Police killing of unarmed suspects has a deep history in Knoxville, as nearly everything does. It’s impossible to say how many times it has happened. But one case stands out. It got more public attention than most.
Will Lenoir was an African American who worked for the John Flenniken family. They had recently built a family home of tile and stucco on beautiful Island Home Boulevard. Flenniken, a former city commissioner and chairman of the Board of Public Works, had been involved in lots of city beautification projects. Some credited Flenniken for the canopy of maple trees in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. But he had died suddenly the year before. His widow, Laura Flenniken, remained very active in town, and remained in their house, but needed some help.
Around middle age or just beyond–none of the news reports mention his age–Lenoir was a sturdy man, about 200 pounds, and a dependable worker, an agreeable fellow even if he had a reputation as a bit of an eccentric. He was originally from Martel, the Loudon County African American community near Lenoir City. You might wonder whether he ever encountered another Will–Will Bennett, who had a farm in northern Loudon County, about that time. In the late summer of ’29, Bennett had come to Knoxville to record the murder ballad, “Railroad Bill.” British blues scholar Ted Russell has called Bennett “one of the most tantalizingly mysterious figures in the history of early African American music on records.”
Will Lenoir had first come to Knoxville more or less permanently back in 1918. A white lady on Scott Avenue recruited him to work as her house servant. Since then, he had worked hard and developed a relationship with the white community, who often trusted him with their housekeys and their children.
He’d already had some bad luck that month. His wife, Josephine, had sued him for divorce.
Like more than a few Knoxvillians of that era, especially those who were poor or less educated, Lenoir respected voodoo. He always thought somebody was trying to get him, and thought by following certain rituals, he could protect himself. Voodoo was promoted by some fringe businessmen down in the Bowery, like Doc Mullins on Central, the herb doctor of obscurely exotic origin who sold an extravagant variety of herbs and potions. As practiced in Knoxville, voodoo was a murky combination of witchcraft and old-fashioned herbal medicine, which would regain some of its reputation in years to come.
Josephine Lenoir’s public complaint about Will, though, was less about casting spells than about obsessive cleanliness. He repeatedly scrubbed their porch and doorway outside of his house, thinking it would remove the “hex” placed on him by someone who meant him harm. He was always looking under the rug.
It became too much for Josephine, who cited his ritual obsessions with “voodoo and witchcraft” in the divorce suit. He thought something bad was about to happen to him. It was early March, 1931. In his 13 years in Knoxville, the item about his wife’s divorce complaint may have been the first time his name had ever appeared in the paper.
The year 1931 was, regardless of whatever allowances you might make for Knoxville’s exceptionality in terms of race relations, squarely in the Jim Crow era. Knoxville was unusually progressive in a few ways. The police department employed African American uniformed policemen, and had for 50 years. There weren’t many police departments, north or south, that employed uniformed cops who were any shade darker than white. Black policemen were armed, but patrolled mainly in the “colored” parts of town, in Mechanicsville and along Vine Avenue and “the Bottom” of First Creek.
In some ways, 1931 could seem a racially progressive time. Black music had never gotten more respect; jazz and blues were on commercial records and on the radio, even in Knoxville–and much more than country music, then called “hillbilly.” People knew the names of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong–and Marian Anderson, the classical soprano who had recently given a formal concert at the Lyric, Gay Street’s biggest theater. African American culture was ascendant.
In other ways, things were getting worse. A lot of the lovely green residential developments popping up in the suburbs had racial “covenants” that required white owners to sell only to other whites. That approach was rare before the ’20s. And the new theaters, rather than being segregated as they had been in the Victorian era, with flexible policies depending on the shows, were simply all-white. Some area private schools, like Maryville College, had a deep tradition of including African Americans in the student body, but couldn’t do that anymore. By the first half of the 20th century, biracial education was strictly illegal in Tennessee.
Knoxville had a long reputation of biracial city government. But by 1931, after an ostensibly “progressive” reshuffling of city government and subsequent redistricting, there hadn’t been any racial minority representation in city or county government in almost 20 years. At all political levels, legislative, executive, and judicial, white men called all the shots.
