You know, I am working hard on my little book project, and trying hard to reconcile the past and today (and they don’t balance, no matter how you do the math.) Regardless of which direction I turn, the ugly visage of my family’s past – their involvement in slavery – it just keeps coming like waves of nausea that I cannot shake.
The one place where I did not expect to see this subject rear up was in the little town where I was born, a place well north of the Mason Dixon, a town more familiar for its large Amish community than for anything else. Coatesville Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania is a small place, a rural town by Pennsylvania standards. A quaint little village surrounded by rolling hills and lovely, neat little farms.
I joke that “When God made me born a Yankee, he was teasing.”
I lived in Coatesville for just a few months, making my way “home” back down South before I could remember much of that strange foreign land. But still, my birth certificate carries the fact that it’s my birthplace, and joke or not, I have learned to live with the fact that I was, technically, born a yankee.
Stumbling upon the following information was more than a little difficult to take. But stumbling upon John Jay Chapman’s reaction to the event was a breathtaking experience! He said precisely what I have been thinking and unable to articulate on this subject for years. His words are simple truth – a truth that everyone in this nation needs to know, and injest.
Read on for the description of what happened, and then further on for Chapman’s reaction.
The Civil War had been over for 46 years when southeastern Pennsylvania became the scene of one of the most horrific racially charged stories of 1911 – the beating, lynching and burning of a black man accused of killing a security guard.
Zachariah Walker, a black man from Virginia, was employed at Worth Brothers Steel Company in Coatesville. Walker was likely under the influence when he left a bar where he and some co-workers had spent an August afternoon drinking. On the way home, he reportedly took out a pistol and fired it in the general direction of two Polish steelworkers who were approaching him on the road from the opposite direction.
The shots didn’t strike either man but they did draw the attention of Edgar Rice, a security guard employed by the Worth Brothers, who soon encountered Walker. A hand-to-hand scuffle ensued and escalated to the point of guns being drawn.
This time, a shot from Walker’s pistol found its mark, killing Rice.
The intoxicated Walker stumbled into a neighbor’s barn where he slept off his deadly drinking binge. The next morning, a search party found Walker walking down a dirt road heading out of town. To avoid capture, he climbed a tree and then attempted to commit suicide. The bullet he fired struck him in the jaw and he toppled to the ground.
He was carried to the town hospital and after regaining consciousness, confessed to the killing of Rice but maintained it was in self-defense. Bound by shackles, his left leg was chained by the ankle to the footboard of his hospital bed.
At 6-3 and over 250 pounds, Coatesville Sheriff Charles Umsted had a reputation for being tough. On this day, he added fuel to a volatile situation. As the crowd outside grew larger, he told bystanders that Walker had boasted about killing Rice, but the sheriff made no mention of Walker’s claim that it was in self-defense. He also made it known that he would not intervene if there was an attempted lynching.
According to the Tamaqua Courier, a man with a white mask walked up to the steps of the hospital and, facing the growing mob, shouted, “Men, are you going to allow a white man to be downed by a niggar?”
The mob broke into the hospital, overpowered police guards, and grabbed Walker. The crowd outside the hospital “gave a cheer as they saw their leaders come out with the negro,” according to the Courier report.
With his ankle still chained to the bed and the footboard dragging behind him, Walker was taken to a farmhouse near the outskirts of town. The howling mob now numbered a thousand or more. As the sheriff had proclaimed earlier, he made no effort to stop the brutality.
Walker was taken to the area where he had shot Rice the day before and fence rails, hay and straw were piled around him. At one point, Walker reportedly shouted: “For God’s sake, give a man a chance. I killed Rice in self-defense. Don’t give me no crooked death because I ain’t white!”
In moments, Walker’s body was enveloped in flames.
“Three times did the negro try to escape,” the Courier said of the horrifying spectacle. “Each time the men with the fence rails shoved him back in the fire.”
The following day, the Coatesville Record remarked on the “politeness” of the crowd.
“Five thousand men, women, and children stood by and watched the proceedings as though it were a ball game or another variety of spectator sport,” it stated.
A group of boys stopped for cold soda afterward at the Coatesville Candy Company to talk about the grim spectacle as matter-of-factly as if it was a game. Some returned to the site the next day to gather fragments of bone and charred flesh as souvenirs.
