Unpeeling the layers of this forgotten episode reveals the historic difficulties faced by those with little power who seek accountability.
A caravan of three trucks rumbled through the dark streets of Waynesburg several minutes past 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, 1933. A Ford sedan followed close behind. Streets moistened by rain glistened in the beams of the headlights. Temperatures hovered in the low 40s.
The bed of one truck lacked a cover, allowing people on the sidewalks to peer through the gloom and gawk at the cargo: nearly a dozen soaked Black men, traveling coatless and exposed to the winter elements for more than six hours.
As it rolled past the Greene County Courthouse, the caravan caught the attention of Waynesburg police Officer Homer Stevens. He later testified that the trucks were packed with men guarded by armed police. He saw the words “Beaver County Road Department” on the side of one truck. The strange caravan continued into the hills.
Joseph Williams rode in the back of one truck. He worried about his wife, Mildred. She and six other women were jammed into the sedan. During the journey, he asked several times: “Where are you taking her?” He and the other men had been told only that they were headed “someplace from which they’d never return,” reported the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most influential African-American newspapers.
The caravan rolled along Route 19 south of Waynesburg for three miles, stopping finally at an isolated place called Gordon Hill. Guards ordered everyone out of the vehicles. Exhausted and hungry, they shivered on the dark roadside and awaited their fate.
Nearly nine decades later, few remember what happened that day. The repercussions dragged on for months but were then lost to history. Unpeeling the layers of this forgotten episode reveals in stark terms the historic difficulties faced by those with little power who seek accountability.
The story begins on Friday, Jan. 20, 1933, with a “dance and chitterling supper” at a boarding house operated by Virginia Heath, a 38-year-old Black woman, in the Beaver County borough of Industry. Most of those in attendance were Black laborers who earned 30 cents an hour at the Montgomery Island dam construction site a mile away.
During the Great Depression, they were fortunate to have jobs. U.S. unemployment had reached 24% the previous year. At campsites near the dam, 200 men waited, ready for work should openings occur.
Around 10:30 p.m., several officers led by Beaver County Chief Detective Robert Branyan surrounded the boarding house. The group included a few state police officers and a number of constables.
The Pittsburgh Courier reported that Branyan and his men stormed in, called those in attendance “vile names” and beat them with nightsticks.
Branyan’s men found a broken jug containing three pints of moonshine — a crime, since Prohibition was more than 10 months from repeal. Some people appeared drunk, but police later admitted that “the greater majority of the persons present were merely laughing and talking when (police) arrived.”
Officers rounded up the men, along with seven or eight women, divided them into groups and placed them in separate rooms in the house. One by one, the groups were led into the kitchen, where a man at the kitchen table demanded $2.50 from each person. About 10 people produced money and were released. At some point, a man named Will Jackson arrived, expecting a party, according to The Pittsburgh Press. An officer asked him for $2.50.
“Why?” he asked.
The officer responded, “You’ll find out.” Jackson was among those detained.
At 1:30 a.m., a bus transported about 50 people to the Beaver County jail, seven miles away. The men received blankets and slept on the jail’s concrete floors. Women were quartered separately.
The next day, Saturday, an official once again asked the prisoners for money. At least one, Allan Floyd, produced $2 and was released. Those who didn’t pay remained in custody. Estimates vary on the number of people detained, though several newspapers put it at 46. Jailers offered breakfast and then bread and water for lunch.
Around 1 p.m., police herded the men “like cattle” into trucks, according to the Post-Gazette. Jackson later recalled that a man named Bob was boss of the operation and did most of the talking. Uniformed officers brandishing pistols climbed into the trucks to act as guards. A car arrived for the women. As the vehicles headed out, guards fired into the air and told the prisoners they’d shoot anyone attempting to flee. They did not tell the prisoners where they were going. Jackson said he felt “like cattle going to the slaughterhouse.”
The caravan wound its way along roads through Washington County and into Greene County. The truck beds had no seats, forcing the men to stand for long periods. On a few occasions, the caravan stopped so drivers and officers could eat. The prisoners remained in the vehicles with no food.
The state line
Around 7:30 p.m., the caravan reached Gordon Hill. After climbing out of the vehicles, prisoners stood in a steady rain, “shivering, hungry and bedraggled,” reported The Pittsburgh Press.
An officer barked, “Get going and keep going. West Virginia is right down the road.”
Police told the prisoners they were “paroled” out of Pennsylvania for two years. Those who returned sooner would serve two years at the Beaver County workhouse, police warned. The lawmen then left. The men and women standing in the road watched the tail lights disappear into the distance.
Some heeded police warnings and walked south to the West Virginia border, 12 miles distant. Others trudged defiantly back to Waynesburg.
