Original Document
Original Document
Francis D. Tyson, on the 1917 Chester Race Riots, 1919.

The race friction and serious rioting that occurred in Chester, Pa., August 1-4, 1917, seem to have had no basis whatever in the labor situation. The trouble probably took its rise from friction and conflict between the worst elements of both groups in the community. The chief of police of the city when interviewed stated that the riot was directly due to the presence of riffraff of both races from the South and to the organized activity of a gang of local roughs.

The trouble started Tuesday night, July 31. An altercation began between a white lad who was coming home late, probably slightly intoxicated, and a party made up of two colored men and two colored women. According to the story, they had jostled on the sidewalk; the white man made an insulting remark that was resented by one of the Negro women, who demanded that her companion "get" the white man; whereupon the latter was stabbed to death. The victim, though rather a worthless fellow, was well liked and a member of a social club, or gang, of the Bethel Court district. This group had already arranged an excursion down the Delaware for Wednesday afternoon, and it was there that revenge for his death was planned. This statement was substantiated by another member of the police force, said to be a former member of the group.

In any case the trouble spread on Wednesday night and Was probably started by the white group. Evidently no attempt was made to single out the vicious Negroes, for mobs several hundred strong surged through the streets, stopping the cars and driving all of the Negroes to cover. As many as 80 were beaten more or less severely. About 90 deputies were quickly sworn in, and the rioting was well in hand on Thursday night, when the State constabulary first put in appearance. The casualties that occurred on Saturday night were entirely unwarranted, and were caused by the foolish shooting of the deputies of both races at each other. One white deputy was wounded in the shoulder by a colored deputy, who was then shot to death; in the melee a jitney driver was also slain. Altogether three Negroes and two white men were killed; the wounded, who needed hospital care numbered a score; members of both groups were held awaiting trial.

This story was corroborated by the account given by the employment agent of a large Philadelphia firm with a plant north of Chester, who had been sworn in as a deputy sheriff. He stated that ill feeling between the whites and Negroes had been fostered by a bad political situation. Some of the leaders, backed by the liquor interests, catered to the 30 per cent Negro vote in Chester. This served to keep the bad Negroes in the town. The activity of a gang of colored toughs had been particularly flagrant in exploiting the newly arrived workers from the South. For instance, a Negro laborer leaving his work at a certain Chester plant after being paid one Saturday was held up in the center of town; on refusing to give over part of his pay he was shot by the Negro ruffians, who seemed to know that they would not be punished, because of their political influence. The gangs of the Bethel Court district had brought the worst elements of the whites and blacks into contact. Trouble had been brewing at a notorious saloon in this section, run by a political henchman. When asked about events that paved the way for the outbreak, this well-informed citizen could instance only the arrest of a Negro two months before on the charge of assaulting a white girl. Criminal intent had not been proved, and the justice, one of the political group, had released the man on $300 bail. This had caused resentment among an element of the whites, and public opinion forced a rehearing, at which the bail was raised to $500.

This story of the riot agreed substantially with the account given above, beginning with the stabbing of Tuesday night. Wednesday evening the trouble began when a Negro tried to board a jitney near the center of town. In the altercation which followed a white bystander was shot and wounded; then the riot was on. Two car conductors who had been on duty at the time were interviewed; both stated that their cars had been stopped by mobs and the Negroes aboard taken off and beaten or made to run for safety.

Mere chance might turn similar tense race situations into tragic outbreaks in a number of towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or New Jersey. For instance, at the famous steel town of Homestead, Pa., a near race riot occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1917. Rumors of ill feeling between the groups had been spreading for some time, and a number of skirmishes had occurred on the cars and streets. An Irish lad of 18 was arrested and fined as the alleged leader of a crowd of white boys who attacked and beat an unoffending middle-aged Negro; at the same time a young Negro, on whose account the trouble is claimed to have started, was dismissed. The latter said that he accidentally bumped into a white man on the main street, and that the white man hit him a blow in the face. As he staggered back, he said, he collided with a white woman, who screamed; her cry gathered a crowd of white men who thought he had insulted the white woman. According to the police, five other Negroes were attacked by the crowd and had to be rescued and taken to the police station for safety. Undoubtedly similar and even more serious outbreaks of violence may be expected where there does not exist effective police control of the vicious elements of both groups. Moreover, casual work, indecent housing conditions, and drinking and gambling in leisure time are steadily creating- viciousness. Disease, crime, and race friction are perhaps inevitable in those communities to which the Negroes have come in considerable numbers, and which are making no provision for the selection and supervision of colored workers, the regulation of housing and lodging, and the creation of wholesome recreation facilities.

Credit: Francis D. Tyson, "The Negro Migrant in the North," in Negro Migration in 1916-17. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 1919.
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