Skip to main content

A Plea For Civil Rights

May 2024
1min read

Coatesville, Pennsylvania, August 18, 1912: In a rented room of the Nagel Building, opposite the church, John Jay Chapman, aged fifty, the literary critic from Boston who had in his younger days fought for reform with Theodore Roosevelt in New York, is holding a prayer meeting in memory of “the Negro Zacharia Walker,” lynched in Coatesville on August 13 of the previous year.

Renting the room, advertising the meeting in the paper, and answering the suspicious questions of Coatesville citizens had been trying. Chapman was acting alone, but nobody believed this. Civil rights were words not yet thought of, but here surely was their first self-appointed champion, performing a symbolic act.

Chapman read his text, which begins: “We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history—not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent of our share in it.” Those listening were: Miss Edith Martin, a friend of the Chapmans, from New York; “an anti-slavery old Negress who lives in Boston and was staying in Coatesville”; and “a man who was … an ‘outpost’ finding out what was up.”

I wish I had been a fourth member of that audience.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate