Centennial Chronology: The South Philadelphia Race Riots of July 1918

2504 Pine Street, 1964. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Every American who takes part in the action of a mob or gives it any sort of countenance is no true son of this great democracy, but its betrayer” declared President Woodrow Wilson in his denunciation of lynching one hundred years ago this week. Wilson called on all Americans to “actively and watchfully . . . make an end of this disgraceful evil.”

Philadelphia wasn’t listening.

White residents of Fitler Square “stoned the home of Mrs. T. Lytle” an African-American living at 2504 Pine Street in June. The same mob “burned two wagon loads of furniture owned by other colored tenants who were moving into houses at 2524-26 Pine.” Lytle would have initiated criminal proceedings—she knew the woman who led the mob—but chose silence after being told her house would be torched on Independence Day, if she filed charges.

Editors of The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s African-American newspaper, drew a line in the sand: “We favor peace but we say to the colored people of the Pine Street warzone, stand your ground . . . . if you are law abiding you need not fear . . . if you are attacked defend yourself like American citizens.  . . . when they tread upon your rights fight them to the bitter end.”

Ellsworth Street, south side, 2900-38, east to west, December 6, 1965 (PhillyHistory.org)

Something like a bitter end would come a mile away the very same day Wilson delivered his anti-mob speech. (You might have previously encountered our posts about the South Philadelphia race riots of 1918 hereherehere, here and here.) This week marks the 100th anniversary of the events. It seems appropriate to sketch a chronology:

July, 24 1918: Adella Bond, a probation officer of the Municipal Court, moves into 2936 Ellsworth Street. “The second time I went down that street, I was stoned,” she told a reporter. “When movers arrived with her furniture . . . [Bond] appeared in her doorway armed with a revolver. Her white neighbors claimed that by this action, she had invited conflict.”

July 26-27, 1918: Friday night to Saturday morning. “About 100 white men and boys gathered in front of my house,” Bond said. “I heard them talk about having guns, and I saw the guns and cartridges.  . . . a man came along with a baby in his arms. He handed the baby to a woman, took a rock and threw it. The rock went through my parlor window. I didn’t know what the mob would do next, and I fired my revolver from my upper window to call the police. A policeman came, but he wouldn’t try to cope with that mob alone, so he turned it into a riot call.” Joseph Kelly, 23, had been shot in leg.

July 27, 1918. Saturday night. Hugh Lavery, 42, shot and instantly killed by Jesse Butler, 18, on 26th Street between Annin Street and Oakford Street.

July 28, 1918. Sunday. A mob at 27th and Titan Streets gives chase to Henry Huff, 23, (who lives near 28th and Titan). Huff runs into a house and soon shoots and kills plainclothes police officer Thomas McVey, 24 (who lives at 28th and Oakford Streets). Detective Thomas Myers and civilian Frank Donohue are also shot and wounded.

Rioting erupts. “In a series of street battles waged for twenty-four hours . . . by more than five thousand white and colored men in a downtown section covering about two square miles,” reported The Inquirer, “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.” Rioting “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.”

Page one story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Monday July 29, 1918. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

July 29, 1918. Monday. Police officers Robert Ramsey and John Schneider severely beat Preston Lewis who is then hospitalized. Schneider attacks Lewis again as he lays semi-conscious on a stretcher in the accident ward. Later that day, the same two officers apprehend and beat Riley Bullock at the corner of Titan Street and Point Breeze avenue. Moments after arriving with in the 17th District Station House at 20th and Federal Streets, Ramsay shoots Bullock in the back at point blank range.

Also: A mob “many of them neighbors and friends” of [the murdered Thomas McVey] swarms into Titan Street “armed with clubs knives bricks and revolvers” and attacks the home of his alleged murderer, Henry Huff, at 2743 Titan Street.

July 30, 1918. Tuesday. Leaders of the city’s African American community call upon the mayor and director of public safety charging “failure of the police to protect the homes in persons of colored citizens” deploring “that [the] police have not been able to protect our citizens from mob violence.”

July 31, 1918. Wednesday. Saloons are closed. McVey’s funeral mass at St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic church, 24th & Grays Ferry avenue. Two hundred additional police are assigned to the burial procession, “30 to a block.” Mounted policemen, Marines and guards from the Navy Yard, as well as members of the Home Defense Reserves, continue to aid the police.

Of course, the story stretches well past the end of July 1918. Riley Bullock’s family and friends bury him on August 2nd. Saloons, closed for days, reopen August 3rd. Services for Frank Donohue are held at St. Gabriel’s Church, 30th and Dickinson. On the 8th, “white hoodlums” somehow get past police assigned to “guard” Adella Bond’s home on Ellsworth Street, steal her valuables and destroy her furniture.

Every last one of the police in the 17th District Station House at 20th and Federal are transferred. The police department receives a judicial rebuke for “looseness in the investigation of the death of Riley Bullock.”

Murder charges against Ramsey and Schneider make their way through the courts. Ramsey admits the shooting was an accident, claiming “his gun went off when he slipped on the steps.” In December 1920, a jury finds Ramsey and Schneider “not guilty” after only a half hour of deliberation.

A century passes. And for the most part, both Philadelphians and makers of public memory do their level best to forget the entire story.

[See sources in the previous PhillyHistory posts: hereherehere, here and here.]

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