Knoxville Riot, August 30-31, 1919
Maurice Mays' jail cell after white rioters looted the police station.
Market House in 1896.
Backstory and Context
Knoxville, Tennessee, founded in 1786 quickly grew into a transportation hub for the eastern part of the state. As railroads entered Knoxville, the city became a commercial center, but the Civil War changed the city’s dynamics. Many residents of Knoxville favored secession due to ties with southern trading. However, there were many residents who opposed joining the Confederacy and established a strong Underground Railroad network. Following the Civil War Knoxville’s black population grew rapidly due to the industrial jobs available in the city. “Blacks were segregated and did not have all rights afforded whites, but within the framework of Jim Crow, they did well.” Black residents of Knoxville could vote if a poll tax were paid, serve on the police force, and hold political office. A strong black middle class developed in the city witnessing black-owned businesses, restaurants, newspaper, library, and the Knoxville College. Heading into the twentieth century Knoxville continued to grow industrially, economically, and in population. As World War I started many of Knoxville’s residents, black and white, went off to Europe to fight.
Following the war, Knoxville’s black population decreased, and an influx of white people from the mountains moved to the city. Many of the migrant whites knew little of black people except predominant stereotypes. The city’s dynamics changed as competition for industrial jobs intensified along with increased segregated unionization. The city’s Mayor, John E. McMillan gained a reputation for appealing to both white and black voters. McMillan faced reelection in 1919 looking to secure as many votes as possible. Crime in Knoxville during 1919 increased and local newspaper sensationalized crime editorials. The hunt for a serial rapist kept the city on edge. Reports from victims described the perpetrator as a light-skinned black man that broke into homes with a gun and flashlight to rape white women. “Alarmed whites blamed Mayor McMillan for what they considered a feeble police response.” Despite the tensions and city-wide fear, black and white residents prepared for separate Labor Day celebrations in the two city parks. Festivities included baseball games, free movies, fireworks, and a combined parade through the city. However, on Saturday morning, Bertie Lindsay’s home was broken into by a man with a gun and flashlight.
Lindsay and her cousin Ora Smyth awoke to a noise and man standing at the end of the bed. He ordered Lindsay to lay on the floor, she complied but resisted when he tried to rape her. The intruder shot Lindsay as she tried escape and then turned his attention to Smyth. The man threatened to rape Smyth, but she pleaded with him and gave him her purse. The man fled the scene of the crime. Officer Andy White arrived shortly after the crime happened. Accompanying White was Jim Smith a black, non-officer driver, he later said the White told him, “God damned Maurice Mays killed that women.” Ten days prior to the murder of Bertie Lindsay, police picked up Mays on for suspiciously prowling outside a white woman’s house. Mays had a history of run-ins with White, who was considered flamboyant and controversial in Knoxville. Mays was known for his dapper dress and operated a nightclub called the Stroller’s Café. The club had a reputation for allowing blacks and whites to dance together. However, several months before Lindsay’s murder the city of Knoxville shut down Mays’ club for code violations.
Following the closing of his club, Mays was arrested multiple times for petty crimes. That Friday before the murder Mays campaigned for May McMillan perpetuating rumors that Mays was McMillan’s bastard child. About an hour after the murder police arrived at Mays home roughly a mile away. Police accused Mays, claiming his pants were damp; his gun had been recently fired and replaced with a new cartridge. Police officers took Mays back to the scene of the crime where he stood under a street light as Ora Smyth claimed he was the assailant. Mays objected to Smyth’s claim and she said that she could identify Mays by his soft voice. Mays was taken to the city jail located in the Market Square district.
As news spread that a black man had murdered Lindsay, a mob of white people gathered around the jail Saturday morning. The police chief, Edward Haynes quickly became anxious due to the riots in Chicago and Washington. Knoxville’s population in 1919 was 77,000 people and the police force only had 75-100 officers on duty. Chief Haynes obtained permission from a judge to move Mays to a Chattanooga jail. Haynes left J. Carroll Cate in charge, along with Cate’s son. The police assumed with Mays being in Chattanooga the angry mob would disperse. However, the mob grew angrier by the afternoon, and more people gathered at the jail, while others roamed Market Square. By the evening the angry mob demanded Maurice Mays and the deputies told the mob he was in Chattanooga. The angry mob wanted to search the jail for Mays, at this point Chief Deputy Cate came out and pulled out his gun, and threatened to shoot anyone who attacked the jail. “Cate fired a shot, and a dozen in the crowd fired back. Cate ran inside and bolted the jail’s heavy riot doors.” The drunken mob went to the river and rammed the jail door while others threw rocks and shot their guns at windows and locks.
