York victim's family can only wait, pray

Daughter of woman killed in '69 race riots long doubted justice

November 19, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

AIKEN, S.C. - For three decades, Debra Taylor thought nothing would be done to find and prosecute members of a white street gang who gunned down her mother in July 1969 as the streets of York, Pa., throbbed with racial hatred and violence.

Even after York County investigators announced last year that they had received new information, reopened the case and were convening a grand jury to subpoena witnesses' testimony, Taylor was skeptical that anyone would be brought to justice in the death of Lillie Belle Allen.

"There's always been talk and rumor of people knowing pertinent information, but there never turned out to be anything to it," she said. "And then you've got the prejudice, the racism, the black-white issue. Nine times out of 10, for black people, it doesn't happen. I didn't think anything of it. I figured that's just the way it is."

Allen's relatives, including Taylor, will be in court today as prosecutors try to clear the next hurdle: Nine men accused in Allen's death, including York Mayor Charlie Robertson, will try to convince a judge that the murder charges should be dropped. The 32-year delay in the case, their lawyers argue, has violated the defendants' due-process rights, and fading memories, lost evidence and dead witnesses make it impossible for them to get a fair trial.

But for Allen's family, it's something of an accomplishment to have gotten this far at all.

Taylor was 11 in July 1969 when she and her mother, little brother and youngest aunt piled into a car with her grandparents and set out from the lower midlands of South Carolina on a more than 600-mile trip north.

Their destination was York, where Allen's sister, Hattie Dickson, lived. After spending a day or so there, Allen and her children planned to continue on to Brooklyn, N.Y., where they used to live. Another of Allen's four sisters was still there, and Allen was moving her children back to the city.

`Back to what I called home'

"We were going back," Taylor recalled. "We were going back to what I called home. And we couldn't have been more excited."

Throughout her childhood, Taylor had bounced between Brooklyn and Aiken as her mother lost and found jobs - from work at a post office or a factory in New York to a cotton field or a bean farm in the sandy outskirts of her South Carolina hometown.

Taylor now lives in an Aiken suburb with her 12-year-old son and works nearby at a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons site, but back then she couldn't wait to leave Aiken behind.

Few of the town's roads were paved. Cotton fields - few and far between today - seemed to cover the landscape in fuzzy, white polka-dots. And blacks and whites rarely mingled.

Recess at the town's nominally integrated schools was staggered to keep black and white children apart. Teachers moved from classroom to classroom so the youngsters wouldn't mix in the hallways. At home on Horry Street, where Allen and her children lived with her parents and the youngest of seven siblings, African-American families lived on one side of the street, whites lived on the other and their children rarely crossed the broad, grassy boulevard to play together.

Accustomed to the diverse neighborhoods of New York, where Puerto Rican families lived next door to Haitian immigrants and children of all races could hop on the subway to visit the zoo together, Taylor couldn't help but dislike the Southern town.

"I used to ask why things were so different," she recalled, "and I was told that's just the way it is in the South."

It was a family tradition to stop at Hattie Dickson's home in the manufacturing town of York on any trip between New York and South Carolina.

On July 21, 1969, Taylor was impatient for the brief visit to end.

The adults had just returned from an afternoon of fishing when they decided to go out for groceries. Unaware that the city was in the midst of its second summer of race riots, Dickson chose a route that took her husband, parents and older sister through a hostile white neighborhood.

There, members of the all-white Newberry Street Boys gang were on the lookout for a group of black men who had fought with a gang leader. They feared that the black men would return to cause trouble and were on alert for the big white car the men drove - a vehicle similar to Dickson's white Cadillac.

As Dickson drove through a gully and crossed a set of railroad tracks in the Newberry Street Boys' neighborhood, the Cadillac's headlight beams raked the house in front of her. There, Dickson saw a man leaning out a window with a long-barreled gun getting ready to shoot, and she brought the car a halt.

As Allen got out of the back seat and prepared to take the wheel and turn the Cadillac around, the young men lining the street opened fire. The blast that struck Allen in the chest was forceful enough to knock her out of her sneakers.

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