- 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
When the posses closed in, the Negro gave up hope. “I saw you, Umsted, in your uniform, come down the road in the automobile and heard the crowds say they were going to surround the place, and I knew it was all up with me. … When some of the men surrounded me, I thought I would end it all, and sent a bullet into the back of my head. …” Walker added: “I wish I had finished the job.”
As dusk fell, the news was all over Coatesville that the Negro was recovering and the town was stirring again. One crowd of men, women, and children milled fretfully on the long sloping green in front of the hospital. Another gathered closer to Main Street, at the Ashley & Bailey Silk Mill on Strode Avenue. The largest crowd, composed almost exclusively of men, formed on Main Street, outside the Brandywine Fire Company, which had long been a political and social center of the town and of which Edgar Rice had been a member. In all of the groups, middle-class people and old-stock workers predominated; there were few if any immigrants. In all of the groups, the talk ran rampant: “Let’s lynch that nigger.”
Before long the word was going out to the towns and farm areas surrounding Coatesville. Hundreds were in the same mood as Ambrose Boyd, a conductor for the Conestoga Traction Company on the five-mile run from Coatesville to Parkesburg. When Boyd reached Parkesburg shortly after 8 P.M., he went to the house of his crony, Joseph Schofield, a master mechanic and company policeman for Conestoga.
“Joe, come on along. We are going to Coatesville. There’s a big crowd down there talking about lynching that nigger.” The two men took the next streetcar back.
In Coatesville, Umsted had returned from the hospital and joined the crowd at the Brandywine Firehouse, where he kept talking about Walker’s confession. Mordecai P. Markward, assistant chief of the Brandywine, was worried by the mood of the men and tactfully hinted to the police chief that he ought to get off the subject. “I must be drawing flies,” Umsted chuckled and continued to go on about the confession. The crowd kept growing. It clogged the pavement and street outside the firehouse, overflowed in front of Braunstein’s furniture store and around First Avenue. Men would break off into little groups and hold whispered conferences, then mill back into the general throng.
After a while Umsted wandered catercorner across Main Street to the office of his old friend, Justice of the Peace George G. Myer, who had a habit of being in his office at all kinds of hours. One part of the Brandywine crowd, some fifty men, started to move too, west on Main Street toward Strode Avenue, which led to the hospital. At first they walked silently. Then yells began going up, some of them so loud they could be clearly heard above the Salvation Army band blaring hymns up the street. “Anything’s too good for that nigger.” “No ten niggers are worth an Ed Rice.” “The beasts are getting too uppity anyhow.” After a few blocks the crowd got to arguing whether they had enough men to “fix” Walker, stopped, drifted back to the firehouse.
There the enthusiastic buttonholed the reluctant, shook fingers in their faces, demanded, “Are you or aren’t you a man?” About 8:30 a much larger crowd started toward the hospital. Along the way men, women, and children joined the shouting, jostling mob. The evening services of the churches were letting out now and whole families moved along with the throng, some asking what was going on and then drifting off, more falling into line. As the crowd poured down Strode Avenue it met the group at the Ashley-Bailey Silk Mill, which promptly joined forces.
On and on the mob swept, into the hundreds already on the hospital grounds, into more hundreds converging on the lawn in all directions from neighboring regions. Soon some three thousand people were at the hospital. A scattering of the men were the local toughs and here and there somebody plainly had observed the Sabbath with a bottle. But for the most part the crowd was made up of the respectable of the Coatesville area, a mass of neat shirt sleeves and starched gingham and cotton wilting in the heat.
A horse-drawn ambulance drove up bringing Dr. E. A. Graves, a Coatesville physician, with an accident case from the Pennsylvania Railroad station. The crowd opened a way for the vehicle to pull up to the emergency entrance. When it started down the hospital drive determined-faced men, thinking it was taking Walker away, grabbed the bridles of the horses, told the frightened driver to mind his own business, and thoroughly searched the ambulance. Finding no one, the men ran back up the grounds, shouted and beckoned, and some of the crowd edged toward the steps leading to the porch of the hospital.
Inside Miss Lena Gray Townsend, the spinsterish superintendent who had taken over the post only the previous November, was decidedly nervous. “What is all that crowd doing down there?” she asked anyone who came by, and she was not reassured when told that the crowd would leave as soon as it discovered that Walker was not being taken away.
Now, with men moving toward the hospital steps, Miss Townsend turned in panic to Officer Howe. “Oh, what must I do?” she screamed.
Call up 19, Police Headquarters, said Howe.