Some rioters looted dynamite from a hardware store and used it to blow the bars off a window at the jail. With entry to the jail, rioters rushed in and opened the heavy door, hundreds more entered the building. The rioters cuffed one deputy while others looted guns, whiskey, money, food, medicine, and bedding. The telephone line was disconnected, furniture destroyed, and lights were smashed out. The mob released all of the white prisoners, including a murder suspect, but left black prisoners in their cells. After the jail had been nearly destroyed Deputy Hall escaped and called Mayor McMillan who called the Tennessee 4th Infantry Regiment to come to the city. Initially, sixty troops arrived in Knoxville, the soldiers were overwhelmed and many of their weapons were captured by the mob. The mob did not stop their, beating soldiers and even taking their uniforms.
Eventually, Adjutant General Edward Baxter Sweeny arrived with 150 men. He sympathized with the angry mob, told them Mays would be executed, and ordered the mob to disperse. They did not listen to Sweeny’s demand but they refrained from attacking him. The mob demanded to search Sheriff Cate’s home and Sweeny complied with their demands. Three groups of twenty-five people searched Cate’s home finding nothing. The mob eventually overwhelmed guards ransacking the house, destroyed furniture, and stole anything of value, they even stole Cate’s children’s clothes. Rioters eventually left Sheriff Cate’s home and continued roaming the streets looking for Mays.
While the angry mob ransacked Sheriff Cate’s home, black residents a few blocks away, prepared defenses. The black residents purchased ammunition all day until one hardware store owner refused to sell any ammunition to African Americans. Northwest of the downtown area, black residents fortified a street corner, street lights were shot out, and a gravel truck was overturned to serve as a barricade. Roughly 100 black men stood armed waiting for the white mob to come. Around 11:30 pm, a group of armed rioters appeared, the two sides engaged in gunfire. The white rioters ran back to the court house and asked the militia to help. As the riot transitioned to a full-fledged battle, white rioters looted hardware stores for weapons and bullets. The militia set up two machine guns on tripods at Vine and State Streets. The machine gunners joined the white rioters and attempted to shoot black snipers. Eventually at behest of drunken white mob members the machine gunners opened fire on fellow militia.
The fighting continued between the two groups moving in between alleys and side streets. “Prostitutes and johns ran out of buildings; patrons fled illegal saloons.” Residents trembled in their homes, black residents fled the city, hiding in nearby churches and forests. The militia fought the black defenders and did nothing to stop the white mob that destroyed a police station. Eventually 1,100 additional militia arrived and drove off remaining defenders from their barricades. Sweeny ordered the militia to not let the whit mob attack the black neighborhood. Troops with machine guns formed a barrier around the entrance to the black neighborhood preventing white residents from entering and stopping black residents from leaving. The riot was over and the city suffered immense damage.
The white mob destroyed a police station, a sheriff’s home, many businesses, assaulted law officers and soldiers, and killed many innocent people. The riot caused a panic among black residents of Tennessee. Newspapers reported, that black people were taking trains, and taxis to leave the state. The following a night Mayor McMillan imposed a 10pm curfew. Jumpy militia fired at black residents causing people to stay home instead of going to work. No official death count emerged as the coroner refused to release the information. However, estimates of contemporary police placed the death toll in the dozens along with roughly $50,000 worth of damage to the city. Maurice Mays throughout the riot was in Chattanooga. Mays’ trial lasted until 1920 where he was sentenced to death despite Police Chief Haynes instance that Mays was innocent.
Knoxville joined Chicago, Washington, Omaha, Carswell Grove, Cleveland, and Charleston in the Red Summer of 1919. Each of these cities experienced intense race riots that derived from trumped-up felonious accusations against black people.
William Bruce Wheeler, and Michael J. McDonald, Knoxville, Tennessee: a Mountain City in the New South, (University of Tennessee Press, 2005), 36.
Knoxville Riot of 1919," Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2013, Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
Williams, Lee E. Anatomy of Four Race Riots: Racial Conflict in Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919-1921, (University Press of Mississippi, 2014), Chapter 1, pp. 21-37.
Kerlin, Robert Thomas, The Voice of the Negro, 1919, (E. P. Dutton, 1920), 83-85.