- 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
Now, as the crowd milled outside his office, the Chief lumbered into action once again. All the policemen in the town—the seven men of the borough force and the company policemen of Lukens and Worth—were reporting in for emergency duty and Umsted growled his instructions: Get the killer of Rice—“I don’t care how you get him but get him.” Identifying the murderer was hardly difficult. By midnight of Saturday all kinds of clues were pointing to Zachariah Walker. Loosely organized posses, made up of eager volunteers from the crowds and armed with revolvers, shotguns, pitchforks, and sticks, were already fanning out in a farm area to the south of the scene of the killing. The problem was the darkness and the unremitting rain. At daybreak the posses were back, bedraggled and muttering that they would get some sleep and wait for tomorrow. The Chief sank into the big swivel chair in his office with a tremendous sigh. “More of it,” he groaned to a friend. “Always more of it. Nigger kills. Nigger gets chased. Well, it’s my job.”
About 10 o’clock Sunday morning the telephone jolted Umsted out of his sleep. A farmer who lived three-quarters of a mile from the murder spot was calling to say that he had just seen Walker running across his field. Once again the posses assembled and this time they were better organized. Of course one was led by Umsted; another by Alfred S. Jackson, chief of the Lukens company police; a third by Alfred A. Berry, who had recently come to Coatesville from Philadelphia and was making a living doing balloon ascensions and running dances at a nearby Negro amusement place, the 20th Century Park. Early Sunday afternoon word came from a second farm. A fourteen-year-old boy, Lewis Townsend, had gone out to the barn looking for eggs and had seen a tan-colored leg showing from beneath a loose pile of hay.
The three posses closed in, shotguns ready. Suddenly, from a cherry tree, came the sound of two shots and Zachariah Walker tumbled down. The closest posse leader was Berry and he, wondering whether the Negro had really tried to commit suicide or was attempting a ruse, approached cautiously. There was no doubt about the suicide attempt. Walker was unconscious and bleeding profusely from his lower jaw. Berry and his group improvised a stretcher by placing coats across the barrels of three shotguns and carried the Negro to an automobile.
As the car approached town it had to fight its way through increasingly large crowds. Four to five hundred men and women churned in the narrow street in front of the police station. Everyone assumed that Walker was all but dead and people squeezed a path for him to be carried into the building. Once inside, he regained a degree of consciousness. He refused to say anything; instead he made frantic motions to the policemen to kill him. Dr. Artemus Carmichael examined the Negro and ordered him to the hospital. The crowd made way again as Walker was brought out. “Well, that nigger sure saved us the trouble,” said one man, swishing his hands in a that’s-that motion.
About 4 P.M. the automobile carrying Walker, Chief Umsted, and several policemen reached the hill to the southwest on which stood the two-and-a-half story, red-brick Coatesville Hospital, a gift of the owners of Lukens and Worth. Dr. Carmichael arrived in his own car and immediately operated on Walker to remove the bullet. The Negro was plated in a private room at the right front of the building, his body strapped to the bed by a canvas restraint sheet, his right leg attached to the foot of the iron bedstead by a chain. Umsted assigned one of his patrolmen, Stanley Howe, to stand guard and he, Dr. Carmichael, and the rest of the policemen left.
Soon people began arriving at the hospital room, individually and in family groups. Mostly the visitors would stare at the Negro, whisper behind their hands, and ask Officer Howe the same question: Was there any chance Walker would recover? The Negro’s head was swathed in thick bandages but he gave every appearance of a man who was going to live. He had now regained full consciousness and was breathing normally and returning stare for stare.
During the supper hour Umsted returned to the hospital and started questioning Walker. The Negro agreed to make a confession but his admissions were decidedly limited. Stanley Howe took down the words: Walker had made no attempt to rob “a foreigner” or anyone else. He was simply “feeling pretty good” and when he saw a “Hunkey” in the woods, he fired into the air to whoop things up. Walker had killed Rice but in self-defense. The policeman “came over and placed me under arrest. I knew if he would take me I would serve time for carrying concealed weapons, and I resisted him. Rice told me to quit … , and if I didn’t he would hit me over the head with a club. I told him that if he did I would kill him. Rice then made a plunge at me with the club, and he dropped the stick and reached for his revolver. I was too quick for him. I had my gun out first and fired two shots into him. …”