Pa. lynching, guard murder marked 100 years later

COATESVILLE, Pa. (AP) - August 14, 2011

Over the weekend, more than 100 people - including a half-dozen descendants of both men - came together for what was billed as a day of remembrance and reconciliation.

On Aug. 12, 1911, Zachariah Walker, a Virginia man in his mid-20s who had left his home and family to make a better living in the north, was walking home after a night of drinking in Coatesville, a steel town about 35 miles west of Philadelphia. He apparently discharged a weapon over the heads of two immigrants, who reported this to Edgar Rice, a steel factory guard and constable, who confronted Walker and was killed.

Search parties found Walker, who was wounded either by himself or by someone else, and he was taken to a hospital where he was arrested. A mob of about two dozen men and teenagers walked into the hospital and took Walker outside the city, where they threw him into the fire before a crowd estimated by some at more than 2,000 people. The killing was classified as a lynching, defined as a death committed by a mob without legal authority, most often by hanging but sometimes by other means.

Fifteen men and teenage boys were arrested, but all were acquitted. Walker's was the last of eight recorded lynchings in the state and caused national outrage, spurring the growth of the fledgling NAACP and eventually passage of the first federal law against lynching.

Participants at Saturday's gathering in Coatesville heard a talk by author Dennis Downey, who has written two books on Walker's lynching, listened to a capella gospel music, and listened to 97-year-old South Coatesville mayor James Kennedy Sr. reminisce about the racial history of the steel mill town.

Two of Zachariah Walker's grandnieces, Lorraine Smith and Jean Belgrave, said the past is the past and their family no longer harbors any grudges.

Charlene Stokes, whose great-grandfather was Edgar Rice, said she was moved by the ceremony, and she and several relatives planned to meet with Walker's family members after the event.

But she said her father would have no part in any attempt at reconciliation.

"Stories have been passed down," she said. "He's still resentful."

When the question-and-answer session finally got started, many members of the audience let fly their frustrations with the city's enduring problems.

"There's still a lot of hate in Coatesville," said Sylvia Washington, a councilwoman for South Coatesville who works in the school district.

"I don't know what happened that night," said William Culclasure Sr., "but I do know two men died."

He said the animus "has trickled down through the years . . . it's time to move on. . . . We think we have come a long way from 1911, but we really haven't."

The 65-year-old church deacon said that when he passes white women on the streets of Coatesville, he still sees them switch their pocketbooks to the opposite shoulder.

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n 2006, the state unveiled a historical marker about the lynching, which had gone without official recognition for years.

West Chester lawyer Sam Stretton, who helped establish the marker, said it was intended to remind citizens that mob violence would not be tolerated.

"When we dedicated that sign, we said the curse on Coatesville is lifted," he said Saturday. "It wasn't."

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