Bertie Lindsey, Maurice Mays, and the events leading up to the Knoxville Race Riot of 1919

This post was written by contributor Shelby Davidson (MC’21) and edited by N. Locklin. It has been split into two parts due to length and the complexity of the topic.

Knoxville generally prided itself on being an accepting and nonviolent area, but with the end of World War I, Black soldiers returning to lives where their rights were constantly up for debate, and a lack of well-paying jobs, tensions were running higher and higher with each passing day. When Bertie Lyndsey was attacked between 2 and 3 in the morning on August 30th, 1919, and Maurice Mays was arrested for the crime, it was simply the final match on a powder keg that had been brewing in the region for quite some time. The riot and the racism in east Tennessee may have allowed for the prolonging of the Night Marauder’s rampage, since Maurice Mays’ wrongful conviction delayed suspicion from falling onto other suspects.

Knoxville in 1919 had a population of 80,000 and was an epicenter of industry for Eastern and Central Tennessee. It was the intersection of railroads, highways, and interstates with an estimated 20,000 laborers, both Black and white commuting into the city daily. There were plenty of jobs with the Brookside Cotton Mill, Knoxville Iron Company and repair shops for the Southern Railway all situated in the bustling city. In addition to the number of jobs available in the city, Knoxville was praised, by those in power at least, as a shining bastion of race relations where Black citizens could not only vote but serve as policemen or hold public office. Despite the local pride in Knoxville’s unity, there were still signs that its citizens were capable of violence. In 1913 a white mob sought unsuccessfully to lynch a black man who was accused of killing a police officer. The industrial challenges that the first World War imposed only deepened tensions as employers looking for recruits were met with African-Americans who didn’t show the level of deference that many whites thought they were owed. Post-war recession setting in also made competition for jobs cutthroat as more and more migrants from outside the city arrived looking for work. Clashes grew more and more frequent as the summer progressed, with a chapter of the KKK rumored to be starting up as well as the NAACP establishing an office in town in early August of that year.

It is on this backdrop that the Night Marauder first made his appearance, beginning his tear through the darkened homes of Knoxville in the summer of 1919. Investigators were baffled and civilians began to suspect that legal officials were willing to let the Marauder run wild as long as his attacks didn’t hurt anybody too high profile. Black neighborhoods on the other had were preparing for the worst. They knew that something was coming their way, and they knew better than to be caught unprepared for it. On the day of August 29th, 1919 people were ill at ease. The hottest part of the summer was over and Labor Day weekend was set to be a raucous event, with people prepared for big events, with most of the city’s businesses closing to allow people the chance to celebrate the first Labor Day after the end of World War I. The Governor was in town to inspect the Tennessee national guard that was encamped at Knoxville, and parties and parades were scheduled to take place all over the city. The city’s white and Black populations were both ready to have an exciting holiday weekend.

The fuse that would eventually explode Knoxville into a riot was lit at just after 2:00 AM in the early morning of August 30th. Bertie Lyndsey, a 27-year-old married woman, was sharing a room in her Eighth Street home with her cousin, 21-year-old Ora Smyth.  Lindsey had been born Birdie Smith in Pennington Gap, VA, but by 1917 was living in Knoxville with her husband, Daniel P. Lindsey. After the war, Daniel left for Akron, Ohio to find work. That is why Bertie was alone with her cousin on that hot, humid night. The two women had the backdoor propped open to allow a breeze to come into the house. They were sleeping soundly, but they were awoken by an intruder at around 2:30 a.m. Smyth testified that her cousin was sitting up in bed, clutching onto her and shaking so badly that the bed frame shook with her. That’s when Smyth saw the intruder, who had a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. He climbed into bed with them and told them to be quiet, brandishing the gun at them. Several times Lyndsay tried to get out of bed and the intruder threatened her, saying to get back into bed or he would kill her. Finally, Bertie Lyndsey made her final escape attempt and was shot. After threatening Smyth for a while longer the intruder grabbed a purse off the dresser containing fifteen cents and made a break for it, leaving Smyth to run to the neighbor’s house for help. The next-door neighbors were a police officer and his wife, and the officer witnessed the intruder escape down an alleyway, leaving a trail of footprints behind him.

The only known photo of Bertie Lindsey, published in the Knoxville Sentinel

This pattern is one that would become familiar to the surrounding area in the years to follow. Maurice Mays was the first suspect in Bertie Lyndsey’s murder when the police were made aware of the attack. He was a local business owner, running the Stroller’s Café on East Jackson Ave, a club that was notorious for having both Black and white visitors on any given night. As a child, he had been adopted by the Mays family, but his real parentage was a hot topic of debate in Knoxville. His biological mother was a maid who left town shortly after his birth, and his biological father was rumored to be John E. McMillan, who was mayor of Knoxville in 1919. McMillan often bank rolled business ventures of Mays, and Mays helped garner Black support in McMillan’s political career. In fact, on the night of Lyndsay’s murder Maurice Mays was delivering Poll Tax stubs to African American voters since the campaign for McMillan’s reelection was heating up. The tax stub served as proof of eligibility to vote, and McMillan needed the black vote to secure his reelection.

Maurice Mays

When patrolmen Andy White and Jim Smith arrived at Mays’ residence two miles away from the scene of the crime, he was fast asleep, and they had to tap on his window to rouse him from sleep. After a search of the house a .38 caliber pistol was found, but no flashlight. Additionally, the alley that the perpetrator had escaped down, leaving footprints, was muddy and had knee high weeds growing in it, but Mays’ shoes were clean and there was not mud on his clothes or floor. White was still adamant to find a reason to incriminate Mays. He had a long-term hatred of the man that was well known on the police force.

Mays was placed under arrest and brought back to the scene of the crime for Ora Smyth to identify. When she was brought out to see him, she was held up by two officers, unable to stand on her own. In this shocked state, Smyth was asked to identify Mays. He was the only man presented. She said it was him, and immediately, Mays protested his innocence. He maintained his innocence until the day of his execution. Mays was brought to Knox County Jail, and a special edition of the morning newspaper was released detailing the events of the crime and reporting that an “Unidentified Negro” had been arrested in relation to the crime. In later editions of the newspaper, Mays’ name was released, and rumors were reported that Mays had assaulted Lyndsey.

Among civilians, anger was brewing rapidly, and crowds were beginning to form in market square as well as outside the Knox County jail, though things did not turn more violent until much later. Sheriff Cate, a worker at the Jail requested that Mays be removed from the premises and placed into protective custody in Chattanooga. Mays was removed and transported by train, disguised as a woman, just to be safe.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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