Historical Markers
The Lynching of Zachariah Walker Historical Marker
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The Lynching of Zachariah Walker

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Rt. 82 south, approx. 1/4 mile from Coatesville city limits

Dedication Date:
December 6, 2006

Behind the Marker

African-American worker at the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company, Coatesville Plant
African-American worker in a steel mill, Coatesville, PA, circa 1920.
As an angry mob dragged him from the hospital, Zachariah Walker is said to have cried, "For God's sake, give a man a chance! I killed Rice in self-defense. Don't give me no crooked death because I'm not white!" His pleas, however, fell on deaf ears. In a field just outside the borough of Coatesville, Walker was thrown into a hastily constructed fire. Three times he attempted to crawl out, only to be pushed back in until he moved no more. A crowd estimated between 3,000 to 5,000 men, women, and children witnessed Walker's ordeal with a calm resolve.

After it was over, the crowd politely dispersed, though some lingered to collect body parts and other souvenirs before going back into town. The lynching occurred on a Sunday-"that quiet Sabbath evening," W.E.B. Du Bois wrote scornfully. Within days, the area surrounding the site had been picked clean of the body, fence posts, ashes, and even blades of grass, and community leaders were calling for a return to normalcy.

Exterior and grounds
Coatesville Hospital, Coatesville, PA, 1911.
The lynching of Zachariah Walker in 1911 personifies what historians call a "spectacle lynching," a mob execution that included the most barbaric indecencies one can imagine. Though the geography of a northern industrial town seems not to fit our understanding of lynching, the episode is freighted with significance. Among its many layers is the web of racial and ethnic tensions that were present in Coatesville and other industrial towns during an era of sustained migration. Though the lynching was highly unusual, the pattern of social frictions that pervaded Coatesville, a prosperous steel town forty miles west of Philadelphia, was not uncommon.

In 1911, Coatesville was a thriving steel town that had doubled in size in the previous ten years, due in large part to the in-migration of more than 1,000 southern black laborers, and a larger number of Southern and Eastern Europeans. What drew these newcomers to Coatesville was better-paying mill employment and social freedom not found where they had come from.

Near site of lynching just days after the event.
Local residents standing near the site of Zachariah Walker’s lynching, Coatesville,...
The two local steel companies, Worth Bros. and Lukens, actively recruited unskilled workers from rural Virginia and from overseas, both to keep wages low and to meet the ever-growing demand for labor. Along with African Americans, large numbers of ethnic Italians, Poles, Russians, and Hungarians (Magyars) now competed for jobs with more established residents.

Within the borough, a clear pattern of residential separation mirrored the intentional segregation of jobs at the mills. In the resulting mix, newly arrived southern blacks were in the most vulnerable position, and increasingly were the objects of discrimination and social disdain. By the summer of 1911, the time when Walker arrived to work in the Worth Bros. steel mill, community relations had deteriorated to a new level of discord.

Zachariah Walker was literally and figuratively an outsider, living on the edge of town in an area called "The Spruces," and without any ties to the established African-American community. On the evening of August 12, 1911, Walker was traveling home after a day spent drinking in a local tavern, when he came upon several immigrant workers on their way home. Their altercation attracted the attention of Edgar Rice, a security guard at the mill and a long-time resident of Coatesville. When Rice tried to apprehend Walker, a fight ensued, and Walker, by his own admission, shot Rice several times before fleeing into the woods below town. Whether Rice had any jurisdiction to accost Walker on a public road is open to debate-so too is Walker's alleged confession that he killed Rice in self-defense.

County Courthouse, West Chester, Pa.
Within twenty-four hours, Walker had been apprehended and taken to Coatesville Hospital for what was described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Throughout Sunday evening, August 13, large crowds milled on the borough's downtown streets. By 8 p.m., a group of men and teenage boys, followed by a crowd that had grown to several thousand people, moved on the hospital, kidnapped Walker, and dragged him a half-mile into the countryside where he was burned alive.

No one stood against the mob, and the police made no effort to interfere. Scores of people milled around the site waiting for the ashes to cool so they could retrieve souvenir bone fragments. The next day, young boys sold pieces of Walker's body on street corners with along with a special edition of the local newspaper.

Newspapers from around the country editorialized on this northern racial lynching and the unusual geography of its occurrence, and national and international outrage soon rained down upon Coatesville. Writing for The Outlook, a well-known national magazine, former President Theodore Roosevelt called the Pennsylvania lynching "revolting to the last degree." Pennsylvania Governor marker John Tener made strong statements against the lynching, and for a time counseled revoking the borough's charter and removing Coatesville from the map. (Following a state police investigation, however, the entire state effort to sanction Coatesville evaporated into thin air.)

The lynching also had its supporters especially among southern newspapers, which noted that northern residents could now better appreciate the difficult dimensions of race relations in the former Confederacy. Most of Coatesville's residents also did not share in the national condemnation

Exterior view of the Worth Brothers Steel compound, 1911
Worth Brothers Steel compound, 1911.
Against great local opposition, fifteen men and teenage boys, all with close ties to community, were indicted and prosecuted. No one was convicted, however, and faced with a deep "conspiracy of silence" that thwarted testimony the prosecutors requested directed verdicts of not guilty. In acceding to their request, Judge William Butler issued a stinging rebuke of the community and the failure of justice that let Walker's killers go free. Crowds cheered and chanted as the remaining defendants walked from the courthouse.

An anonymous writer to the local Coatesville Record summed up the attitude this way: "Insult has been reaped upon injury by those two races [immigrants and blacks] and the citizens of this town have been compelled to take it for several years. Both races have practically gone over the town roughshod until the people, good American citizens, were goaded into something desperate once the signal was given." Significantly, in the months following the lynching, European newcomers seemed to garner a greater degree of respect in public new accounts, even as the papers took every opportunity to reinforce an unflattering view of southern black migrants.

City street scene. People, horse and buggy, and one automobile line the streets
Main Street in Downtown Coatesville, c. 1911
Attempts to reopen the case failed, but the Walker lynching did mobilize a movement in Pennsylvania for a state anti-lynching law. First proposed in the General Assembly in early 1913, it took ten years for the measure to gain enough support to become law. The ordeal also attracted the attention of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which launched its own investigation and used this northern lynching as one of the springboards for its famous national anti-lynching crusade. (Repeated attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching law during the First World War failed.)

Founding member markerW.E.B Du Bois reported on the legal proceedings in The Crisis. "Let the eagle scream!" Du Bois wrote after the trial's conclusion. "America is redeemed at Coatesville...The last lyncher is acquitted and the best traditions of Anglo-Saxon civilization are safe. Let the eagle scream!" In the following months, the NAACP established three chapters in Pennsylvania: in Coatesville, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.

In the early 2000s, Coatesville remained in the midst of unsettling economic and social changes brought on by the decline of local industries. Continued controversies over race and employment did little to heal the lingering animosities and the tortured memories of Zachariah Walker's fate a century ago. Local residents had mixed emotions about the 2006 dedication of a historical marker, with some calling for a new public awareness and others bemoaning the incident had been brought to light again.
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