That fact became obvious in occasional encounters between African Americans and white cops. There had been incidents that year already. Patrolman Bid Anderson, a big, athletic fellow, was a formidable presence in industrial-league baseball. He had beaten, with his billy club, African American James Long, taking him for an intruder on a white man’s property on Hill Avenue, before realizing he was the man’s chauffeur, and had just driven his boss back from Georgia.
In late January, 1931, Officer Howard Huskey, described frankly as “jolly and big,” was patrolling Florida Street, the old red-light district, when he shot into a car, wounding a young African American in the back. Amos Allen survived with a bullet still in him, and Huskey, who had not even reported the incident to his superiors, was under arrest for felonious assault. The officer claimed the car had tried to run him over. He got off on a self-defense plea, and rejoined the force.
That was a pattern, suggesting the system worked, if only up to a point. Patrolman Anderson eventually had to pay James Long, the victim he had clobbered mistakenly, a judgment of $200–accounting for inflation, the equivalent of over $3,000.
In situations of felonious assault or murder, officers were often arrested and charged, almost immediately.
But then they showed a strong tendency to clear themselves, and then rejoin the force. And some people in power noticed that, even editors of the white newspapers. The News-Sentinel ran a couple of short but stern editorials about it. One, on April 12, 1931, was headlined “Protecting the Negro: Those who do not want Knoxville to be a city where the Negro is wronged or imposed upon were grieved by the shooting of Will Lenoir.”
It had happened about two weeks before.
Bob Ballard was a white cop, a big, tall guy, six foot three, with boyish features. He’d joined the force not quite five years earlier. Garrulous and talkative, he liked to be around other cops. It was the Prohibition era, and he was known for cracking down on liquor dealers, mostly white bootleggers. Ballard had once been held by robbers at gunpoint. On two occasions, cars had collided with his sturdy frame, but he came right back in to the office, sometimes with a limp.
He had a bit of a reputation as a drinker, and had once been disciplined for it, but then so had a lot of guys.
On Saturday, Mar. 28, Ballard was riding an evening-shift motorcycle beat with Sgt. D.R. Jenkins when they got a call about a burglar prowling the Island Home neighborhood. A little past suppertime, they cruised along Island Home Boulevard, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
Motoring along the boulevard at 8:45 p.m. they saw a dark figure standing near the streetcar stop on a corner of Island Home Boulevard. (Contemporary reports are confusing, but neighborhood research holds that it happened in the median at the Watson Place intersection.) The man reacted, and reached for his pocket. Officer Ballard aimed his revolver and fired twice. He was a good shot. Both bullets hit their target squarely.
The man fell, with wounds to his chest and abdomen. As the policemen dismounted, Will Lenior said, “You’ve killed me, boss.”
The officers checked to see what he was reaching for. In Lenoir’s pocket they found a pint bottle of whiskey.
After a day’s work, Lenoir was waiting to catch the Island Home streetcar into town. The police called an ambulance. By the time Lenoir got to Knoxville General Hospital, near the old National Cemetery, he was dead.
It was assumed that Lenoir, seeing the cops, first thought of his pocket flask. It was high Prohibition, rigidly but not always fairly enforced. It was assumed he intended to ditch it in the bushes. One early news report likened it to the misunderstandings that had already become a cliché in matinee Westerns at the Strand, the would-be good guy who draws too fast on the rough customer who, under stress, was just going for his whiskey.
Records don’t make it clear whether Lenoir, whose roots were elsewhere, was well known in the cultural centers of University Avenue or East Vine. The shooting was on the front page of the Sunday papers, and was likely discussed in the churches that morning. In 1931, with the exception of labor-union actions and political campaigns, public demonstrations were rare. Racial-minority concerns were expressed mostly in private, and didn’t always make it into the public record.
In fact, most of the Knoxvillians who knew Will Lenoir in 1931 may have been the white people who employed him. The Island Home community was outraged. Everybody in that idyllic riverside neighborhood, it seemed, knew Will Lenoir, and liked him. They were certain that he was not even possibly the prowler who had brought the police to Island Home.
Marcia Perkins, daughter or a UT professor, was a physical-education teacher, progressive organizer and amateur playwright. (Her comedy, Two Old Maids Visit Mars, had been a society-page hit a few years earlier.) She was known to be outspoken. Especially concerned about the killing, she invited the neighborhood for a “protest meeting” at the capacious home of Mrs. Flenniken. Fifty neighbors showed up, among them Hugh D. Foust, the influential executive of the Tennessee Valley Fair. It was an affluent, powerful group.
