Why is this conversation important?
Lancaster County, PA has a long history of transitioning and segregated populations. Our county population is currently just over the half million mark. A quarter of us are under the age of 18 and approximately 16% are over 65 years. Half of our population is female. 84.1% of the population identifies as white only, 4.5% as African American, .4% as American Indian, 2% as Asian American, .1% as Pacific Islander, 9.3% as Latino/a and 1.7% as two or more races. Nine point nine percent (9.9%) of our community lives below the poverty level. In contrast, the City of Lancaster is home to approximately 60,000 people. The percentage of residents under the age of 18 years and percentage of female residents are similar to the county. However the City’s residents are younger overall with only 8.6% of residents over the age of 65. The City is also more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity with only 41.3% of residents identifying as white alone. 16.3% of City residents identify as African American, .7% as American Indian, 3% as Asian American, .1% as Pacific Islander, 39.3% as Latino/a and 5.8% as two or more races. Poverty levels are also higher with 28% of City residents living below the poverty level. What do these numbers mean and how has this changed over the years? Predictions for the United States in 2050 indicate that whites will no longer be in the majority. The current U.S. minority population (30%) is expected to exceed 50% before 2050. No other advanced, populous country will see such a wide range of diversity. What does this mean for Lancaster County?
In the beginning
From a historical perspective, Indigenous peoples have lived here for over 11,000 years. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that have no tribal reserve or officially recognized tribes. In 1683, William Penn purchased a tract of land from Indigenous peoples extending from the Delaware to the Susquehanna Rivers. In the early 1700’s, European immigrants arrived in Lancaster County. The first European settlement was formed in 1710, creating conflicts with Indigenous peoples over land. Presbyterian frontiersmen of Scots-Irish descent from Paxton Township, in a neighboring county, formed a vigilante group and on December 14, 1763, raided and destroyed the last village of Conestoga People living in Lancaster County along the Susquehanna River. Later that year, the same vigilante gang known as the “Paxton Boys” massacred the last of the Conestoga Peoples who were being held in the jail ‘for their protection’. That infamous jail was located on the current site of the Fulton Opera House in the heart of Lancaster City. A marker at Fulton Opera House was unveiled December 14, 2013, as the first formal permanent acknowledgement of the massacre.
1700 & 1800s
In 1726, the first slaves arrived in Lancaster County. The first documented Underground Railroad activity began in Lancaster County in 1804, as William Wright began transporting fugitive slaves across the Susquehanna River and through Columbia, Pa. The Columbia Race Riots erupted in 1834 demonstrated growing dissatisfaction over the entrepreneurial success of Stephen Smith; a wealthy African American lumber merchant living in Columbia. As a response to the riots, an association was formed for the purpose of purchasing the property of African Americans living in Columbia Borough, with the unstated hope that they would leave town. By the mid 1850’s, approximately 24% of the county’s African American population lived in Columbia. In 1851, the conflict between slave owners and abolitionists reached a peak with the Christiana Resistance, which many view as a precipitator to the Civil War. Thaddeus Stevens, an attorney from Lancaster and a member of Congress, headed the defense team that successfully represented the men charged with treason after a Maryland plantation owner was killed when he came to Lancaster County to retrieve four runaway slaves. Thirty-four African American slaves and four Quakers stood against the owner, his son and the posse who came with them.
In 1948, experienced, unemployed farm workers from Puerto Rico, like Benito Bonilla and Antonio Vazquez, began to settle in Lancaster County. When they arrived, there were no accommodations for their wives and children. Many of the men lived in barns or the bunkhouses of their employers, returning to Puerto Rico and their families after a season of planting and harvest. With unemployment continuing to be a problem in Puerto Rico, the men began to look for other jobs such as manufacturing, hotels and restaurants, and poultry processing plants that offered year-round employment and the opportunity to bring their families to Lancaster. By 1959, a least 1,200 Puerto Ricans were permanent residents in Lancaster County. A 1964 report by the Lancaster City Redevelopment Authority found that most of the city’s Puerto Rican residents were living in rental units in the 7th ward of Lancaster City because many landlords were unwilling to rent to them outside of this quadrant. By 1968, the City’s Spanish-speaking population almost equaled the number of Lancaster’s African American population. Beginning in the 1970’s, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Columbians, and Cubans arrived. In the late 1970’s, Dominicans arrived in Lancaster looking for economic opportunities. While Latinos are an ethnically and racially diverse population, individual origins are widely misinterpreted and misunderstood.
1960s to today
In the 1960’s, Lancaster City was identified as one of the most segregated cities in the nation in terms of housing. Today, the lines of segregation have moved and are now drawn between the county and the city. And yet, the county also has a legacy of being a ‘safe haven.’ Following the Vietnam War, Hmong and Vietnamese refugees arrived, and more recently, refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Bhutan and Burma. We anticipate the next wave of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, we are home to a large, but closeted, LGBTQ community. And our community is difficult to navigate for individuals with mental or physical challenges. It is also a community with deep roots in Mennonite, Amish and other Christian traditions. Lancaster County is largely viewed by residents and outsiders alike as a closed society made up predominately of Pennsylvania Dutch who have lived here for generations. How does this perception affect our community? What residue do we have from this history? And how does this shape our community today?
We arrived at this topic, Our Identities Unedited, through seeing and experiencing the existing disconnects in our community between our history, our realities, our perceptions of ourselves, and how others see our community. Many times when residents travel to another community and say they are from Lancaster County, people automatically assume they are Mennonite or Amish. Lancaster employers often have difficulty recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. As the identities of our community continue to transition, our leaders, systems, and organizations must transition as well.