It wasn’t the only American city simmering with race riots in that ‘Red Summer’ of 1919. But Knoxville, TN up till that time had always prided itself as a model southern city when it came to race relations.
That civic image changed dramatically starting on August 30, when an intruder shot and killed Mrs. Bertie Lindsey, a 27 year old white woman, in her Knoxville home. Her 21 year old cousin, Ora Smyth, lay motionless in her bed. After the intruder grabbed a purse and ran away, Smyth fled next door to the house of a city policeman.
Minutes later, several policeman rushed to the scene of the crime, where thirty or forty people had already congregated. One of the patrolmen, Andy White, immediately thought of Maurice Mays. More than once others heard White castigate Mays for interacting with white women.
Mays was a well-known figure in local politicking circles. He was a mulatto who liked to try his hand at being deputy sheriff from time to time. Some knew him as an exceptional braggart.
Often at the center of controversy, the striking, eloquent, and married 31 year old Mays attracted numerous women, both black and white. He owned a café and dance hall in Knoxville’s red light district frequented by both races. Mays, the illegitimate son of the Democratic white mayor John E. McMillan and his mulatto maid Ella Walker, delivered the black vote to McMillan. McMillan had become mayor in 1915 and faced re-election soon. In fact, Mays handed out blank poll tax receipts for McMillan on August 29.
White and two other policemen were ordered to arrest Mays. They arrived at his house at 3:30 a.m. on August 30, discovered him sleeping, and searched the premises for evidence. In his dresser they found a revolver, which the three lawmen claimed had recently been discharged. Both Mays’ foster father and the black driver of the patrol wagon denied this claim, however.
Moreover, although muddy tracks led away from the crime scene, Mays’ clothes, shoes, and carpet were clean and dry. Nevertheless, White arrested Mays and took him to the crime scene for Ora Smyth to identify, which she promptly did after barely glancing at him.
By 8:00 a.m the following morning a sizeable mob had assembled around the Knox County jailhouse. Sheriff W. T. Cate sent Mays, in shackles, to the county jail. In the early afternoon, the Knoxville Sentinel circulated lurid front page articles describing the crime and arrest. Authorities decided Mays would be safer elsewhere, and this time removed him, dressed as a woman to conceal his identity, to Chattanooga.
By 6:00 p.m. about 500 people had surrounded the Knox County jail, demanding Mays. They stormed it just before sundown, throwing rocks and shooting their way in. During the ensuing melee, no black prisoners were disturbed, but 16 white inmates, including convicted murderers, were freed, the liquor storage room was pillaged, and the jail demolished.
Unsatisfied and boozy, the mob staggered over to Vine and Central, the hub of the black part of town, where it was rumored that armed blacks were gathering. On their way, the whites broke into several businesses, mainly to grab up firearms. Many of the prison guards joined the frenzy. Guardsmen of the Tennessee Fourth Infantry were sent to the scene, but shooting nonetheless broke out, with soldiers and white rioters firing into occupied buildings. The buildings fired back.
When the dust settled the following day, 36 whites were arrested, but no convictions were ever recorded. Some whites later boasted of “mowing niggers down like grass,” and stories continue to be told of bodies dumped into the Tennessee River. Even respected African American educator and leader Charles Cansler later admitted that there were many deaths “on both sides.” The Chicago Defender reported that perhaps over 1,500 blacks fled the city until additional guardsmen eventually restored a semblance of order.
What precipitated all this? Knoxville at the time seemed to residents to be an unlikely candidate for racial violence. Many Knoxville blacks exercised their right to vote, held public office, sat on juries, and served on the police force.
The Knoxville College, one of the first black schools established after the Civil War, the East Tennessee News, the area’s biggest black newspaper, and a local chapter of the NAACP all pointed to the growing role of African Americans in the community.
At the same time, rural whites who had migrated from the mountain hinterlands had had a hard time adjusting to the city’s regimented way of life. In industries such as the Knoxville Iron Company and the Southern Railway, they had been forced into proximity with blacks, whom they already loathed. Residential segregation, an accepted feature of American urban life, had been breaking down under the pressure of black population growth.
The early years of the 20th century had been anxious economic times for Knoxville. Many commercial and industrial firms, such as the Knoxville Woolen Mills, had been forced to close because of competition with manufacturers elsewhere in the country, or because of poor management. The closings, and the fact that the city’s working age population had grown faster than the number of jobs, had caused a great deal of anxiety, frustration and anger. The stage was set, awaiting only a trigger occurrence to give vent to these built up resentments.
Mays returned to Knoxville under tight security on September 25, and his trial began a few days later. The all-white jury found him guilty after only 18 minutes of deliberation. Two weeks later, the judge imposed the death penalty. However, the sentence was overturned on appeal because of a judicial error. In a second trial, Mays received the same sentence.
On March 15, 1922, as he continued to proclaim his innocence, Maurice Mays died in the electric chair.
Knoxville, Tennessee: a Mountain City in the New South, by William Bruce Wheeler, Michael J. McDonald
Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, by Walter C. Rucker, James N. Upton