Aftermath of the Race Riots of 1918: The Station House at 20th and Federal

Engine House #24 - 17th District, Police Station, 20th and Point Breeze Avenue, November 9, 1896. (
17th District, Police Station and Engine House #24, 20th and Point Breeze Avenue and Federal Streets, November 9, 1896. (

After a weekend of rioting the likes of which Philadelphia had never seen, families of the deceased planned funerals for two of the men killed in the mayhem. Grieving for their fallen 24-year-old patrolman, the McVey’s would have Requiem Mass sung at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, 24th and Fitzwater streets. “Thousands of persons, hours before the services started, began assembling along the route of the funeral procession,” reported the Inquirer. Lieutenant Harry Meyers of the 17th Police District at 20th and Federal Streets would send a 30-man “guard of honor” and largest floral wreath. Six officers from the station stepped up as pallbearers. They’d attempt to console McVey’s bereft mother, who responded: “I have but one wish…to live long enough to see my poor boy’s death avenged. He didn’t deserve to meet with such an end, to be killed by the bullet of a negro.”

Even though he was on vacation, one of those pallbearers-to-be, patrolman John Schneider, reported for duty that Monday, the day after the death of Thomas McVey and two days before his funeral. The streets of South Philadelphia still seethed with a toxic mix of mob violence and martial rule, which would prove nearly fatal for African American men—even those going about their business.

That morning, Preston H. Lewis visited his brother, hoping “to find a place to move because the family with whom he lived, at 2739 Titan Street, was moving on account of the riot,” reported the Inquirer. “He was met on the streets by Officers Ramsay and Schneider” who stopped and frisked Lewis and “finding a small pocket knife, beat him about the head inflicting about 20 wounds.” In fact, Ramsay and Schneider beat Lewis “until he was semiconscious” before sending him to the Polyclinic Hospital at 18th and Lombard Streets. There, with his face and head “a mass of bruises” Lewis “was laid on a cot to await his turn to have his wounds dressed.”

But Schneider wasn’t done. He “walked into the hospital…went to the Accident Ward, and without a word of warning, knocked down Miss Applegate, one of the nurses in attendance” and began to beat Lewis with his fists and then with his black jack. “Lewis was knocked unconscious…”

William Watson, an African-American officer from another district “who was on guard in the hospital drew his gun and threatened to shoot Schneider before he would stop beating Lewis” but “several white officers present wrenched the gun from his hand…” The head nurse telephoned the police of the 19th Police District—not Schneider’s own stationhouse—for assistance. Two officers arrived, resident physician William M. Cooperage would later testify: “I tried to stop [Schneider] but could not, and it took the efforts of three other policemen to drag him from the helpless victim.”

Schneider would later be charged and tried, but that day, right after the incident at the Polyclinic Hospital, Schneider went back to work, rejoining his partner, Robert Ramsey, at the 17th District Station house. From 20th and Federal, Schneider and Ramsey would return to the streets, looking for trouble.

[Sources: “Pays Fine Tribute to Victim of Riot – Rev. Francis A. Brady Praises Policeman McVay for Dying at Duty,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 2, 1918; “White Policeman Clubs a Race Riot Victim on Hospital Cot,” The Philadelphia Tribune, August 10, 1918; “Policeman Tried for Brutal Action,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1918; G. Grant Williams, “Cop Schneider on Trial,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 7, 1918; “Echo of Race Riot – Policeman Schneider to Be Tried for Deadly Assault,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1918.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 here, here and here. Next time: Schneider and Ramsey encounter Riley Bullock.