- 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
Miss Townsend called 19. She called the Brandywine Firehouse and all other likely places and she reached no policeman. She begged Central to keep trying, to get her somebody, anybody, and she ran from the phone to lock the two tall screen doors leading from the porch into the hospital.
In Coatesville, Chief of Police Umsted was sitting in Magistrate Myer’s office, his feet on the table, swapping stories. About the time the Brandywine crowd started for the hospital, Mordecai Markward hurried into the office and told Umsted: “Things look desperate. … They are going to lynch that man sure.”
The Chief waved his hand impatiently. “That is all hot air; there is no danger.”
Umsted remained for twenty minutes or so and then ambled up Main Street. Across the street from the Stephenson Hotel he ran into Dr. Carmichael, who had stopped his car to chat with Jesse Shallcross, burgess of Coatesville, and two policemen, Robert Allison and Thomas Nafe. The Doctor showed the group a bullet he had taken from the body of Rice, and while they looked at it, Dr. Graves drove up in the ambulance.
The men who had searched the ambulance, Dr. Graves told the police chief, were in a violent mood. There was going to be trouble and Umsted had better get policemen over there.
The Chief’s face flushed with irritation. He was sick of all this gabble. He had been up the whole night before, he was tired, and to hell with it. Burgess Shallcross and Officer Nafe drifted off.
A few more minutes and the central telephone operator, still trying to reach somebody, got Richard D. Gibney, a livery stable owner who was a member of the borough City Council and chairman of its Police Committee. Gibney called Umsted’s office and reached Harry Downing, a friend of the police chief, who was sitting there.
Get Umsted, Gibney ordered. Tell him police are needed immediately at the hospital. And tell him that he has permission to call out the sixteen volunteer firemen.
Downing found Umsted still talking with Dr. Carmichael and this time the Chief was furious. He had heard just about enough of this business, Umsted exploded. He wanted to hear no more.
At the hospital several men were on the front steps. But no one joined them and the crowd churned without moving forward for a long few minutes. Just after 9 P.M. a neatly dressed man with a mask over the top part of his face ran up the stairs, turned, fired a shot into the air. People remembered his words differently. Some thought they were: “Men of Coatesville, will you allow a drunken nigger to do up such a white man as Ed Rice?” Others thought they heard: “Men, are you going to allow a white man to be downed by a nigger?” Or, “You are all cowards—will you let niggers ride over the whites?”
Whatever the exact words, they did it. “No-o-o,” the crowd chorused back. In seconds twelve to fifteen more men, some in half masks, some with handkerchiefs tied in triangles below their eyes, some with no covering, were up the steps and on the porch, wildly ringing the bell, rattling the screen doors, pushing and yelling.
Miss Townsend pleaded through the screen: “Oh, go away men and leave this man alone. There are very sick people in this house, some at the point of death; there are mothers and sisters here, and if your mother or your sister was here you would not do this thing.”
“You open up this door quietly and we will go in quietly,” one of the men replied, “but if you don’t we will batter the doors down.”
Miss Townsend checked the lock on the door. Then she hurried inside to try to rally her panicking nurses and to quiet her eighteen patients, most of whom were out of bed, shrieking and sobbing as they struggled to make their way upstairs.
Stanley Howe took over at the screen door, telling the men they ought to go away. Somebody hollered: “The nigger or Howe.” Another said: “Stanley, you might as well open the door. We’ll get him anyhow.” Suddenly a foot went through the window on the left side of the porch and Howe ran over to close the door leading from that room into the vestibule. Then the screen doors went crashing in and the mob leaders careened into the hospital. They turned toward Walker’s room at the right, pushing Howe ahead of them. The powerfully built officer went jostling along, unresisting, his Colt revolver, fully loaded, in its holster.
In Walker’s room eager hands tore at the canvas restraint jacket on the Negro’s body. A nurse started to intervene. She was pushed into a corner and stood there, frozen in terror. As the jacket loosened, Walker, fighting back ferociously, was hammered down by fists on all sides. The bandages came off his head and blood spattered everything. Outside the crowd roared impatiently: “Why don’t you get him? Bring him out!” Stones clattered through windows of the hospital and more of the mob poured through the front doors.
The men in Walker’s room yanked at the chain binding the Negro’s leg to the foot of the iron bedstead. Where are the keys? they demanded of Howe.
The officer, standing very much aside, said he did not have the keys. They were with Umsted.