A year after the lynching, John Jay Chapman, poet, dramatist and social critic, came to Coatesville, hired a hall there and held a memorial service. Only two people showed up but his speech, which was published in Harper’s Weekly, gripped the country.
Here is John Jay Chapman’s address:
“We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history – not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent for our share in it.
We do not start any agitation with regard to that particular crime.
I understand that an attempt to prosecute the chief criminals has been made, and has entirely failed; because the whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt.
The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it.
I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me.
When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government!
As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country.
I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature.
I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal – a cold thing, an awful thing. I said to myself, “I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there.
What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people.
For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker.
Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of the amphitheater in the degenerate days of Roman luxury could do it.
But here an audience chosen by chance in America has stood spellbound through an improvised auto-da-fé, irregular, illegal, having no religious significance, not sanctioned by custom, having no immediate provocation, the audience standing by merely in cold dislike.
I saw during one moment something beyond all argument in the depth of its significance.
No theories about the race problem, no statistics, legislation, or mere educational endeavor, can quite meet the lack which that day revealed in the American people.
For what we saw was death.
The people stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them.
Whatever life itself is, that thing must be replenished in us.
The opposite of hate is love, the opposite of cold is heat; what we need is the love of God and reverence for human nature.
For one moment I knew that I had seen our true need; and I was afraid that I should forget it and that I should start schemes of education, when the need was deeper than education.
And I became filled with one idea, that I must not forget what I had seen, and that I must do something to remember it. And I am here today chiefly that I may remember that vision.
It seems fitting to come to this town where the crime occurred and hold a prayer-meeting, so that our hearts may be turned to God through whom mercy may flow into us.
The locus of responsibility; Let me say something more about the whole matter.
The subject we are dealing with is not local.
The act, to be sure, took place at Coatesville and everyone looked to Coatesville to follow it up.
Some months ago I asked a friend who lives not far from here something about this case, and about the expected prosecutions, and he replied to me: “It wasn’t in my county,” and that made me wonder whose county it was in.
And it seemed to be in my county.
I live on the Hudson River; but I knew that this great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of today.
It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years of the wickedness of the slave trade. All of us are tinctured by it.
No special place, no special persons, are to blame.
A nation cannot practice a course of inhuman crime for three hundred years and then suddenly throw off the effects of it.
Less than fifty years ago domestic slavery was abolished among us; and in one way or another the marks of that vice are in our faces.
There is no country in Europe where the Coatesville tragedy or anything remotely like it could have been enacted, probably no country in the world.
On the day of the calamity, those people in the automobiles came by the hundred and watched the torture, and passers-by came in a great multitude and watched it – and did nothing.
On the next morning the newspapers spread the news and spread the paralysis until the whole country seemed to be helplessly watching this awful murder, as awful as anything ever done on this earth; and the whole of our people seemed to be looking on helplessly, not able to respond, not knowing what to do next.
That spectacle has been in my mind.
The trouble has come down to us out of the past.
The only reason slavery is wrong is that it is cruel, and makes men cruel and leaves them cruel.
Someone may say that you and I cannot repent because we did not do the act. But we are involved in it. We are still looking on.
Do you not see that this whole event is merely the last parable, the most vivid, the most terrible illustration that ever was given by man or imagined by a Jewish prophet, of the relation between good and evil in this world, and of the relation of men to one another?
This whole matter has been an historic episode; but it is a part, not only of our national history, but of the personal history of each one of us.
With the great disease (slavery) came the climax (the war), and after the climax gradually began the cure, and in the process of cure comes now the knowledge of what the evil was.
I say that our need is new life, and that books and resolutions will not save us, but only such disposition in our hearts and souls as will enable the new life, love, force, hope, virtue, which surround us always, to enter into us.
This is the discovery that each man must make for himself; the discovery that what he really stands in need of he cannot get for himself, but must wait till God gives it to him.
I have felt the impulse today to testify to this truth.
The occasion is not small; the occasion looks back on three centuries and embraces a hemisphere.
Yet the occasion is small compared with the truth it leads us to.
For this truth touches all ages and affects every soul in the world.”