- Historic Sites
Coatesville, Pennsylvania, dozed fitfully in the oppressive heat of August. Then two shots rang out, and set off an ugly train of racial violence
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
The grim and vivid account which follows may strike some of our readers as a frightful fantasy. Unfortunately it all took place, detail for detail, in the year 1911. Since we believe, as this magazine regularly testifies, that the good in our past generously outweighs the bad, we never shrink from chronicling cruelty and rascality. Yet we might hesitate, even so, to print this unusually ugly story of racial violence long ago if it did not lay bare so much that lies dangerously hidden in the folk memory of the white man and the black, if it did not help in some way to explain some of the bitterness and guilt which presently afflict the two races, if it did not admonish us so powerfully—if, in short, good did not sometimes spring out of evil.
This article will form the first chapter of Eric F. Goldman’s book revolving around Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in this century, to be published under the title, Incident in Coatesville, by Alfred A. Knopf. Its theme is the racial crisis which came to America shortly before World War I and its meaning for our own day. The book is the result of painstaking research by Mr. Goldman, who is Rollins Professor of History at Princeton, a member of the Advisory Board of AMERICAN HERITAGE, and president of one of our two sponsoring groups, The Society of American Historians. He has been a writer for Time Magazine, a State Department lecturer, and the moderator of the intellectual television program, “The Open Mind.” He has won many awards, including the Bancroft Prize for “distinguished writing in American history,” on the basis of his book, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform (Knopf, 1952). In February he was appointed an aide to President Johnson, charged with “channelling the nation’s best thinking to the White House.”
Zachariah Walker had a few drinks of straight gin and felt good. He drank some more and felt even better. Now he poured the gin in quick spurts, his aim half missing the glass, and the world of here and now was racing away.
That evening, Saturday, August 12, 1911, everybody in Coatesville could use less of the here and now. The overgrown town, population about 11,000, lay thirty-eight miles west of Philadelphia in the trough of the Chester Valley, and the heat of the eastern seaboard hung over it dank and steaming. The discomforts nature did not bring, Coatesville managed itself. The town’s life centered in two sprawling iron and steel corporations, the Lukens Iron and Steel Company and the Worth Brothers Company. Any day or night the furnaces sent up clouds of soot. This Saturday evening, like all Saturday evenings, was the time for blowing the waste boilers, and great billows of dirty smoke, stirred along by desultory tufts of wind, kept drifting through the valley.
Most of the well-to-do of Coatesville, the steel executives and the more prosperous merchants along Main Street, had chugged off to the Jersey Coast in their high-fendered automobiles. The clerks and the skilled workers and the grocery-store keepers flocked to the nearby Pinto Kit’s Wild West Show where “real cowboys,” “absolutely guaranteed, money-back” real cowboys, did their fancy riding, lassoing, and shooting; or to Coatesville’s three movie houses with the hardworking big propeller fans; or to Davy’s Soda Garden, which offered oversize helpings of frosted fruit and Terry’s Orchestra playing “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” and “Dream Kisses” for the waltzing, and an occasional thumping march when the couples sat down, worked away with their bamboo fans, told each other fretfully that the hay fever had never been so bad and that something simply had to be done about the stray dogs.
Workingmen jammed Coatesville’s five long rectangular bars on Main Street. (Liquor licenses in the town, kept limited by fervid prohibitionists, could bring as much as $100,000.) At some of the bars, customers had to shove their way in. At all of them the beer or whiskey, passed from the bartender to men in the back rows, splashed and spilled until the heavy sawdust on the floors could no longer absorb it and the liquor flowed, in dirty, caking rivulets, out to the sidewalks.
Up on the hill to the southeast, near the dingy black buildings of Lukens and Worth, thousands sweltered away with no money for the downtown bars or a Wild West Show. Rows of wooden shacks housed some 3,000 eastern European immigrants brought over for unskilled labor in the steel plants. Further up the hill, huts still more ramshackle were the quarters for about 2,000 Negro workers imported from the South.
Zachariah Walker, a lanky, tan-colored Negro brought up from Greene County, Virginia, and now working as a water-wagon driver in the Worth plant, took the last swig from his bottle and shambled oft to a neighboring shack. A few more drinks, it was a boring eight o’clock or so, and Walker went back to his own place, stuck a hat on his head and a revolver in his pocket, and made oft down Youngsburg Road, which ran alongside the shacks through a patch of woods toward central Coatesville.