This weekend marks the centennial of one of the most troubling, but also weirdest, weekends in Knoxville history. It’s really too much to talk about in anything less than book length, but it’s also impossible to ignore this weekend.
Even if it hadn’t happened, the year 1919 would be remembered as a strange and unsettling spell. The year had opened with families learning of sons, husbands, and fathers, dozens of them from Knoxville alone, who would not be coming home, because they were killed in Europe in the final weeks of the Great War. Compounding the grief was that an oddly equivalent number had died of the flu during those same weeks. As the result of those twin catastrophes, a few hundred young Knoxvillians who fully expected to see 1919 did not.
The summer brought unsolved crimes, including a rash of “highwaymen” or “marauders” mugging and sometimes killing for pocket change, and to make matters worse, rumors of Bolsheviks at work in communities across America. Knoxville was making progress in some ways. Mayor John McMillan’s administration was building that long-awaited Gay Street viaduct, to abolish the old “Death Dip” in the street, the dangerous asphalt ravine between the plateau of downtown Knoxville and the steep bridge over the rail yards. The project, the biggest public project in the city’s history, was covering the first floors of some commercial buildings on the 100 block, forcing buildings to created new entrances on their second floors, and reimagine their old retail space as a basement.
Knoxville women voted for the first time on Sept. 6, 1919, just one week after the riot, and a year before women got the right to vote nationally, codified in the Constitution. They played a big part in picking a new mayor. It’s funny that those skeptical of suffrage thought that women would surely be confused by the voting process, and for the year, at least, they stopped using the word “poll,” which had developed a bad reputation for attracting discord, in favor of “voting booths.” According to the Journal, “Women voted as effortlessly and even more quietly than the men… Polls, instead of being places where men gathered to drink, fight, and swear, became ‘voting booths’ of a quiet, dignified character.”
That makeover seems to have stuck. But as female voters gained, black voters lost. Jim Crow laws made the city more segregated in the early 20th century than it had been in the late 19th century. Blacks and whites could no longer attend school together, even in private schools like Maryville College. In public transit, blacks had to yield to whites, and sit in the back. That was deliberate racism, of course—although people in 1919 would not have recognized the word that did not yet exist in the English language, but would become useful later in the 20th century.
Worse, black voters, who had been a significant and respected if not powerful bloc since soon after the Civil War, lost their purchase on city government. In 1912, a new form of city government replaced the old 11-member district-based Board of Aldermen with the allegedly progressive, allegedly nimbler five- member City Commission, elected at large. Whether you believe that was a deliberate move to force blacks out of city government for more than half a century may depend on your own rightful measure of cynicism.
Things got still worse in 1917 when a massive annexation more than doubled the population of the city, which seemed good, and even progressive, bringing electricity and water and other city amenities to South Knoxville, Park City, Looney’s Bend, formerly rural and suburban areas. But because only about 10 percent of the new citizens were blacks, the expansion watered down black voting power. Knoxville had been 22 percent black in 1910. By 1919, it was just about 14 percent black. The black voter was easier to ignore.
Then there were black troops coming home from the war, wearing uniforms of the American heroes of the Great War, the war to end all wars. A few months earlier, black soldiers fresh off the train had been welcomed home with gift packages of cigarettes and candies, but not invited to join the all-white banquet held downtown for the white soldiers. Black resentment fed tension among whites, who feared an insurrection.
It all created a tinderbox for what happened a century ago. It ostensibly started with a murder, followed by a lynch mob, followed by a spell of something like anarchy, followed by violent suppression by troops, and an unknown number of dead, perhaps two, perhaps 40. Both of those were “official” estimates, from different officials.
What’s sometimes forgotten is that the riot wasn’t the last time guardsmen were called in to quell a disturbance in 1919. A streetcar strike, which had no obvious racial dimension but resulted in at least one murder, hit the city in October. It was a weird year.
I first wrote about the riot for a local magazine about 35 years ago. At the time, I was told there were still buildings on Central Street, at the southern end of the warehouse district that only a few were beginning to call “the Old City.” I looked, and did not find them. But I did find an elderly black man who remembered the riots. He said he was a kid of 13, walking in the public street in the days of martial law after the riot, when a soldier stopped him and frisked him and took his favorite and most valuable possession, his pocketknife. He never got it back.
I might have written about it more except for the work of two other writers who have covered it thoroughly.
Matt Lakin wrote a scholarly and carefully footnoted piece for the East Tennessee Historical Society’s quarterly, back in 2000. You can read it here.
