The Knoxville Race Riot: "To Make People Proud"
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 1 No. 3/4, "No More Moanin'." Find more from that issue here.
The year following the end of the first World War saw a number of major outbreaks of racial conflict in the United States. Six major conflicts occurred in Longview, Texas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee, during 1919, and there were numerous other flare-ups. Clearly, these were strikes of the black communities against the violence and oppression which had been pressed upon them for three centuries in the “land of the free.”
In Tennessee, public officials boasted openly of the fine racial climate. A letter from Governor Roberts to Chicago officials, written during the trouble there and immediately before the Knoxville riot said, “We need the Negro here, and I do not fear that Tennessee will ever be the scene of such troubles as are now existing in Chicago.” He welcomed black people to a state whose “perfect understanding and efforts to maintain friendly relationships for the past century” have been to its good credit. Yet, his words were tainted by the fact that in the 20 years previous to 1919, 196 black people had had their lives taken by lynch mobs in Tennessee. In a few days his words crumbled before the outbreak of violence in Knoxville.
Generally, both blacks and whites now agree that the Knoxville riot has had a favorable impact on race relations since 1919. Both say that the events of August 30-31 have contributed to furthering a relatively harmonious racial climate, but there are differences as to why each feels that this is true. Whites generally have said that relations between the races here are good because whites put blacks in their place once and for all in 1919. Blacks, on the other hand, say the favorable climate is due to the fact that once and for all they showed whites they would not stand for their violent racism.
Concerning the riot itself, both blacks and whites agree that though the newspapers insisted at the time that only two people were killed (even to the absurd point that one headline stated that two were killed, but stated in the body of the article that eight had been killed) many more than that actually died, maybe forty or fifty people. Blacks say there were only one or two blacks killed, but newspapers would not report the very large numbers of whites killed. Whites say that only one white was killed, but the large numbers of blacks killed were never counted.
Two things are being presented here: something of the history of the race riot itself, and perhaps more important, the work of four young white boys, ages 10-14, from a working class neighborhood in Knoxville who set out to find out something about their history.
These four boys were part of a tutoring program run by and for the people of our Knoxville neighborhood. None of them care for the schools, no doubt because the schools do not care for them. One has already been “Pushed out” from junior high, already having had petitions against him from school authorities, and another got only D’s and F’s on his Fall report card. The boys who did this book, voluntarily and self-motivated, have actually been labelled as failures, as “F-people” by the school system. Tony Weaver’s report card is an indictment of the school system, not of Tony. He’s fine.
As their tutor, I first tried to more or less trick the boys into learning through use of different learning games. But they are too accustomed to shaping their own lives to be tricked into having something pushed onto them. For some reason, they took hold of the idea and the work of doing a book, probably because it was “active” learning, something of which depended upon them to do the work and give it shape. It was my suggestion that we talk with Mrs. Beulah Netherland, a very strong but gentle leader of the Knoxville black community, and hear her tell of the race riot. They already had a little experience, having made one book about a Mark Twain-like story told by a neighbor from his days on a river barge.
Recently, three of the boys decided they wanted to do another book. We sat down and they brainstormed a list of eight possibilities including doing a book about Knoxville area musicians (beginning with Roy Acuff), the history of the neighborhood, going on a camping trip, about old buildings in Knoxville. They took the list, arranged it in order of preference from one to eight with the first choice being a story about Charles Hunter, the father of one of the boys, who grew up in the streets and alleys of Knoxville in the ’40’s.
We can see the value of young people doing history themselves in the following conversation with Charles Hunter’s twelve year old son, Darryl.
How did you get started doing the book?
We had sort of a school, but it's different, called “tutoring.” It was part of that. We went up to people we know and asked them if they knew anything we could write a book about. We went to talk to a woman who told about the race riot. She told us how it began, how it ended, how Maurice Mays got killed. Well, then we went up to the library and read in the old newspapers about it. Used one of those things that looks like a TV, a microfilm machine, and we put the paper in it. We kept on going there to read about it and kept on going to Mrs. Netherlands house. She was nice and had a big house, a garage, and a big car. Her story was a little different from the newspaper story. The newspaper lies a lot, and in a way I believed her.
