1968: The Chester Roach Incident – Mass Shootings and Terrorism Against York’s Black Community

Lionel Bailey, C.O.R.E. official and community activist, speaks to the press in front of Hoffmans Meat Market. Also in the photo are Grelan Holmes, and brothers Leon & Mike Wright.

The flashpoint for the 1968 riots in York was the Chester Roach Incident, where a White man, 58 year old Chester Roach, who lived on Penn Street over top of Hoffman’s Meat Market, fired on a group of young Black youth, wounding 10 of them. The area of the shooting was in the heart of the slum district. Here is the story from someone who was there and newspaper reports;

Around 11:00 pm on Sunday August, 1968 a group of young Blacks were walking through the 400 block of West Hope Avenue on the way from one party on West Maple Street to another on Green Street. According to witnesses, as they congregated in the alley talking and just having fun, Roach, apparently angered by the noise and laughter near his second floor apartment came outside and began yelling at the youth telling them to ”clear their Black asses” out of his alley. Several persons reported that Roach fired a pellet rifle after some of the youth began yelling back at him. Bucky Jones, 50 of 222 South Penn Street, told Gazette & Daily reporters that he telephoned city police about 11:30 pm to notify them that trouble appeared to be brewing.

Witnesses then said Roach went back to his apartment and then leveled a shotgun out of the window threatening the youth with it. At this point Jones said he was calling the police for a third time from Sammy’s Pizza at Princess & Penn Street. Sammy’s usually closes around midnight. The youth at whom the weapon was being aimed apparently did not believe that Roach would fire the weapon so they began to taunt Roach. Roach then fired the shotgun injuring several persons. Jones called the police for the third time as Roach was firing the shotgun.

Mrs. Dorothy Sweeney, 413 West Princess Street, reported last evening that she heard the shooting and walked to the corner of Princess and Penn Street, a half block from the meat market. She said she observed two police cars approach, and said the policemen donned riot helmets. Other witnesses said the police escorted Roaches wife out of the area, but left Roach in his apartment. 

After Roach began firing the weapon, witnesses said, the youth began throwing bricks and rocks through the windows of Roaches apartment. James McNiel, an anti-poverty worker and former policeman who lives in the block, said he arrived shortly after midnight and seeing what was happening, filed a complaint to the police that trouble was brewing in the area.  He said the police did not seem to act on his complaint and “seemed to want trouble to start.” Mrs. Sweeney and several other witnesses said the police left the area and Roach again began shooting, wounding several more persons. Following this according to reports, the youth set fire to a shed in the rear of Hoffman’s in an attempt to drive Roach out.  Roach came out of the apartment carrying his shotgun and a .38 caliber revolver, witnesses said and fired both of them. Earl Smith 16, was hit by the revolver and was in serious condition at the Hospital. He was taken to the hospital in a taxi.

Someone disarmed Roach who was then clubbed over the head with his own shotgun and reportedly shot. His injuries were minor and the .38 revolver is still being sought. It was not until Roach was injured that the city police again entered the area, this time with an armored truck. They parked the truck in front of Hoffman’s and told the residents to clear the area. Roach was taken out of the area to a hospital in an ambulance. Witnesses said if the police had taken Roach the first time they were on the scene no one would have gotten injured seriously.  The second time police came to the area they cordoned off the area allowing only residents to enter. Some of the youth had turned over and set on fire a car owned by Robert Goodling, a 15 year old resident who said he now plans to leave the area.

According to hospital reports Roach arrived there at about 1:45 am, more than two hours after Jones said he made his initial calls to police. A reporter who entered Roaches apartment said he found it littered with empty beer cans and cartridge shells.

The police said Roach wounded the following persons: Sarah Chatman, 18 of 227 South Howard Street; Robert Richardson, 483 West College Avenues; Mike Wright, 18 of 235 Green Street; Janet Hunter, 19 of 235 West Princess Street; Eric Kirkland, 15 of 120 West Cottage Place; Andre Woodard, 15 of 472 West Princess Street; Richard Rascoe, 22 of 148 South Penn Street; Vanlon Hudson, 17 of 364 West Princess Street; Lucious Scott, 25 of 503 West College Avenue and Earl Smith, 18 of 341 West Princess Street the most seriously wounded, who is in the York Hospital intensive care unit with a gunshot wound to the lower back.

Leon “Smickle” Wright and Larry”Buttons” Way watch as Hoffmans garage Burns.

In addition, York Hospital reported that Paul Nolden, 36 of 447 South Duke Street suffered puncture wounds of the thigh; Percy Smith, 65 of 300 South Penn Street suffered fractured ribs when assaulted; and Stephen Johnson, 21 of Wyndham Drive received a chip fracture of the elbow when he was assaulted at Penn & Princess Street. Johnson the son of Mr.  & Mrs. G. Dugan Johnson, told police he was assaulted by five Black youth who robbed him of $75.00.

One of the youth injured by Roach, 15 year old Andre Woodard, said he and a friend, Mike Wright were walking from a party on the 100 block of West Maple Street to another party on Green Street at about 11:00 pm Saturday night. At the party Woodard met his cousin 15 year old Eric Kirkland and the three walked to Mill Lane and Hope Avenue near the rear of Hoffman’s when they heard shots. As they were standing around all three were hit by gunshot pellets. Both Woodward and Kirkland said they had not antagonized Roach in any manner and that they did not know of or heard of him before the incident. Hudson also injured said that he had been at the Green Street party and was walking through Hope alley when Roach fired at him. He said Roach was standing at the rear of his apartment with his dog yelling something like “get out of my alley.”  Scott another victim of the shooting was unable to walk with shotgun wounds to both legs. Scott said that between 11 and 11:30 pm he heard gunshots and went to Hope alley and Penn Street directly across the street from Roach’s apartment. Roach shot at him from the downstairs alley to the apartment. Several witnesses said that Sarah Chatman was standing on the porch of 223 South Penn Street when Roach fired at her. She sustained gunshot wounds to the right thigh.