And Bob Booker, who grew up knowing a black man who lost his leg in the riot, almost all true but lightly fictionalized, called The Heat of a Red Summer. He spoke at our Maple Hall event a couple of weeks ago.
Some people hesitate to call it a “race riot” because it was different from other race riots.
Most of the property damage and by modern standards, there was millions of dollars worth—was done by a white mob to white-owned buildings and businesses. Whites freed the white-controlled county jail’s prisoners, including several convicted murderers, causing major headaches for the white sheriff and the white police chief. Whites wrecked the all-white government’s jail. Whites looted white-owned departments stores, pawnshops, and hardware stores.
But it’s true that most of those wounded by gunfire, with at least one exception, were probably wounded by people of the opposite race. Two people were reported immediately to have died that night, one black, one white, both of them hit by white troops’ machine-gun fire. Some of the wounds to both whites and blacks were serious, and its likely that many victims listed only as “wounded” were permanently disabled or died later. It’s also possible, as has long been rumored, that black families buried their own dead without reporting them to the authorities.
It’s also true that the martial-law policy established in the days after the riots, which divided the city starkly between black and white, targeted blacks more than whites, though whites had instigated most of the havoc. There’s a truism that the riot prompted a major exodus of blacks from Knoxville. That’s hard to prove by the census. There were over 11,000 blacks living in Knoxville in 1920, the year after the riot, more than there had ever been before. That number increased by more than 50 percent in the decade to come.
There seems to be a good deal left to study.
There’s not much left to remind us of the riot. I don’t know of any scars that remain.
We do have three things, all of them new to Knoxville this year, that we didn’t have before. They are all, in different ways, works of art.
One is the Carpetbag Theater’s new presentation, opening at the Bijou in a couple of weeks, Linda Parris-Bailey’s play, Red Summer. It runs from Sept. 12-15. It’s an authentic place to produce a play like that. A century ago the white mob rampaged past that theater, down Gay Street from the jail to Vine Avenue. The Bijou was one of the few places where blacks and whites could watch a show together, though blacks were sequestered in the second balcony. It was featuring a bill of now-obscure vaudevillians, including a female comedian and couple of Australian roller skaters, that weekend.
Another is an astonishing film. Very short, less than a minute, a bit of silent newsreel footage found in California has joined the collection of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and has been shown a couple of times this year, by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center and the Knoxville History Project. It doesn’t show the riot itself, but Knoxville under martial law in the days following. We see the wrecked jail on Hill Avenue; soldiers marching down Gay Street, with the Holston Building, then about six years old and Knoxville’s tallest and most conspicuous building, the only building recognizable in the background; what appears to be a man pointing out damage to a laundry, probably at Central and Vine; and finally, a black man being stopped and frisked by solders in front of Woodruff’s, now known as the Downtown Grill and Brewery.
And now there’s a third, indirect relic, new to the Knoxville Museum of Art. It’s African-American artist Joseph Delaney’s original painting, “Vine and Central.” He painted it in New York in 1940, but it depicts an apparently fond memory, the hubbub elicited by the arrival of a minstrel parade at that intersection. Posters announce it as the Al G. Field troupe, and why blackface minstrel troupes were popular in black communities across the country a century ago is a complicated subject, except to say that blacks a century ago could find it hilarious to witness white people pretending they were black people. And perhaps because it presented a rare opportunity to laugh out loud at white people in public. Delaney himself recalled the annual arrival of Field’s Minstrels in his neighborhood as a boisterous joy, anticipated every year.
Art scholar Fred Moffatt, who wrote a fascinating biography of the artist called The Life, Art, and Times of Joseph Delaney, knew the artist, who accepted a residence at UT in the 1980s. Moffatt has an interesting psychological interpretation of this painting, which is one of the best-known oil paintings specifically depicting the city of Knoxville. He states that Delaney, then not quite 15 years old when machine guns were mowing down people on the street where he lived, was traumatized by the event, mulled over it over the years, couldn’t get it out of his mind, and about 20 years later, chose to paint that intersection, in thick oils and multiple colors, but at what he remembered as a happier occasion. The blood had probably been hosed off the streets by Sept. 13, when Al G. Field’s annual minstrel
parade danced through the intersection.
The Knoxville Museum of Art recently purchased Delaney’s “Vine and Central.” It’s now part of their permanent collection.
It may take more than a century to get that behind us, and maybe that’s how it should be.