The Corbin, Kentucky race riot of 1919 stands as a chilling reminder of the racial tensions and violence that marred the United States during the early 20th century. In a shocking display of racial hatred, a white mob forcefully expelled all of the town’s 200 black residents, loading them onto a freight train and shipping them out of town. This abhorrent act, coupled with the town’s sundown town policy that persisted until the late 20th century, serves as a stark testament to the deep-rooted racism and discrimination prevalent at the time.
The catalyst for the riot was a crime that occurred on October 29, 1919. A.F. Thompson, a white man, was robbed and stabbed by two unknown assailants, whom he described as black men. This incident quickly ignited a wave of racial animosity within the community. Rumors and fear spread like wildfire, and the black residents of Corbin became scapegoats for the crime.
Two days later, on October 31, 1919, an angry and armed white mob, consisting of hundreds of Corbin’s townspeople, mobilized and embarked on a rampage targeting black residents. The mob went door-to-door, forcibly rounding up African-Americans from their homes. Once they believed they had gathered all the town’s black population, they marched them to the local train station.
Approximately 200 men, women, and children were herded onto crowded railcars, as the mob expressed their determination to expel all black individuals from Corbin. The train departed, carrying its dehumanized cargo, and traveled south to Knoxville, Tennessee. The traumatic experience left the victims stripped of their homes, livelihoods, and sense of security.
John Turner, a longtime black resident of Corbin, vividly recounted the horrifying events in a signed affidavit, stating, “They swore at us and said: ‘By God, we are going to run all Negroes out of this town tonight.'” Turner’s testimony reflects the fear, anguish, and humiliation experienced by the victims of this racial atrocity.
The Kentucky race riot of 1919 was part of a broader wave of civil unrest known as the Red Summer, which erupted across the United States in the aftermath of World War I. The Red Summer of 1919 was characterized by widespread racial violence, with numerous attacks on black communities and the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies. The riot in Corbin stands as a grim reminder of the systemic racism and oppression faced by African-Americans during this tumultuous period in American history.
The significance of this dark chapter in Corbin’s history is not lost on the community. In 1991, a documentary titled “Trouble Behind” shed light on the riot and the racial divisions and violence that plagued America’s past. Furthermore, in October 2019, city leaders marked the centennial of the riot with a proclamation acknowledging the gravity of the event and the existence of the former sundown town policy. This act of recognition signifies a step towards confronting and addressing the town’s painful past, while fostering a commitment to inclusivity and equality moving forward.