Disorders Spread

Civil disorder in the city began to spread when Negroes learned the police failed to arrest the Roach for the shootings of 10 Negro youth. Sixty-five city policemen, armed with full riot equipment and two armored trucks were patrolling a two block west end area inhabited by about 2,000 persons early the next morning.  The Negro population was angered when they learned that police had not arrested 58 year old Roach.

More than 100 Black youths roamed the streets and alleys in the vicinity of Penn Street and Hope Avenue, battling the police in small groups with guns and firebombs.  The disorders seemed to be spreading after midnight. There were also that some white people had entered the area threatening Blacks. Jacob Hose said he had no intention of calling in the National Guard. Detective Charles McCaffery who was in charge said the police were instructed not to use their weapons unless fired upon. Hoffman’s Meat Market was gutted by fire from a blaze started with firebombs. Schmidt & Ault paper mill was also the scene of a large fire started by firebombs. A 23 year old man was arrested for pointing a weapon at a policeman. Several vehicles were pelted with rocks and bottles through the evening as they passed through the affected intersections.  Numerous home and store windows were broken and several residents had to be escorted from the area.

West Hope Avenue, the rear of Hoffman’s Meat Market, the scene of the shootings.

Hoffman’s Meat Market continued to be a center of trouble.  A nine year old girl was injured in the store and was believed by many to have been injured by a bullet fired by city police Corporal Pete Chantiles who says he fired into the ceiling to scare those around the store.   Chantiles had also fired teargas at a small crowd of people earlier that day. Mayor Snyder on the advice of District Attorney John Rauhauser ordered Chantiles to be suspended for 10 days after these incidents. According to Chantiles when he arrived at the store there were a bunch of people looting the goods and he fired his weapon into the ceiling to scare them off. The people in the store said the owner Ed Hoffman had given them permission to remove anything left in the store because most of it was damaged by the fire. Hoffman denied he gave anyone permission to be in the store. Witnesses say Chantiles shot grazed 9 year old Robin Day of 438 West Hope Avenue. She was treated at the York Hospital for a lacerated knee. The hospital reported that there was no evidence of a bullet wound. An 11 year old boy said that one officer grabbed him by the arm kicked him in the back out of the door. All of those in the store at the time were preteens according to Evelyn Jones of 458 West College Avenue.

An anti-poverty worker Vince Williams, 25 of 322 East King Street who was later arrested by police said he was walking south on Penn Street when he noticed a photographer taking photos for WGAL. He approached the photographer and questioned what was going on and found out that Robert Hoffman had given instructions to the youngsters and a few adults to remove the remaining items in the store left from the previous looting. He say this was witnessed by the photographer and an insurance adjuster who was there making estimates of the damage. Williams says after Chantiles fired his weapon, he grabbed his arm and told him Hoffman had given the youth permission to enter the store. Chantiles arrested Williams for obstructing a police officer. This charge was later dropped and Williams was charged with a new charge which forbids activity which obstructs policemen or firemen during disorders. Bail was set at $500.


Heart of the Slum District

Penn Street and West Hope Avenue, where the triggering incident to the riots occurred is in the heart of the most densely populated part of York.Occupied largely by Negroes, the neighborhood can best be characterized by inadequate recreational space and dilapidated and deteriorating housing. If you lived there and you want fresh air on a hot night chances are you’ll spend your time sitting on your front porch. The only “park” in the area is the Cookes Urban Renewal area at Penn Street and the Codorus Creek. It has almost no facilities for young children. Two basketball backboards posted in dirt, and a couple of horseshoe pits and about a half dozen picnic tables. During negotiations for the land taken from the Codorus Street neighborhood with the promise to build an adequate park, the Dentist Supply Company obtained nearly half of what was originally supposed to be a park. The result was a small park which could not even hold a baseball diamond.       

Recent efforts to build a park in the area, called “the worst slum” in the city, have been slowed by lack of Redevelopment Authority staff.  In the past 10 years efforts by certain recreation and Redevelopment officials to have a park built in the area have failed. Efforts by city officials such as Councilman Donald Schlosser to initiate a stricter housing code enforcement program in the area have met with failure and Mayor Snyder vetoed legislation designed to bring in federal funds to uplift the area. On a recent tour of the area led by RDA Administrator Joseph Newman it was found that the alleys were littered with abandoned cars no one had the authority to move. Dozens of buildings had broken windows, crooked doorways and broken steps. Several of the building were literally junk heaps.  When Newman was asked who had responsibility for developing the park in the Cookes area, he said the city administration has the responsibility. When City Director of Community Development John Hennesey was asked he told people to talk to Newman.

Persons who live in the neighborhood have little reason to try to protect the building there. They live in a slum. They don’t own the buildings. They pay rents as high as white people pay in the suburbs. There is little space to move around. Large trucks come through the neighborhood at all hours of the day and night. Children are always playing in the garbage littered streets. The city’s Comprehensive Plan, prepared by Buchart Horn at a cost of to the city of $57,000, says that most rental units occupied by Negroes in York were deteriorating before the Negroes moved in. McKinley-Cookes Neighborhood Center, a part of Community Progress Council, which works as the anti-poverty agency for the southwest section of York, did a study of the 300 block of West Hope Avenue and found the neighborhood to be the most dense, highly populated and dilapidated section of York.


Author: jkirk

Founder and Chief Researcher for the York African American Historical Preservation Society