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The Beaver County "Shanghai"

By Roger Applegate
With Research Assistance from Bob Bauder and Ron Ciani

Milestones Vol 35 No. 1

On a cold, wintry night in January of 1933, Beaver County detectives raided a house in Industry where a chitterling supper and dance party was being held. On first glance, this would not appear to be a very significant story, but as things developed, the seemingly routine raid and the subsequent actions by county officials were to ignite a firestorm of racial indignation throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Dubbed the "Beaver County Deportation Case" or the "Beaver County Shanghai", it involved the attempt to forcefully deport over 40 blacks from the state. Before it was over, the case would involve the Governor, the NAACP, officials from other counties, and newspapers across the country.

While the nation was still mired in the Great Depression and alcohol was forbidden by Prohibition, a group of Beaver County blacks was to become involved in a dubious historical event. It all started at approximately 11:00 p.m. on the night of January 20, 1933, when Beaver County detective Robert Branyan led a team of constables and state police officers on a raid of an Industry home owned by Mrs. Virginia Heath while she was hosting a party for approximately 56 black guests. Allegedly without a warrant, officials broke down the door and entered the premises, seizing about 3 pints of moonshine from a broken gallon jug while noting that only a very few of the guests were drunk, with the majority of them simply talking and laughing. According to witnesses, the blacks were beaten with patrol sticks and then lined up in front of one of the officers who demanded $2.50 from each one to avoid going to jail. Those who paid were released, but the remainder, around 40 to 46 blacks, depending on the source, were cited for "disorderliness" and taken to the Beaver County jail.

Upon arrival at the jail, the detainees were given a blanket to sleep with on the bare cement floor because there were not enough jail cells to hold them all. The next afternoon, following a breakfast and lunch of bread and water, the women were loaded into a Ford sedan while the men, most of whom had no winter clothing for protection, were herded into open trucks by armed guards, and were only told that they were going "somewhere from which they would never return". Amidst threats and discharged weapons, the vehicles were driven all day through a cold January rain to a point about seven miles south of Waynesburg. At this point, the "party goers" were removed from the vehicles and ordered to start walking toward the state line and leave Pennsylvania or face two years in jail.

It was dark at 7:45 p.m. as the trucks drove away and the cold rain continued soaking the stranded group. Unsure of where they were and with no food or shelter available, a conference was held among them and one group decided to walk toward Waynesburg while another trekked toward Morgantown, West Virginia about 28 miles away. With Waynesburg being much closer, the first group straggled into town and were noticed by the local judge who arranged to house and feed them in the Greene County jail overnight. In the meantime, when the judge learned the circumstances of their plight, he immediately telegraphed the details to the Governor of Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot.

The next day, the women were bused to Washington, Pa and the men began walking there from Waynesburg. Following their arrival, the Washington County Sheriff took charge of them and provided food and shelter for the group, and the next day got them transportation back to Midland. They arrived about 2:00 on Monday afternoon, finally ending an ordeal that began with their initial arrest at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday night. In the meantime, the Morgantown group had walked all of the way to Pittsburgh and then were sent on to their homes in Beaver County a day or so later.

Outraged by this treatment of black citizens, attorneys from the NAACP approached the Beaver County District Attorney, A.B. DeCastrique, and asked him to investigate and bring to justice those county officials who had participated in the deportation attempt. The D.A. refused, answering that "the officers could not be convicted in Beaver County and the 'shanghaing' of these negroes was merely a mistake".

As the story unfolded, Beaver County Commissioner, Howard A. Hunter stated that he had decided that since the majority of the detainees were from other states and just here to help build the new Montgomery Dam, the county could save the costs of jailing them by simply deporting them from the state. His desire to save money for the county seemed a good enough justification to him at the time, since the country was still mired in the Great Depression and money was tight. In an interesting footnote, six years later in 1939 Commissioner Hunter would be convicted of a host of charges for defrauding the county welfare system that would also include: misbehavior in office, false pretenses and conspiracy. Of course that conviction would be in the future and none of the charges were related to this deportation case.

County officials, in an effort to further justify their actions, charged that this particular group of blacks was considered "undesirable residents" and that there were many prior complaints against them. Although other explanations were put forward, some members of the black community believed that the real reason behind the deportation attempt was because these men were working while there were many unemployed white men in the county. This idea was given credibility by the fact that at least some of the black workers were fired following the incident and replaced by whites.
With things at an impasse, Governor Pinchot launched his investigation which stretched on into August. The final report termed the whole incident an "outrage" and recommended that Beaver County officials involved in the case be charged with kidnapping and conspiracy to commit an unlawful act. The report went on to call into question the existence of a legal search warrant and improper judicial procedure in charging these people with a crime when records did not support the county officials' version of events. Beyond this, the state could not go, because the state didn't have the laws in place which would have allowed the Governor to act, and he could only impotently demand that the county District Attorney take action.

In answer to the Governor's demands for prosecution, the Beaver County D.A. in an interview with the Pittsburgh Courier Newspaper said: " I will not be harassed, bullied, labeled, slandered or jockeyed either by the Governor or anyone else into bringing a criminal prosecution which I honestly believe to be untenable. A criminal charge is tried in the courts of justice according to the laws of our land, and must be supported by competent evidence". In fact, the News Tribune of August 26, 1933 reported that county commissioners were inclined to treat the matter more or less as a joke and laughed at all references to Governor Pinchot's report. Further, they felt that the Governor was merely trying to get revenge on them for an old political feud. The Tribune went on to say:

"Political observers say that the 'deportation' was probably poor judgment upon the part of someone, but declare that there has never been shown any intent upon the part of anyone to commit any crime or to injure anyone in any manner: but rather to save the county the expense of feeding 46 persons at a time when the county's finances were certainly a low ebb."

Ironically, despite the public outcry and the demands for justice by both the NAACP and Governor Pinchot, the only person connected with this case who was actually prosecuted turned out to be Virginia Heath, whose house was raided that fateful night in January. She pleaded guilty to possession of liquor and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $100 fine. The money collected during the raid that night was never recovered and no satisfactory explanation as to what happened to it was ever given. Worse, however, was the fact that no person responsible for the attempted deportation was ever brought to justice. As 1933 turned into 1934, Prohibition ended, Governor Pinchot's second term expired, the NAACP moved on to other projects and the whole incident quietly faded from the headlines.


Homer S. Brown: First Black Political Leader in Pittsburgh", by Constance A. Cunningham, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Winter, 1981-1982)

Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism by Andrew Buni, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974. pg. 199 ­ 200.

"DeCastrique Answers Schnader Report", The News Tribune, Saturday, August 26, 1933.

"Committee is Assured Action After Protest" , The Pittsburgh Courier, February 4, 1933

"Press Probe in Shanghai Case", The Pittsburgh Courier, July 15, 1933.

"Took 46 Men and Women for "Ride": May Face Grand Jury" , Pittsburgh Courier, September 2, 1933.

"Beaver County Official 'Bucks" Pinchot's Order", The Pittsburgh Courier, September 9, 1933.

"Investigators Find", The Pittsburgh Courier, January 28, 1933.

"59 Persons Held Following Raid", The News Tribune, January 21, 1933.

"Negroes Taken out of County", The News Tribune, January 23, 1933.

"Attorney General Terms Deportation of Negroes By County Officers As 'An Outrage' in Report, The News Tribune, August 25, 1933.

"Schnader Report on County Case", The Daily Times, August 25, 1933.

"Protests Follow Dumping Negroes", The Daily Times, January 23, 1933.

"Pleas Entered in Court", The Daily Times, January 28, 1933.