The KNOXVILLE RIOT OF 1919 was a race riot that took place in
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.
* 1 Background
* 1.1 Post-
World War I
* 2 Riot
* 2.1 Storming of the jail * 2.2 Gun battle at Central and Vine * 2.3 The riot\'s end
* 3 Aftermath
* 3.1 The rioters and race relations * 3.2 The Mays case
* 4 See also * 5 Footnotes * 6 Further reading * 7 External links
POST-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
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 intruder.
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
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 jail.
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
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
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
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 afterward.
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
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 believe me..."
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