South Philadelphia Erupts: The Race Riot of 1918

Annin Street - West from 25th Street. May 3, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Annin Street – West from 25th Street. May 3, 1916. Two years before the riots. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Can you blame citizens of color for mobilizing…to protect one of their own…?” wrote Tribune editor G. Grant Williams after the attack on Adella Bond near 29th and Ellsworth.

Earlier the same summer, in 1918, responding to violence against newcomers to 24th and Pine, Williams struck the same chord of warning: “We favor peace but we say to the colored people of the Pine Street warzone, stand your ground like men. This is a free city in a free country and if you are law abiding you need not fear. Be quiet, be decent, maintain clean, wholesome surroundings and if you are attacked defend yourself like American citizens. A man’s home is his castle, defend it if you have to kill some of the dirty, foul-mouthed, thieving Schuylkill rats that infest that district.”

The war of words soon became a war of weapons, one that quickly spread. “2 Slain, 20 Injured As 5000 Fight Race War in South Philadelphia,” read one startling headline Monday July 29, 1918.

“In a series of street battles waged for twenty-four hours yesterday…covering about two square miles, two white men, one a policeman, were shot and killed, several others, both white and colored, are believed to be in a dying condition and scores were seriously injured in the most terrific and bitter race riot that has ever taken place in this city. Half a hundred men were placed under arrest.”

“The rioting…began with the killing of a white man by a negro early yesterday [Sunday] morning, grew in intensity throughout the day with individual fights and mobs engaged in gun fire on nearly every other corner of a section bounded by Washington avenue, Dickinson street, 23rd and 30th streets.”

Facts and rumors swirled after the fatal shooting of Hugh Lavery, 42, of 1234 South 26th Street by Jesse Butler near 26th and Annin Streets. Did Lavery’s pregnant wife die of grief? No. Was their unborn child also a casualty? Untrue.

2506-2508 Federal Street, July 29, 1924. Six years after the riots. (PhilaHistory.org)

2506-2508 Federal Street, July 29, 1924. Six years after the riots. (PhillyHistory.org)

No matter. “From 9 o’clock in the morning until almost midnight the streets of the district were converted into a battle ground. For several hours it appeared as though the police of five downtown districts would be unable to cope with the situation…”

Fury only grew the next day after Henry Huff shot and killed police officer Thomas McVey, 24.

“In bands of thirty and fifty men the whites and the colored men met in the streets and waged their fight, using guns, razors, knives clubs or any weapons which were certain of inflicting injury. These encounters were taking place over every street in the district…”

“Federal Street was a seething mass of black and white bodies, swinging from one side of the street to the others. Men were trampled underfoot and left unconscious and bleeding. … The sight of men falling, dying and bleeding, failed to stop the rioting and it took a hundred policemen, sparing no heads or bodies, to scatter the men.”

Police closed off the streets, stopping and frisking every male and arresting many bearing weapons. In front of the Naval Home, “the fighting became so terrific that Commander Payne…offered the police the use of two hundred marines to aid in quelling the riot. By that time, there were more than 150 uniformed policemen struggling with the rioters, supplemented by half a hundred detectives from the Central Station and downtown station houses.”

“From barred windows and doors the women and children of the neighborhood listened to the progress of the battle. Shutters were closed tight, but in many instances this fact did not deter the rioters from venting their bitterness. They used axes to chop away the woodwork and then shattered the glass with bullets.” Some women and children, determined to attend church in spite of the situation, “ran screaming through the streets to places of safety when the shooting started.”

At dusk, during a brief pause in the rioting, a reporter looked up and noticed “in several small streets between Federal and Washington avenue, there were few houses which had windows left…”

Then, as nightfall came, chaos returned.

[Sources: “Dixie Methods Now In Vogue in Philadelphia—White Residents of Upper Pine St. Adopt Tactics of South Against Colored Tenants,” The Philadelphia Tribune, July 6, 1918; “2 Slain, 20 Injured As 5000 Fight Race War in South Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 29, 1918; Vincent P. Franklin, “The Philadelphia Race Riot of 1918,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 99 (3) July 1975, pp. 336-350.]

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