Civil Rights in Berks County - Woven With Words
Heidi Hummel, with Matt Dieterrick
Although racial tensions during the Civil Rights era in Berks County were not as explosive as in other areas of the country, strife still existed. This article outlines some of the efforts that were put forth to bring the African American and white communities together during this explosive time.
According to Everett E. Smith (1991), in 1963, an Inter-Religious Committee on Race was organized by the late Rev. Dr. Mervin A. Heller, Executive Secretary of the Greater Reading Council of Churches, in an attempt to create equal opportunities for African Americans in employment, housing, and recreation. The committee was made up of African Americans and whites, with representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths, as well as members of local businesses, colleges, and universities. Meetings were held on a weekly basis.
Although the committee made progress, however, it became apparent that the organization was not equipped to handle “educating the public and making them aware of existing bigotry.” As a result, the Reading-Berks Human Relations Council was established in January 1967, the “only agency in Berks County dedicated to lessening or ending discrimination based on age, race, sex, religion, handicap or place of national origin.” Two of the programs offered by the Council were for the “investigation of complaints of discrimination and education programs to alter public attitudes and prejudices.” Another attempt to quell racial tensions that year was made by the Fellowship House of Reading, a United Community Service Agency, which enrolled 322 children in craft classes. Children and adults were welcome in the program, regardless of race, color or religion (“Fellowship House” 1963).
A constructive approach to provide support to African American youth was the 1964 creation of the House of Soul, a gathering place for young African Americans in Reading. It was a multi-purpose center for education, recreation and the development of leadership. In 1969, several white teenagers called out racist remarks as they rode by the House of Soul and scrawled racial slurs on the building, leading to two nights of rioting on Penn Street, beginning on March 20, 1969. A crowd of about 200 persons took to the streets and caused mostly minor property damage. State police were called in to help quell the civil disorder. In response, then-mayor of Reading, Victor R.H. Yarnell, set guidelines to avoid a repeat occurrence: groups of more than five people could not meet on public streets from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.; all vehicles except buses were banned on Penn Street from 2nd to 10th Streets beginning at 10 p.m.; liquor stores were asked to close in the greater Reading area “until Monday”; and the House of Soul would be closed until further notice. Members of the African American community and numerous civic and religious groups protested the closing to the Reading City Council, and in less than a week, the House of Soul was reopened by a unanimous decision. In May, however, the House of Soul came to end when it was moved out of its quarters by the Reading Redevelopment Authority, which owned the building and planned redevelopment of the area. The House of Soul was unable to find a new location.
Another important force for change in Reading was the YMCA, which, after receiving a grant for $25,000, started the Department of Behavioral Change and Racial Attitudes. The department was headed by Sam Richardson, who “helped both white and black people understand that our minds had been processed over the years to think negatively about blackness” (Kiehne 2005, 6). Frank Kiehne, the former CEO of the Reading YMCA, recalls that during the 1960s, the YMCA was supportive of social reform. Kiehne remembers that “we were deeply involved with racial tensions through our detached worker program,” which included “dealing with a march of the KKK on our main street shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination” (Kiehne 2005, 6).
Other constructive changes were fostered by the Reading Model Cities Agency (RMCA). As stated in the Reading Eagle, August 26, 1968, “the agency’s human resources development division [oversaw] planning for health, education, manpower, crime reduction, social services and public welfare” to improve urban conditions. Moreover, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) supplied on-the-job training programs as well as neighborhood organization, daycare, family planning services, recreation and migrant services, and neighborhood centers that encouraged development. Mrs. Ada McCracken, a longtime resident of Berks County, remembers the Model City Service Center where she worked as a receptionist. The center, located at 3rd and Franklin, housed representatives from each of Reading’s social services. Mrs. McCracken remembers the program not only supplying social services, but also initiating neighborhood rehabilitation, including exterior refurbishment such as planting trees, installing better lighting, home restorations, and house painting (McCracken 2005).
A portion of the Berks African American community advocated more extreme measures to secure the full integration of African Americans into larger American society. As the Black Power movement gained strength and visibility across the country, young people, in particular, were eager to make their voices heard and to redress grievances. One of the most visible of these groups was the Community Action Training School (CATS), modeled on the Black Panthers. CATS was headquartered in a house on Buttonwood Street, fortified by sandbags. Bill Thompson and Sam Richardson were heads of the group.
Thompson’s radical politics carried a personal cost. In November of 1967, he was suspended from his post as a YMCA Corps staffer because he violated the Selective Services Act (“‘Y’ Corps” 1967). He was also sent to jail on the charges of assault and battery of a city police officer. His attorney argued that he had been “subjected [to] continuous harassment” and that the incident was provoked by police. However, Thompson went to prison and was released on parole two years later, but reportedly left Reading for the safety of himself and his family (“Thompson” 1971).