Coatesville NAACP looks back on 75 years

Posted: September 22, 2013

COATESVILLE James Kennedy squeezed into a car with eight other young men, all armed with rifles and shotguns. They drove the old Chandler to a jailhouse in their hometown of Coatesville and stationed themselves across the street, joined by about 40 other armed young men.

With their guns pointed toward the building and an understanding that night could be their last, they all had one goal: preventing the lynching of a 16-year-old black boy accused of raping a white peer.

A black police officer had spread the word that day in 1938 that a group of white residents wanted to take the teenager from the jail. The people in the black community believed the teenager, Bud Ward, when he said the girl told police she'd been raped after getting caught only kissing him.

"We said there wasn't going to be any more lynching in Coatesville," said Kennedy, the 95-year-old mayor of South Coatesville. "We were going to kill someone. We were ready to die."

No one died that day, and the incident was the impetus for the creation of the Coatesville NAACP, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary Sunday. By the time the chapter was formed, Coatesville already had seen its share of racial strife.

In 1911, townspeople had taken a man named Zachariah Walker from a hospital and burned him to death after he fatally shot a security guard.

Kennedy said the young men in Coatesville called in reinforcements from West Chester, Lancaster, and Philadelphia to prevent a repeat. "We weren't going to just let anybody take this man," Kennedy said.

By the time the men from out of town arrived, the police chief had told the crowd Bud Ward was back home and there would be no lynching. Kennedy said he never heard anyone talk about attacking the teen after that day.

The whole affair convinced the men who prevented the lynching and others that they needed to band together and protect their rights, said Tonya Taylor, the chapter's current president, and thus was born the NAACP's Coatesville branch.

It will mark its anniversary at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the branch started. Branch members say the organization is as relevant now as it was decades ago.

"We started by preventing a lynching, and we're very much interested in how the judicial system plays out in our area now," Taylor said. The chapter's work has included fighting for equal-wage opportunities for workers at the town's major employers.

Hank Hamilton, a member of the Coatesville branch for 25 years, said he knew firsthand what the chapter had done.

He worked at the Lukens Steel Co. as a young man in the 1950s. He said his white classmates who started there out of high school got top jobs. "And here I had two years of college and I was in the labor gang," said Hamilton, who went on to earn a doctorate.

Advancing opportunities for all has always been a mission of the NAACP, said Sandra Simmons, a member of the Coatesville branch for 30 years.

She and other members of the chapter went to Washington in August for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the "I Have a Dream" speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "All the things Dr. King talked about, we're talking about the same things now," she said. She cited voter-identification laws, gender-wage disparities, police brutality, and access to education.

"It's necessary for Coatesville and for all communities to have an organization that's a watchdog that can advocate for people's rights," she said.


Contact Michaelle Bond at mbond@phillynews.com.

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