They produced a declaration of sorts. “The killing of Will Lenoir arouses the indignation of every fair-minded citizen of Knoxville … this act that resulted in death was hasty and ill-judged.”
The News-Sentinel, while insisting that the matter would be determined by a jury, commended the public expressions of outrage.
At first, things were working as today’s activists say they should. Officer Ballard was jailed, charged with murder.
Safety Director William Chandler was a veteran cop of 60. A onetime newspaperman, Chandler had joined the police force around the turn of the century, the horse-and-buggy days. The year he first wore the uniform was 1901, the same year Kid Curry shot two Knoxville cops at Ike Jones’ Saloon. It was Knoxville’s most violent era, when murder was so common it was rarely front-page news. In 1904, he had become police chief, described as “forceful” and “forthright,” known for his fearlessness in capturing some scary criminals, including one cop killer. He once captured a white guy who had killed an African American and tried to get away with it by throwing the body in the river. It was one of Chandler’s most famous busts. He was still police chief in 1908 when two officers were shot to death when trying to make an arrest on the Bowery.
About the Island Home incident involving his motorcycle cops, Chandler called the killing “unfortunate.”
He later defended the KPD more specifically. “We all, of course, deplore the killing of Will Lenoir, and no one regrets it more than does Officer Bob Ballard.” He added, “Something has been said about the police shooting innocent Negroes, and they would have the public believe that this practice is tolerated regardless. However, it is not true in any case…. We have five colored police officers, all of whom will testify to the fact that there is no disposition on the part of any white officer to shoot or assault colored citizens. These colored officers get along well with the white officers and all work together in peace and harmony.”
Ballard’s partner, Sgt. Jenkins, backed up the story that the officer had reason to fire. By some accounts, they were both upset about what had happened. But they stuck to the story that they believed Will Lenoir had been the prowler, and they declared that Ballard had reason to fear for his life.
For the preliminary hearing Ballard went before Justice of the Peace A.L. Wells. “Squire” Wells heard the evidence, which was mainly the testimony of the only eyewitness, Sgt. Jenkins–although they also heard from Lenoir’s sister, presumably as a character witness. There were no eyewitnesses on Lenoir’s side. Wells believed the police account and dismissed the charges. It was a case of self-defense, Wells said: Ballard had no way of knowing Lenoir wasn’t going for a gun.
Perhaps Ballard was lucky to get that particular judge. Unlike most county “squires,” Wells had been a police detective, and would be again.
So, less than a week after his arrest, Ballard was free. He even kept his job on the police force.
The body of Will Lenoir was taken to his old home in rural Martel for burial.
The Island Home group demanded an investigation by the young attorney general, J. Fred Bibb. It’s not clear that got any traction. But the matter came before City Council, composed entirely of white men. To people who like to keep their history simple, Mayor James A. Trent seems an impossible combination of left and right wing philosophies. In public debates, he had argued against women’s rights to work. But he often riled Knoxville’s capitalists with his strong support for labor unions and public power. He defended Ballard. A policeman just doesn’t have time to figure out whether a suspect is going for a gun or a bottle, he said. A councilman thought the mayor was working it too hard. Rather than pushing to vindicate the already exonerated Ballard, Councilman Henry Blanc said, “Let it die.” And, in fact, it did.
Meanwhile, less than two weeks after Will Lenoir’s death–and one month after she had filed her divorce suit, claiming voodoo–Josephine Lenoir married another man. In leaving Will Lenoir, intolerance of voodoo may not have been her primary motive.
Meanwhile, just as Ballard’s case was being dismissed, a veteran cop named Jim Chesney answered a call about 1:00 a.m. a disturbance on Market Street near Clinch, in front of O’Neil’s Cafe. Chesney was 54, another veteran cop from the saloon era.
Five white university frat boys were “teasing” and “badgering” an African American teenager named James C. Hamilton, who got angry and pulled a knife. When Officer Chesney arrived, he claimed he told the Hamilton to put the knife down. Hamilton kept brandishing it, and, by Chesney’s account, flourishing it in his direction. Chesney shot him.
