walking distance of Klan sites in 1929 and 1939 – both the playground and the auditorium long gone after construction and the expansion of the old high schools in North York and then in Central:

  • The historic Black Lebanon Cemetery covers a hill not far from the intersection of Route 30 and North George Street. In recent years, the cemetery has become very busy. Black and white volunteers restore this burial site and tell the stories of those buried there.
  • An initiative following the Lebanon Cemetery model is underway further south on the city’s cemetery hill, York Region’s Potter’s Field, directly up the hill from the site of the old auditorium. Exact numbers are under investigation, but an estimated 91 known blacks, 124 whites and 49 of uncertain race have been buried at the city cemetery since its inception in the late 1800s. Friends of the City Cemetery raises $20,000 to place a monument in the unmarked burial site, the resting place of those who could not be identified or had no funeral or family funds.
  • A Vietnamese congregation meets in an 1890s building at 1154 N. George St. The congregation of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church once worshiped there, moving to a new building in the 900 block of North George Street in 1930.
  • When Edwin and Delma Rivera’s family moved to York in the early 1960s, their first home was located in the 900 block. The family moved from there and the structure at North George and Sixth Avenue was later demolished for parking.

From that beginning, the Riveras became leaders in the York community and remain so today.

When Edwin and Delma Rivera's family arrived in York in the 1960s, this was their home in North York.  The family was a pioneer Latino family.  The Latin American population has grown to approximately 40,000 people in York County.

The Riveras might well have been the first Latino family, or at least the first residents, in North York.

Today, Latinos make up about 20% of the 2,200 people who live in North York. Blacks make up about 13% of the population.

Residents of North York are part of the Central York School District and its high school operated in the borough for years, spanning former Klan meeting sites before moving to former farmland in the township of Springettsbury.

About 35% of Central’s enrollment is racially diverse, making it 52nd in diversity among about 500 districts in Pennsylvania. Latinos are the largest group.

Interestingly, a second-generation member of the Rivera family, Delma Rivera-Lytle, served as the Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator for the Central York School District for years until her recent retirement.

Renowned York-based architectural firm Dempwolf designed a building for the Lutheran Congregation of St. Peter, formed in North York in 1892, when the town was known as Mayersville and before it became a borough in 1899. Drawings by Dempwolf can be seen here.  The congregation moved in 1930 to its present building in the 900 block of North George Street.  Today, the Vietnamese Alliance Church congregation meets in St. Peter's original building at 1154 N. George St.

fall under its own weight

The decline in Klan membership between 1929 and 1939 indicated that the movement was beginning to fall under its own hatred and weight.

In the 21st century, members appear in occasional protests at Gettysburg and other points along the Mason-Dixon line, perhaps unaware that the side practicing the racist institution of slavery has lost the battle. – and the war – there.

The Klan or similar groups appear occasionally when the county is going through a tough time involving race. For example, a far-right group demonstrated in York Market and Queen Streets in 2002 after verdicts were delivered in the trials of assailants in two deaths during the 1969 York race riots.

An outdoor protest, which unfolded as supporters gathered in the nearby Martin Library, drew only a small crowd. This appearance would hardly have been noticed if the counter-protesters – the anarchists, as they were called – had not shown up. More importantly, instead of joining the protests as locals did in 1929, county residents joined in a counter-protest at the Martin Library the following day.

The fact is, the growing diversity in North York and elsewhere in the county fosters racial understanding and creates barren soil for far-right protesters who like to hide behind masks.

Volunteers work to restore the historic Black Lebanon Cemetery in North York on North George Street near the intersection with Route 30.

Different extremist threats

The KKK and other similar groups have largely disappeared from public view, but that doesn’t mean the damage done by white supremacy has disappeared in Pennsylvania.

“Instead of Klan robes, new extremist groups wear button-up shirts,” YDR’s Kim Strong wrote in a recent story, “and instead of lighting crosses, they hold fundraisers under the guise of helping local charities”.

These groups believe that American culture is deteriorating and blame it on immigrants, non-whites and Jews.

Strong reported that members fundraise on behalf of charities, but their real intent is white separatism.

Experts say this leads to extreme violence by lone individuals, such as the mass murder of Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh four years ago.

This September event at York Cemetery kicked off a fundraising campaign to place a monument in the cemetery, the unmarked potter's field in North York.  It sits on top of a hill behind the 1000 block of North George Street near Seventh Avenue.

It could happen anywhere

In her history of the Klan’s 1939 anti-immigration conclave, June Lloyd wrote, “I am always amazed that then and now so many people forget that their own ancestors were immigrants not so long ago.

When you scroll through a microfilm, you come across disturbing moments such as the North York event, she said, an event that could have happened in any number of other York County municipalities around this time. .

“But, if past disreputable incidents come to light,” she wrote, “perhaps it can tempt us to never go back there again.”

Sources: June Burk Lloyd’s Universal York blog at yorkblog.com; James McClure’s books “Never To Be Forgotten and “Almost Forgotten; “YDR Files; niche.com; Stephen H. Smith, Retro York Facebook Group.

Jim McClure is a retired editor of the York Daily Record and is the author or co-author of nine books on York County history. Contact him at [email protected]