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100 years ago, South Philadelphia saw violent race riots | Opinion

"In a series of street battles waged for twenty-four hours…by more than five thousand white and colored men…scores were seriously injured in the most terrific and bitter race riot that has ever taken place in this city."

An Inquirer archive photo of 1920's race riot
An Inquirer archive photo of 1920's race riotRead moreLOCAL

President Woodrow Wilson denounced mob violence and lynching in a famous proclamation 100 years ago this week. He called on all Americans to “make an end of this disgraceful evil.”

Philadelphia wasn't really listening.

White residents of Fitler Square had recently stoned the home of a Mrs. T. Lytle, an African American at 2504 Pine St. The same mob "burned two wagon loads of furniture" owned by African American tenants moving in at 2524-26 Pine Street." Lytle wanted to press charges but stayed silent when told that if she talked, her house would be torched—on Independence Day.

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 war zone, 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."

Something close to the bitter end took place a few weeks later — the very same day as Wilson's speech — on July 26.  Adella Bond, a probation officer of the Municipal Court, had just moved into her newly purchased rowhouse at 2936 Ellsworth St. "The second time I went down that street, I was stoned," Bond 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."

"About 100 white men and boys gathered in front of my house" the evening of July 26, Bond later told reporters. "I heard them talk about having guns, and I saw the guns and cartridges. At last 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. …"

The following night, violence erupted on 26th Street between Annin and Oakford. Jesse Butler shot and killed Hugh Lavery. The next day a mob at 27th and Titan Streets gave chase to Henry Huff, who lived nearby. Huff killed police officer Thomas McVay. Two others were shot and wounded.

The entire neighborhood — Washington Avenue to Dickinson Street, 23rd to 30th — erupted. "In a series of street battles waged for twenty-four hours … by more than five thousand white and colored men in a … section covering about two square miles … 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," reported the Inquirer, which listed 27 dead and wounded.

And that was before the police beating of Preston Lewis and the station-house murder of Riley Bullock, two innocent African Americans.

"We wish to deplore the fact that your police have not been able to protect our citizens from mob violence," read a protest letter to the mayor composed by African American leaders. "Your police have for a long time winked at disorder, such as the beating up of negroes, the stoning of their homes and the attacking of their churches."

Bullock's family and friends buried him on Aug. 2.  Saloons reopened the following day. Funeral Masses for Thomas McVay, Hugh Lavery, and Frank Donohue were held with police guards at the ready.

In the following weeks, every last one of the officers assigned to the 17th District Station House at 20th and Federal were transferred. A judge rebuked the entire Police Department for "looseness in the investigation of the death of Riley Bullock." Murder charges against two officers, Robert Ramsey and John Schneider, made their way through the courts.

In December 1920, a jury deliberated for 30 minutes and acquitted them.

A century passed, allowing Philadelphians, and most historians, to bury this entire story in the deepest, dustiest recesses of public, and private, memory.

Kenneth Finkel, professor of history at Temple University, blogs at, where a version of this essay is posted. He is author of “Insight Philadelphia,” published by Rutgers University Press. He can be reached at