The Knoxville riot of 1919, was a tragic event that unfolded during the Red Summer, a period of heightened racial tensions across the United States. It began with the brutal murder of a white woman and the subsequent arrest of Maurice Mays, a biracial man.
The roots of the Knoxville riot can be traced back to the morning of August 30, 1919, when an intruder broke into the home of Bertie Lindsey, a young white woman. Tragically, Bertie Lindsey was shot and killed, but her cousin managed to escape to a neighbor’s house and called the police. The cousin described the intruder as a light-skinned black man, setting off a chain of events that would lead to a racially charged confrontation.
One of the police officers, Patrolman White, suggested they question Maurice Mays, a prominent lightskin black man with a reputation for associating with both black and white women. There were also rumors circulating that Mays might be the illegitimate son of Knoxville’s mayor, John E. McMillan. Adding to the complexity of the situation, Patrolman White harbored a personal grudge against Mays.
On the same day as the murder, the police arrived at Mays’s home and found a .38 revolver. They arrested Mays and returned him to the scene of the crime, where Bertie Lindsey’s cousin identified him as the intruder. He was subsequently taken to jail. The evidence against Mays was questionable, as the gun they found was cold and unlikely to have been fired recently.
As news of the murder and the arrest of Maurice Mays spread, a growing crowd gathered at the Knox County jail, demanding that Mays be brought out to be lynched. Fearing the situation might escalate, the authorities transferred Mays from the smaller city jail to the county jail. However, this did little to quell the anger of the mob.
On the evening of August 30, 1919, the rioters forcibly entered the jail, ransacking it as they searched for Mays. They also stole as many firearms as they could find. Following this, they dispatched several truckloads of rioters to the predominantly black neighborhood of Knoxville, further escalating the situation. In response, many of the city’s black residents, aware of the rising tension, armed themselves to protect their businesses.
The National Guard was called to the scene, but rather than controlling the crowd, some guardsmen joined the white mob. They fired into buildings occupied by black residents, while the black community returned fire. The white mob also targeted and destroyed numerous black-owned businesses in the area, adding to the destruction and chaos.
The riot resulted in hundreds of injuries and several deaths. Headlines in the immediate aftermath stated five people were killed, while the Washington Times reported “Scores dead.” Other newspapers placed the death toll in the hundreds. By some accounts, the dead were so many that the bodies were dumped into the Tennessee River, while others were buried in mass graves outside the city. This tragic event left a lasting scar on the city and its African American residents, leading many to flee Knoxville in the aftermath.
In the aftermath of the riot, fifty-five white rioters faced charges of various minor offenses, but all were acquitted. The accused killer, Maurice Mays, faced a different fate. In October 1919, his trial began, despite the lack of a clear motive or substantial evidence. Mays was convicted but later had his case overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. However, in a retrial in April 1921, he was again convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. Tragically, Maurice Mays met his end in the electric chair on March 15, 1922. Throughout his ordeal, Mays maintained his innocence, attributing his conviction and death sentence to political motives.