The bullet tore through his intestines, and from the beginning it didn’t look good. Taken to General Hospital, Hamilton was conscious, and gave statements to investigators. Officer Chesney was arrested for felonious assault. When Hamilton died, 18 days later, the police chief directed his charge to be changed to murder. The frat boys were arrested as accessories.
The case was in the courts for more than seven months. It sounded bad for the police, at first. Hamilton had come from a good family, had never caused problems before, either in public or at home. But a physician, referred to vaguely in the news reports, testified that the teenager had been both intoxicated and suffering from a “social disease”–presumably syphilis–that rendered him “crazed,” and plausibly dangerous with a knife.
Finally, before it got to trial, Attorney General Bibb directed a verdict of not guilty, on grounds of self-defense.
As it happens, though, none of the cops charged with assaulting or killing black suspects in 1931 had much left in their law-enforcement careers. Soon after he was freed, Chesney took up with a fellow cop’s wife, and became the central figure in a lurid divorce case. By the late ’30s, he was suffering an unnamed illness, and left the force. He died in 1939, at the same hospital where James C. Hamilton, the man he shot, had died eight years earlier.
Howard Huskey, who had shot and wounded Amos Allen, was fired from KPD in early 1938 after unrelated charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer.” The charges were at first not specified, but one of them, it was eventually revealed, was that he had enjoyed “indiscretions” with a young mill worker. He was transferred to the fire department, where it was assumed he was less likely to be a problem. But by 1940, he was suffering seizures, and was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had gone to Nashville for surgery when he died at age 39.
Bid Anderson, the officer who had to pay damages for throttling the chauffeur with his billy club, got in trouble for getting into fights with several more people, including his wife and fellow officers. In 1938, he was dismissed for drunkenness on the job, and became a fireman. He got in some fights as a fireman, too. But as an older man, 20 years after he left the force, he was elected to Knox County Court.
The fate of Bob Ballard, who shot Will Lenoir, was different from the others.
After his case was dismissed, Officer Ballard was free, and still a cop. He assisted in arresting two alleged murderers later that year. But things never seemed right for Officer Ballard after that. Eight months after he was exonerated for the shooting of Will Lenoir, Ballard filed for bankruptcy, with twice as much in debt as in assets. At the time, he was living in an apartment on Magnolia, near the Southern station. It’s unclear whether his wife and three children were still living with him at the time.
A few months later, in late 1932, he was charged with drunkenness. Because it wasn’t his first offense, he was discharged from the police force for six months. During that period, in early 1933, he was hospitalized with bad stomach cramps. He improved, but later that year he was jailed on another charge of drunkenness.
It became clear Bob Ballard would not wear the uniform of a police officer again. So, he got a job as the next-best thing, working for Ed McNew, an old tough guy himself, the city’s most famous, or sometimes infamous, bail bondsman. McNew was used to being around killers. They didn’t bother him at all. They were his clients. Later that decade, after his run for sheriff didn’t work out, McNew was accused of attempted murder, himself, when he fired his pistol at a Knoxville Journal photographer and somehow missed. But right before Christmas, 1933, even Ed McNew couldn’t deal with Ballard anymore, and fired him.
Not quite six months later, on the evening of Saturday, June 2, 1934, former officer Bob Ballard, married father of three children, walked into Watts’ Drugstore at Gay and Fifth, obtained some poison tablets, and swallowed them.
Knoxville General Hospital was right nearby. They pumped his stomach and thought he’d be okay. His old colleagues at the KPD had heard about it, and gave him a ride home. He liked to ride in squad cars. But nine days later, big Bob Ballard died at his parents’ house on Woodbine, right by the ballpark. The coroner called it suicide.
He died without money. His former colleagues in blue took up a collection to bury former Officer Ballard in Andersonville, and then tried to collect more to help his family. An ad appeared in the paper. “We wish to thank our many friends for their kindness and sympathy for their kindness shown during the sickness and death of Robert W. Ballard.” It was signed by his wife, children, sister, and parents.
The news stories about Ballard’s death didn’t mention Will Lenoir the short-lived controversy about whether the man who committed suicide had once committed murder. After his own burial back in April, 1931, in fact, Will Lenoir’s name was never mentioned in newspapers again–except, in another century, by historians.
Researched and Written by Jack Neely, June 2020