Retelling The History Of Knoxville TN’s 1919 Race Riot

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Anger in the United States is currently at a fever pitch. Heated confrontations take place daily and the subject matters range from race to gender and even politics. Today, these confrontations often take place digitally through social media. In the 1900s, the fights were far more severe and far deadlier. This the story of one such deadly riot. This is the story of Knoxville, Tennessee’s race riot.

The 1919 Knoxville Riot was a part of Red Summer, which refers to the summer and autumn of 1919. During this period of time, race riots took place throughout the United States and hundreds of people were killed. Property damage was massive.

The Knoxville Riot took place on August 30 and 31. Around this time, tensions were boiling for numerous reasons. The recession after World War 1 caused migrants to pour into Knoxville. The city’s slums were overcrowded and the competition for jobs was at an all-time high. In the Summer of 1919, a light-skinned African-American prowler known as “Pants” had burglarized homes and attacked numerous white women in Knoxville.

The criminal acts were mostly ignored by Knoxville’s police. On August 30, 1919 around 2:30 AM, a crime took place that would set Knoxville ablaze. An intruder broke into a home at 1216 Eighth Street. The intruder encounter Mrs. Bertie Lindsey, who had been staying with her cousin, Ora Smyth. While Smyth was able to escape, Lindsey was shot and killed as she attempted to leap from a window. Two police officers, Jim Smith and Andy White, were dispatched to the scene.

Smyth informed the authorities that the attacker was a light-skinned African American. White suggested that they should speak with Maurice Mays. May was well known in the city. He operated the Stroller’s Café on East Jackson. Mays was a mulatto, who was raised by foster parents. It was believed that he may have been the illegitimate son of Knoxville’s mayor, John E. McMillan. He lived a life of privilege and once served as a deputy sheriff. However, he was more frequently found on the wrong side of the law. He delved in gambling and bootlegging.

Knoxville police arrived at Mays’ house on Humes Street at approximately 3:30 AM. Officers found a .38 Revolver. Two officers smelled it and confirmed that it had recently been fired. Another officer later refuted this claim. May was arrested and transported by to Eighth Street. There, he was positively identified as the shooter by Ora Smyth.

Mays was transported to the small city jail on Market Square to the larger Knox County Jail on Hill Avenue. Then, Sheriff W.T. Cate transferred the suspect to Chattanooga. He knew something big was about to happen. By late afternoon, a crowd of roughly 5,000 had assembled at Market Square. Surprisingly, the crowd was majorly female.

Around 5 PM, the crowd became hostile. They called for Mays to be released. Deputy Sheriff Caroll Cate and Jailer Earl Hall assured the crowd that Mays wasn’t there. The crowd didn’t believe them. 72-year-old iron worker, Jim Dalton, called for mays to be lynched. At this point, the crowd rushes towards the jail. The jail was eventually ransacked. The jail’s confiscated whiskey and firearms were stolen. 16 white prisoners were released.

Murderers Ehude Fellows, C. W. White, Charlies Paul, and two federal prisoners escaped. At this point, things only got worse. The sheriff’s house was also ransacked. Then, the mob returned to Market Square. Five truckloads of rioters were sent to Chattanooga to get Mays. Black Knoxville residents armed themselves and barricaded at the intersection of Vine and Central. As the trucks departed, shots rang out on Central Street.

It was reported that two soldiers had been killed. General Sweeney ordered his guardsmen to ascend on Vine and the mob followed. Rioters broke into stores on Gay Street to steal weapons. Black snipers took shots at rioters and soldiers. Soldiers used two Browning machine guns on Vine to fire towards Central.

24-year-old Lieutenant James William Payne was shot and wounded by a sniper. He was then cut into pieces by friendly machine gun fire. The shooting continued for several hours. The African Americans attempted to take the machine guns several times, but ultimately failed. A shopkeeper and a Spanish-American War Veteran, Joe Etter, were killed. Eventually, the African Americans were forced to flee. In the early morning hours of August 31, guardsmen gained control of Vine and Central.

Reports of violence continued throughout the day. Two African Americans, Claude Chambers and Carter Watkins, were killed near a train depot. A deaf African American woman was killed when she failed to obey a guardsman’s orders to halt. The number of casualties differed depending on the source. The local newspaper reported two fatalities. Deputy Carroll Cate estimated that 25 or 30 had been killed. Nation Guard Major Maurice Martin claimed 30 to 40 had been killed. At least 7 white men were hospitalized. One suffered from a serious head injury.

Other reports put the numbers in the hundreds. Some accounts claim that there were so many bodies that they were dumped into the Tennessee River and buried in mass graves outside the city. In total, 55 rioters were charged with various crimes in October of 1919. All were ultimately acquitted. Knoxville leaders denied that the Riot was race related. Congressman John Chiles Houk insisted the mob would have gone after a white murderer just the same.

On September 1, 1919, things had calmed. Governor Roberts offered a $250 reward each for two prisoners who escaped. Both men were sentenced to death by electrocution. $200 was offered for the two life termers. After a discussion with Sheriff Cate, the governor decided to offer no reward for mob leaders. Bertie Lindsey’s husband participated in the riot and attended his wife’s funeral.

While most of Knoxville returned to normal, Maurice Mays was still forced to answer for the crimes. Despite professing his innocence, Mays had a tough road ahead. Brown and Cates were initially appointed to defend Mays by Judge T. A. R. Nelson. On September 17, Mays employed his own counsel, W. H. Cummings. The defense asked for a change of venue. Nevertheless, Mays was ultimately found guilty of the murder of Bertie Lindsey.

In October, Maurice F. Mays began campaigning for a new trial. Mays remained confined to the Knox County Jail. It was said that he spent most of his days reading the Bible and praying. His foster father and mother visited him regularly. Despite being defended by Reuben Cates and William F. Yardley, Maurice was found guilty twice. He was convicted after a retail in April 1921.

On March 15, 1922, the life of Maurice Mays came to an end. At 6:12 AM, a single jolt of 6,800 volts was sent through his body. He was pronounced dead just four minutes later. In 1926, Mays’ alleged biological father, former Mayor John McMillan, committed suicide.

On September 25, Mrs. Dacie Ward, a white woman, was shot by a mulatto man in her home. Her husband was at work on a night shift. Ward was with her 1-year-old child at the time. Her sister-in-law was in another room. This time, there was no riot. While these events took place nearly 100 years ago, they’re eerily similar to events in today’s society.

Race relations have undeniably improved, but one must ponder if and when another Red Summer may happen.

November 13, 2017 |

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