- 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
With every passing minute the mob increased in size. Men, women, and children—the total crowd was almost half female—came running from the hesitant group at the hospital, from Coatesville, and from surrounding areas. As the number mounted close to five thousand, the noise tore through the mists in great snarling waves. “Burn the nigger!” “Lynch the beast!” “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!” Along the way somebody gave the mob its favorite. A voice rang out: “Last night you were in Coatesville and you murdered a policeman. Tonight you will be in a fiery furnace and tomorrow you will be in hell.” Over and over again the crowd chanted: “Tonight you’ll be in a fiery furnace, tomorrow you’ll be in hell.”
At the end of about half a mile, the leaders stopped. Here the farm lands of Mrs. Sarah Jane Newlin stretched on both sides of Ercildoun Road. A lane with a fence made of chestnut rails cut diagonally across the public road. Walker, the chain, and the foot of the bedstead were dragged left on the lane, about fifty yards in, and thrown across the fence into an adjoining field. A ring of men, with guns drawn, closed around the Negro. The crowd shuffled for positions behind the circle and most had to make their way up the hilly meadows rolling back from either side of Ercildoun Road.
For seconds—perhaps a minute—nothing happened. The mob hushed, the leaders stood silent, Walker lay still, very still. A flock of birds, fluttering away, sounded weirdly loud.
Then the cries went up: “Let’s finish him.” Men and boys tore fence rails loose and piled them griddlewise. The leaders, now mostly in masks, picked up Walker and heaved him on the pile. He groaned as the bedstead gouged into his body but he made no outcry and lay limp. Kindling was stuffed between the logs. Matches came out. Everything was still damp and the kindling did not ignite.
The mob stirred irritably. “Get straw! Get hay! Burn him!” Scores ran to the Newlin barn for dry forage. More fence rails were torn off and logs six to seven feet long were heaped around and over the Negro. At the touch of match to the straw and hay the fire caught on and Zachariah Walker found his voice.
“For God’s sake, give a man a chance. I killed Rice in self-defense.” A storm of jeers obliterated his words except for those close by. “Don’t give me a crooked death because I’m not white.”
The flames leaped up. The fierce glow made the masks of the leaders seem blood-red. They broke into a dance around the fire, whooping and flinging their hands up and down. The mob went into its own frenzy, backslapping, swinging lanterns wildly aloft, roaring a new chant: “Niggers, now you’ll learn. Niggers, now you’ll learn.”
As the flames crackled seven and ten feet high, the mood relaxed. The dance around the fire turned into a laughing caper, joined in by small boys and girls. There were cheers, pleasant cheers, like the cheering at “a baseball game,” people remembered. “Very much of a social affair,” “resembling a big carnival,” others said. On the outer fringes of the crowd, where farm roads cut in, automobiles pulled up with trimly dressed men and women, most of the women demurely holding motor veils over the lower part of their faces. The thousands just stood, chatting, pointing out this or that happening around the flaming mound, reaching across to shake hands with a friend.
There was camaraderie and thoughtfulness and chivalry too. Near the fire, the reporter of the Coatesville Record observed, “there was no loud talking, no profanity,” and the “utmost deference” was shown to women. The leaders would stop stoking the flames to doff their hats to some female friend they recognized. In the crowd men stepped aside to provide women a better position or led them to a place of vantage. Fathers and mothers hoisted children on their shoulders.
Suddenly there was a commotion down Ercildoun Road: “Police automobile! The police are coming!” People ran helter-skelter but soon everything relaxed again. The auto, a large touring car, was filled with young men and women arriving to join the occasion. “Hurrah for Coatesville!” the couples shouted to the crowd. “Hurrah for Coatesville!” the crowd shouted back.
With a desperate heave, Zachariah Walker burst up through the wood and started to drag himself off the pile. Charred flesh hung from his body; the foot of the bedstead had somehow come loose but the iron chain, glowing red, clung to his right leg. Pitchforks, poles, and shotguns jabbed him back. The crowd cheered.
Again Walker tried. This time the leaders let him get completely off the logs, work himself to the lane, and start fumbling to get over a broken part of the fence. Then, with hoots of derision, they looped a rope around his neck, half pulled and half threw him back on the flames. The cheers were louder than ever.
With a superhuman heave and a terrible scream, the Negro hurled himself to the edge of the pyre. Fence rails and gun butts went into action. Men bashed him in the face and across the body, and he fell back into the center of the fire. The cheers were thunderous.
Zachariah Walker was barely visible now. He lay a flaming crumple, shrieking. Soon the shrieks softened to moans. Then the moans stopped. Some twenty minutes after the first straw was lit, about 10:30 this summer Sunday evening, all was quiet on the pyre except the softening crackle of the flames.