Knoxville riot of 1919 was a race riot that took place in
Knoxville, Tennessee, United States, on August 30–31, 1919. The riot
began when a lynch mob stormed the county jail in search of Maurice
Mays, a mulatto man who had been accused of murdering a white woman.
Unable to find Mays, the rioters looted the jail and fought a pitched
gun battle with the residents of a predominantly black neighborhood.
The Tennessee National Guard, which at one point fired two machine
guns indiscriminately into this neighborhood, eventually dispersed the
rioters. Newspapers placed the death toll at just two, though
eyewitness accounts suggest it was much higher.
The Riot of 1919 was one of several violent racial incidents that
occurred during the so-called Red Summer, when race riots plagued
cities across the United States. The riot was one of the worst racial
episodes in Knoxville's history, and shattered the city's vision of
itself as a racially tolerant Southern town. After the riot, many
black residents left Knoxville, and racial violence continued to flare
up sporadically in subsequent years.
World War I
World War I racial tensions
1.2 Murder of Bertie Lindsey
2.1 Storming of the jail
2.2 Gun battle at Central and Vine
2.3 The riot's end
3.1 The rioters and race relations
3.2 The Mays case
4 See also
6 Further reading
7 External links
World War I
World War I racial tensions
In the decades following the Civil War, Knoxville was considered by
both black and white residents to be one of the few racially tolerant
cities in the South. It was one of the few where black citizens could
vote, hold public office, and serve as police officers. In 1918,
Charles W. Cansler (1871–1953), one of the city's leading
African-American citizens, wrote to the governor of Tennessee, "In no
place in the world can there be found better relations existing
between the races than here in our own county of Knox. No race riots
have ever disgraced our city and no mob has ever vented its fury here
upon any Negro victim."
During the recession that followed World War I, however, migrants
poured into Knoxville, overcrowding the city's slums. This increased
competition for an already diminished number of jobs, and heightened
tensions between black residents and working class whites. Both the Ku
Klux Klan and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) set up chapters in Knoxville in 1918. Furthermore,
in the summer of 1919, a prowler known as "Pants," described by
victims as a light-skinned Negro, had been burglarizing homes and
attacking white women, though he had attracted little attention from
Murder of Bertie Lindsey
Around 2:30 AM on August 30, 1919, an intruder broke into the home of
Mrs. Bertie Lindsey on Eighth Street, where she had been staying with
her cousin, Ora Smyth. The intruder shot and killed Lindsey, but Smyth
managed to escape to the home of a neighbor who summoned police. Two
patrolmen, Jim Smith and Andy White, arrived on the scene. Smyth
described the intruder as a light-skinned Negro.
Patrolman White suggested they question Maurice Mays, a prominent
mulatto who operated the Stroller's Cafe on East Jackson. While raised
by foster parents, Mays is believed to have been the illegitimate son
of Knoxville's mayor, John E. McMillan, and had actually been
canvassing for McMillan on the day of the murder. Mays had a
reputation for associating with both black and white women, making him
unpopular with many of the city's white residents. Patrolman Smith
later testified that Officer White specifically singled out Mays
because of a personal grudge.
At around 3:30 AM, Knoxville police arrived at the Mays home on Humes
Street. The only evidence they found was a .38 revolver, which the
officers decided must have been fired recently (though Smith later
testified the gun was cold and unlikely to have been fired
recently). They arrested Mays, and took him back to Eighth
Street, where the distraught Ora Smyth identified him as the
Storming of the jail
Sensing trouble, Knoxville police transferred Mays from the small city
jail on Market Square to the larger Knox County Jail on Hill Avenue.
Knox County's sheriff, W.T. Cate, then had Mays transferred to
Chattanooga. By noon, news of the murder had spread, and a crowd of
curious onlookers had gathered at the county jail, thinking Mays was
being held there. A larger, angrier crowd had gathered on Market
Square. By late afternoon, the crowd at Market Square had grown to
At 5:00 PM, the crowd at the jail became hostile, demanding Mays be
brought out. Deputy sheriff Carroll Cate (the sheriff's nephew) and
jailer Earl Hall assured them Mays was not there, and allowed several
members of the crowd to inspect the jail. Jim Claiborne, an
intoxicated member of this crowd, walked to Market Square and told the
crowd there that Mays was at the county jail, and that Cate and Hall
were hiding him. Jim Dalton, a 72-year-old iron worker, called for
Mays to be lynched, and the 5,000-strong mob roared towards the
Unable to convince the mob that Mays was not in their custody, Cate
and Hall locked the jail's riot doors. At about 8:30, the rioters
dynamited their way into the jail, ransacking it floor by floor in
search of Mays. They discovered and consumed a large portion of the
jail's confiscated whiskey, and also stole as many firearms as they
could find. They freed 16 white prisoners.
Two platoons of the Tennessee National Guard's 4th Infantry, led by
Adjutant General Edward Sweeney, arrived, but they were unable to halt
Gun battle at Central and Vine
After looting the jail and
Sheriff Cate's house, the mob returned to
Market Square, where they dispatched five truckloads of rioters to
Chattanooga to find Mays. General Sweeney, awaiting the arrival of
reinforcements, pleaded with the rioters to disperse. Meanwhile, many
of the city's black residents, aware of the race riots that had
occurred across the country that summer, had armed themselves, and had
barricaded the intersection of Vine and Central to defend their
As the trucks began to depart, shots rang out on Central, and it was
falsely reported that two soldiers had been killed. Sweeney
immediately ordered his guardsmen toward Vine, and the mob followed.
