Skip to main content


July 2024
3min read

Late Sunday night, officials began arriving from West Chester, the county seat of Chester County, in which Coatesville was located. Soon the arrests came. In all, twelve men from Coatesville or neighboring areas were indicted for murder in varying degrees. Police Chief Charles E. Umsted and Officer Stanley Howe were indicted for involuntary manslaughter. The governor of Pennsylvania, John K. Tener, took the unusual step of sending his attorney general and his deputy attorney general to aid in the prosecutions.

In quick succession six of the cases came to trial in the West Chester Court House. One after another the men were acquitted. Usually the juries deliberated only for brief periods. Most of the defendants left the courtroom heroes, cheered by crowds in their home areas.

Then the state brought to trial what it believed was its strongest case, that against Lewis Denithorne, who had signed a confession that he helped tear the restraint jacket off Walker and drag him out of the hospital. The jury got the case shortly before bedtime. The next morning, fifteen minutes after court convened, the foreman delivered the verdict: not guilty.

Late that morning the spokesman for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania rose in court to announce that the state was dropping all the remaining cases, including the ones against Chief Umsted and Officer Howe. It was useless to go on, he said, and further prosecutions would simply serve to bring the processes of justice into disrepute. Judge William Butler, Jr., who had presided over most of the trials, agreed. The Judge added that when the lynching first occurred, he thought it would be difficult to secure justice for the accused. The community would be up in arms against men charged with a crime that “we had been accustomed to look upon … as peculiar to people of a different character from ourselves, as something that could not happen in our midst. …” Now he was “absolutely convinced” that there was, “for some reason that I am entirely unable to understand, a sentiment in this County, a general sentiment, utterly opposed to the prosecution and conviction of anybody and of everybody who took part in this horrible affair.”

Judge Butler’s puzzlement was understandable. Chester County and Coatesville were part of a North where a few decades before such a lynching would have been highly unlikely and such a public reaction, still ^ more improbable. But this was 1911 and things had been happening that were none too visible to the aging, high-minded jurist.

The early 1900’s were a curious period in the life of the North. “Progressivism,” with its summons to greater opportunities for ordinary men, dominated the region and the lanterns of reform were lighting up a hundred areas of living. But the lanterns brought little glow into the Negro ghettos of New York, Chicago, or Coatesville. The Negro in the North was not only the outsider; he was further outside than he had been in previous, less reformist decades. The abolitionist fervor of the Civil War and the Reconstruction periods had burned itself out. The pell-mell industrialization, with its unremitting demand for cheap labor, was sucking unskilled Negroes into situations which neither they nor the whites could manage. All the while, the beginnings of a significant migration of southern Negroes to the North was exacerbating a peculiarly emotional concern.

The general outlook of many northerners included a mounting defensiveness, a sense almost of beleaguerment, a feeling that the sensible and decent way of life —the way of the white “Anglo-Saxons”—was being threatened by all kinds of people in and outside the United States. There were the “hordes” of “Slavs” pouring through ElHs Island; there was the “yellow peril” from the Far East. Perhaps most worrisome to a considerable section of northern opinion, there were the black men coming up from Alabama or Virginia with habits and attitudes “fit only for a cottonfield,” as people said, and the northern Negroes themselves, now starting to talk a weird doctrine of equality, even founding the dangerously “uppity” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In the year that Walker was lynched, one of the more moderate Negro newspapers, the New York Age , spoke of “a crisis in the Northern and Western states,” marked by a “perfervid sensitiveness” of the whites on the color question. The newspaper was hardly exaggerating. These were the years when the hero of northern progressives, President Woodrow Wilson, looked the other way while subordinates Jim Crowed offices, lunchrooms, and lavatories in federal buildings which had been unsegregated since the Civil War; when the fact that the black Jack Johnson knocked out the white Jim Jeffries in a prize fight produced a nationwide outcry for a “white hope” and brought on rioting, North and South, that killed nineteen and injured scores; when farmers in Kansas, aghast that a Negro postman had been appointed to their R.F.D. route, tore down their boxes and announced that they would rather travel to town for their mail; when Booker T. Washington, apostle of Negro patience and optimism, could only sigh, “I have never seen the colored people so discouraged as they are at the present time.”

Somehow—and just how is a long, tangled story—the North surmounted the crisis. The open clash between Negro and white did not come. Gradually the general trend toward greater opportunities for ordinary men came to include less hostility toward the Negro. In this critically important development, Zachariah Walker, who amounted to so little in life, was not without significance by the manner of his death. The brutal lynching served as an alarm bell—heeded by more than a few in the North—as to just where the mounting racism of the early 1900’s could lead.

In time the alarm was hearkened to in Coatesville itself. On June 3, 1938, a nineteen-year-old white girl was criminally attacked on South Hill in the city. Once again the posses fanned out from Coatesville and seized a young Negro; once again a crowd milled outside the jail crying, “Lynch him! Lynch him!” But this time the man in Umsted’s old post, Chief of Police Ralph E. Williams, stood up in front of the mob and told them to remember that justice required a fair trial. He added: Coatesville does not want “another blot on its fair name.” The crowd grew quiet, and began to drift away. The Negro was taken to a place of safety in another city.

Things had changed indeed—in Coatesville and in America.

—E. F. G.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.