The first group arrived in town around 9 p.m. and were met by police Chief Albert Berryhill and Officer Stevens, who’d noticed the caravan as it passed through town a few hours earlier. They took the group to the county jail for shelter. Eventually, 14 men and five women reached Waynesburg.
They “didn’t seem to know what happened to them or why,” Chief Berryhill said to reporters. “It was a shame. Some of them said they had paid taxes in Beaver County for years.”
The detainees told their story to an incredulous Sheriff James White, who telephoned the Beaver County jail. Officials there said they knew nothing about the affair. White then called Greene County Judge Albert Sayers, who advised giving the men and women food and shelter for the night.
The long walk
On Sunday morning, the group resumed its long walk home to Beaver County. Some didn’t get far. Hobbled by swollen feet, three of the women “broke down” just outside of Waynesburg, reported the Courier. The women and two or three men made their way to a Black church. People there gathered bus fare for the women, who then traveled on to Washington, Pa.
Hours later, farmers in Washington County noticed a group of Black people walking along a highway and alerted county police. Officer Frank Kreps drove to the scene and gave a few stragglers a ride into the city of Washington. The men slept that night in the police station; the women quartered at the home of a woman named Catherine Hall.
By now, news of the forced deportation of more than 40 Beaver County residents had reached reporters in Pittsburgh and Beaver. On Monday morning, the Post-Gazette published a seven-paragraph story that compared the incident to widely condemned events half a world away.
“The recent methods by which the whole population of two Russian villages were exiled into Siberia appeared today to have an American parallel here,” it read.
Waynesburg officials resented the use of their county as a dumping ground for people banished from Beaver County, the story said.
The deportation brought “a storm of protest” from officials in Greene and Washington counties, according to a short piece on the Jan. 23, 1933, front page of the Daily Times in Beaver County. Branyan, the Beaver County detective who led the boarding house raid, told the newspaper he’d ordered the truck drivers to take the detainees out of the county because the local jail was overcrowded.
Most of those detained had come to Beaver County from other states and had been living there only a few weeks, he added. They were “undesirable residents,” Branyan told the News-Tribune in Beaver Falls. He claimed to have received several complaints about Black people in Industry.
As newspaper readers in Pittsburgh and Beaver County learned about the incident Monday morning, the kidnapped men and women remained miles from home. Washington County District Attorney Warren Burchinal made arrangements for the County Poor Board to advance money to the women so they could secure transportation to Beaver County. Some of the men again set out on foot; they still had 55 miles to go. Officer Kreps drove a few to their homes in Beaver. For those who defied orders to leave Pennsylvania, the immediate hardship neared its end.
The story, however, was far from over.
Judge Sayers, of Greene County, wrote a letter to Gov. Gifford Pinchot, demanding an investigation. The governor complied, then announced a few days later that state police weren’t involved in the deportation.
The NAACP’s local branch launched its own investigation, which included interviews with a number of those deported. Homer Brown, president and founder of the Pittsburgh NAACP, asked Beaver County District Attorney A.B. DeCastrique to look into the matter. What’s the point? DeCastrique replied. He said the officers would never be convicted in Beaver County. He described the kidnapping as a “mistake” and told Brown he would conduct no investigation.
Undeterred, the NAACP turned up the heat. In early February, Brown traveled to Harrisburg with several other prominent Black men from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to meet with the governor. The group included Robert Lee Vann, an attorney as well as publisher of the Courier. Gov. Pinchot listened to the NAACP’s account of the kidnapping and admitted it was different from earlier reports he had heard.
Brown said the NAACP wanted Beaver County officials to be held accountable. The incident seemed like little more than a shakedown, he said. In fact, no one could account for the money collected from those who’d paid to avoid arrest and jail time.
“If an investigation is what you want, you’ll get it,” the governor said.
To the Courier, it seemed like a victory. “Governor Pinchot Promises Probe,” the newspaper announced in a bold headline at the top of its Feb. 4 edition. The case was now attracting plenty of attention in Pittsburgh, especially in the Black community.
The governor handed the case to the state’s attorney general, William Schnader, who picked as his investigator an assistant attorney general named John Meyer.
“I don’t know what happened to the prisoners after they were taken to jail. I take responsibility for the raid only.”
The Pittsburgh Press credited Sayer, the Greene County judge, with convincing Pinchot that the matter deserved an investigation. This irked writers at the Courier, who felt this ignored the vital role of the NAACP in moving the probe forward. It seemed the Black community was ignored in other ways, too. Brown offered to gather a number of the kidnapped people at a convenient location in Beaver County so Meyer could easily conduct interviews. The assistant attorney general declined the offer.