Along the way, rioters broke into stores on Gay Street to steal
firearms and other weapons. As the guardsmen turned onto Vine, the
street erupted in gunfire as black snipers exchanged fire with both
the rioters and the soldiers. The National Guard set up two
Browning machine guns on Vine, and opened fire toward Central. One
guardsman, 24-year-old Lieutenant James William Payne, was shot and
wounded by a sniper, and as he staggered into the street, he was cut
to pieces by friendly fire from the machine guns.
Shooting continued sporadically for several hours. The black defenders
charged the machine guns several times, but failed to capture them.
Among those killed was a black shopkeeper and Spanish–American War
veteran named Joe Etter, who was shot when he attempted
single-handedly to capture one of the machine guns. Outgunned, the
black defenders gradually fled Central and dispersed, allowing the
guardsmen to gain control of Vine and Central in the early morning
hours of August 31.
The riot's end
The National Guard immediately barricaded Central, and aggressively
searched all black residences inside the barricaded zone. A citywide
curfew was imposed, and 200 white citizens were temporarily
deputized. Scattered reports of violence persisted throughout the
day. Two African American residents, Carter Watkins and Claude
Chambers, were shot and killed at a train depot as they tried to
flee. A deaf black woman was shot when she failed to heed a
guardsman's orders to halt.
Knoxville's newspapers placed the death toll at just two (Etter and
Payne), though eyewitness accounts say it was much higher. Deputy
Carroll Cate estimated that between 25 and 30 had been killed, while
National Guard Major Maurice Martin placed it between 30 and 40.
Others placed the death toll in the hundreds. By some accounts,
the dead were so many that the bodies were dumped into the Tennessee
River, while others were buried in mass graves outside the city.
The rioters and race relations
In the weeks following the riot, many of the city's African-American
leaders argued that the rioters did not represent the typical attitude
of Knoxville's white citizens, though hundreds of black residents
nevertheless left the city for good. Another riot nearly occurred in
1921, and flare-ups would take place sporadically for years
Knoxville's leaders refused to believe the Riot of 1919 was the result
of racial tensions. The Knoxville Journal denied a race riot had
occurred, insisting the entire incident was nothing more than the
city's "rabble" running amok. Congressman
John Chiles Houk
John Chiles Houk argued
that the lynch mob would have gone after a white murderer just as
eagerly as they had gone after Mays. Fifty-five white rioters were
charged with various minor offenses in October 1919, but all were
The Mays case
Accused killer Maurice Mays was treated more severely. Shortly after
his arrest Mays released a statement denying involvement, declaring
that the case against him was one of "oppression and injustice":
"Had the officers been honest in their duties, they would have
arrested several suspects filling the description and kept the arrest
secret, then they would have allowed the lady to come in a composed
condition and pick out the guilty party. As it is, it looks like bad
management based on oppression and prejudice. I believe the court will
In October 1919, Mays's trial began. Former mayor Samuel Heiskell
served as a special prosecutor, while Mays was defended by defense
attorney Reuben Cates and prominent black attorney William F.
Yardley. Although there was no motive and virtually no evidence,
Mays was convicted. The case was eventually overturned by the
Tennessee Supreme Court, but Mays was convicted in a retrial in April
Shortly after 6:00 am on the morning of March 15, 1922, Maurice Mays
was led from his cell and strapped to the electric chair at Tennessee
State Prison in Nashville. At 6:12 a single jolt of 6,800 volts was
sent through his body; he was pronounced dead four minutes later.
Mays maintained his innocence of the charges against him to the end,
ultimately ascribing his conviction and death sentence to
In 1926, former mayor John McMillan, believed to have been Mays's
biological father, committed suicide.
Battle of Depot Street
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae
af ag ah ai aj ak al am an Matthew Lakin, "'A Dark Night': The
Knoxville Race Riot of 1919," Journal of East Tennessee History, 72
(2000), pp. 1–29.
^ Mark Banker, Appalachians All: East Tennesseans and the Elusive
History of an American Region (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of
Tennessee Press, 2010), pp. 105–106.
^ a b c Jack Neely, Knoxville's Secret History (Scruffy Books, 1995),
^ a b c d e f g Donald F. Paine, "Race and Murder in Knoxville, 1919:
The Trials of Maurice Mays," Tennessee Bar Journal Vol. 43, No. 3
(March 2007), pp. 28-33.
^ a b Bruce Wheeler, Knoxville Riot of 1919, Tennessee Encyclopedia of
History and Culture, 2009. Retrieved: 31 March 2011.
^ "Ask Doc Knox," Knoxville's Odd Race Riots, Metro Pulse, 9 February
2010. Accessed at the Internet Archive, 2 October 2015.
^ Associated Press, Negro Denies Murder; Criticizes Police Work," The
Tennesseean [Nashville], Sept. 1, 1919, pg. 2.
^ Lewis Laska, William J. Yardley. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History
and Culture, 2009. Retrieved: 31 March 2011.
^ a b Associated Press, "Goes to Electric Chair: Negro Paid Penalty
Today for the Murder of a Woman," Salina [KS] Evening Journal, March
15, 1922, pg. 1.
Booker, Robert J. The Heat of a Red Summer: Race Mixing, Race Rioting
in 1919 Knoxville. Rutledge Books, 2001.
Williams, Lee E. Anatomy of Four Race Riots: Racial Conflict in
Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919–1921. Books
on Demand, 1999.
Effort to Clear Name Falls on Deaf Ears – Knoxville News Sentinel
article by Robert Booker
The Quest for a Late Reprieve for Maurice Mays – Metro Pulse art