We used a tape recorder. We played it, then listened to it, would stop it when we wanted to, and run it back and play it over. Then Tony and Mike wrote down what they'd think ought to go in there.
I did the pictures about the parts where all the excitement was happening. In those two parts, where he was taken in the jail and where they used machine guns.
Why did you do something like this book, something that took so much time?
Well, we figured that probably we'd send it out in the neighborhood and let them read it. We just wanted, well, to make people be proud of us, and stuff like that. In a way it worked, and in a way it didn’t. Some people said, “Aw, that ain’t nothing.” It was mostly the younger people. Other people said it was pretty good.
I took it to school. They thought it was, you know, good. The teacher showed the pictures to them and showed the book, picked one to read it. They looked at the drawings, stuff like that. They asked me where did we do it at, I told ’em, stuff like that.
Wasn’t it like school, doing the book?
Naw, it's different. You get to go places, find out more about what happens in other places, what happened years ago. You can't read about the race riot in 1919. They ain't got no books like that. They ain't got no real exciting books.
When you’re in school, you have to sit down. And, when you want to ask somebody something, you can't. If you want to get up and stretch or something, you can't.
Well, did you learn anything doing this?
Yeah. About, well, we learned not to be on Gay Street when they’re having a shoot-out.
Do you want to do another one?
Yeah, I’d like to. Maybe one about old buildings or something. I ain't really been thinking about it. If we was to do another one. I would think about it again.
I wanted to do one about my Daddy and stories he's told me about when he was a kid. I thought that was real interesting, how it was back then. Here, let me tell you this one that he told me one time. . . .
The History of the Race Riot in 1919
Told by Mrs. Beulah Netherland
Written by Chuck Hunter, Tony Weaver, Mike Wells, and Bill Murrah
Drawings by Darryl Hunter
One day in 1919 Maurice Mays, a black man, got accused of murdering Mrs. Bertie Lindsey, a white woman. One reason he was arrested was that he had enemies on the police force. They took him down to the county jail and locked him up. Then a white mob went down to get him out and lynch him.
They busted in the jail and let all the white prisoners out. They were looking for Maurice Mays but the law had already taken him to Chattanooga. Then the white mob went down and robbed guns from some stores on Gay Street.
At the same time this was going on the black people were forming themselves into a group. They didn't intend to let the white people get Maurice Mays out of jail and lynch him. All up and down Vine Street they gathered and some were up in the buildings.
Then they called out the National Guard.
They mostly guarded Vine Street because it was the black people's hang-out. The Guards set up machine guns all up and down Vine Street and even one on Vine and Central. One black man went out to get a machine gun to protect the black people. He got shot down in the middle of the street. One big strong black man picked up two National Guards and threw them in the creek. The man who did this owned a store at the corner of Willow and Vine.
One of the Guards got killed by their own machine gun. The Guards were afraid so they just started firing anywhere. They went crazy and started firing at anything and anybody. The black people were hiding in buildings and under bridges. They were thick as hop.
Nobody really knows how many were killed in the race riot.
This rich white man came through Vine Street bringing his black servant home. Most black people were afraid to come through there. The Guards stopped the car and searched the butler. The rich white man got mad. He cursed and said, " I'm going to get you off the street in ten minutes." He turned around and went to the court house and got the Guards moved off the street that very minute.
Maurice Mays said on the witness stand that he was innocent. He said, "You'll find it out after I'm gone. I believe this court will believe me. I am telling the truth even if I die this very moment." The court found him guilty and executed him anyway. It was all a whitewash because later they found out that he was innocent and that a white lawman really killed Bertie Lindsey. The white man and Maurice Mays both had been going with the same woman, Bertie Lindsey.