The Courier openly worried that the investigation would be dropped. One of the newspaper’s reporters asked Meyer about such rumors. “I have nothing to say,” he replied.
Meanwhile, Beaver County officials responded to questions by erecting a wall of silence and denial.
“I don’t know what happened to the prisoners after they were taken to jail,” said Branyan, the Beaver County detective. This contradicted his earlier claim that he’d ordered the detainees driven out of the county. “I take responsibility for the raid only.”
Asked if he knew where country trucks had been on the night of the kidnapping, Beaver County Commissioner Howard Hunter said, “I don’t believe there is anyone who can tell you that.”
Months passed. In early May, Meyer met behind closed doors with Beaver County officials. The Courier wondered why Meyer was still asking questions. The state already had plenty of evidence to charge those involved. What was taking so long?
Finally, on Aug. 25, with Meyer’s report in hand, the state attorney general issued a blistering statement condemning those involved in the incident. Schnader advised the governor that Beaver County officials had committed an “outrage” and could be charged with kidnapping. The report named three officials — Banyan; Justice of the Peace William Wehr, who issued the warrant for the raid; and Hunter, the county commissioner, who “assumed direction of the deportation” in an effort to save the county the cost of housing 46 people in the local jail.
Schnader’s condemnation, however, came with a caveat. His office lacked the authority to tell local officials what to do. In the end, the decision to bring charges fell to one man: DiCastrique, the Beaver County district attorney.
“This kidnapping charge looks like a big joke to me,” he said.
DeCastrique announced he would only take the case before a grand jury if the state supplied him with what he deemed sufficient evidence. The governor fired back on Aug. 31, demanding that DeCastrique press for grand jury action.
“The illegal and outrageous expulsion of these Negroes from Pennsylvania by officials of Beaver County is a blot on the fair name of our state,” Pinchot wrote in a letter to the district attorney. “But your refusal to prosecute the people who perpetrated this outrage is more than a shame and a disgrace. It is a deliberate defiance of the law you are sworn to uphold.”
DeCastrique dug in his heels.
“But your refusal to prosecute the people who perpetrated this outrage is more than a shame and a disgrace. It is a deliberate defiance of the law you are sworn to uphold.”
“I will not be harassed, bullied, libeled, slandered or jockeyed either by the governor or anyone else into bringing a criminal prosecution which I honestly believe to be untenable,” he said. The case would fail in a court, he claimed. “These Negroes were deported only to the state line, not across it.”
It was all too much for Vann, the Courier publisher who had, in July, been appointed assistant U.S. attorney general. He felt the governor was too timid. Acting as an attorney representing several of the detainees, including three from West Virginia, Vann threatened to file kidnapping charges in federal court.
The Pittsburgh Press aired its frustrations with the case in a Sept. 12 editorial. With local officials stalling, it was up to federal and state authorities to act, the editorial stated. The governor had plenty of evidence to move forward and “he should make use of it without waiting any longer for the Beaver County district attorney.”
The number of prominent voices expressing outrage grew, but nothing happened. Months passed. No charges were filed. The story faded, newspapers lost interest. The Depression ground on. Prohibition ended.
The NAACP abandoned the case. Taking the fight further would be too expensive — an estimated $5,000 in legal fees and transportation costs for witnesses, should the case reach the appellate court, Homer Brown said. Funds donated at a mass meeting in Beaver County for those kidnapped totaled only $4. The state NAACP realized it had a problem — smaller branches found it nearly impossible to battle discrimination and mistreatment in their districts. They had too few members. The state organization vowed to “more securely band together” to help these branches in their struggles for justice, the Courier reported.
The finger pointing
In a 1933 speech, Brown asserted state government slow-walked the Beaver County case because certain leaders drew their motivation mostly from the ballot box. He singled out Schnader. “The lethargy on the part of the Attorney General’s Office is in my opinion due to the fact that he feels our political strength is not strong enough to cause him any worries,” Brown said.
DeCastrique was back in the news in early October after he helped lead a group of 200 deputy sheriffs who used tear gas, billy clubs and guns to rout striking steel mill workers in Ambridge. One bystander died after being struck in the neck by a bullet. DeCastrique would serve only one term as district attorney.
Hunter, the Beaver County commissioner, was convicted in 1939 on charges of welfare fraud. He received a four-month sentence in the workhouse.
Those kidnapped and dropped off on Gordon Hill disappeared into history. Few were mentioned by name in news stories. Only one person faced prosecution in the case. Virginia Heath, who ran the boarding house, pleaded guilty to possession of liquor. She received a 60-day jail sentence and was fined $100.
Steve Mellon | firstname.lastname@example.org