The Knoxville riot took place on August 30-31, 1919. Although many historians question whether it was a “race riot” in the classic sense, it bore many characteristics of that phenomenon.
The arrest of Maurice Mayes, a sometimes deputy sheriff, touched off the riot. Mayes, a well-known political figure, was rumored to be the illegitimate son of Knoxville Mayor John E. McMillan. In the early morning hours of August 30 police charged Mayes with the murder of Mrs. Bertie Lindsay, a white woman; Mayes had been identified as the assailant by the victim’s cousin, Ora Smith, who was with Lindsay at the time of the assault.
That afternoon, fearing trouble, Sheriff W. T. Cate arranged for Mayes to be removed to Chattanooga. In spite of these precautions, a crowd gathered around the Knox County jail, broke down the door, and searched the building for Mayes. In the ensuing melee, no black prisoners were disturbed, but a dozen white inmates were freed, the liquor storage room was pillaged, and the jail demolished.
As rumors of violence circulated, the crowd broke into downtown hardware stores, armed themselves, and headed for the black section of town. A detachment of the National Guard, hurriedly called to the scene, proved to be little use in controlling the crowd, as guardsmen joined the white mob and fired into black-occupied buildings while blacks returned the fire. One National Guard officer was killed accidentally by his own men, and one African American was also shot and killed. On the morning of Sunday, August 31, several hundred additional guardsmen restored order.
Thirty-six whites were arrested, but an all-white jury refused to convict any of them. Mayes was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In 1920 the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered a new trial, but it also ended in Mayes’s conviction. Mayes was electrocuted, despite an increasing belief that he was innocent.
Because no black prisoners were harmed in the mob’s assault on the jail, many historians believe that Mayes was the only target of the crowd. The subsequent march to the African American section of town and the ensuing firefight has convinced other historians that while the Knoxville riot of 1919 may not have begun as a race riot, it ultimately became one. Mayor McMillan’s earlier attacks on the Ku Klux Klan and the city’s comparatively placid racial atmosphere demonstrate a progressive attitude among many whites that stands in sharp contrast to the mob action of August 30-31, 1919.