Part II: The Race Riot and the Unjust Execution of Maurice Mays

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.

On August 30th, 1919, white mobs began to assemble outside the Knox County jail in Knoxville, clamoring for access to the arrested suspect. As the day progressed, Black citizens of the city began to prepare for the worst. Hardware stores and other places that sold ammunition began to sell out, and a brigade of citizens began to assemble on the corner of Central and Vine street, ready to defend their families, should it come to that.

By 7 pm the crowd outside of the jail was getting very rowdy, demanding that Mays be produced, or they would break down the door. In hopes of preventing violence from breaking out officers allowed groups of 5 to tour the jail in search of Mays to prove he wasn’t present. However, as more and more people arrived, rising to an estimated mob of 5,000, violence was inevitable. Knox County Jail had huge riot doors that were sealed, but the crowd was enraged, certain that the man they wanted was simply being hidden from those who had been allowed to tour the place in the hours previously. Guards threatened the crowd with guns, but there were simply too many people for their weapons to pose a real threat. Finally, the jail was breached.

At 8:30 PM the riot began to ransack the jail running through it searching for the man that they wished to tear limb from limb. In the course of the riot, all the white prisoners were set free including one ‘Lunatic’ and at least 4 convicted murderers. The cell block that contained black inmates was never breached, Deputy Frank York’s threat to use his gun was apparently more effective that the initial one, and the black inmates were not allowed to escape. Interest in the jail’s prisoners faded quickly, though, because several seized kegs, and a whole moonshine still was discovered. In no time those who had broken into the jail took the booze and forgot about the hunt for the man they believed had murdered a white woman. Until about midnight the ransacking and looting of the jail continued, but by then the crowd’s interest shifted to the barricade that Black citizens had set up at Central and Vine. A rumor, that was later proved false, circulated that white people had been shot down there. The mob decided to set its sights on people they could actually get their hands on, rather than the suspect who had been removed to Chattanooga. The gunfight that followed lasted for days, and there is no clear, definitive number for how many people were killed during the race riots of 1919, though the low end of estimates landed somewhere around 20. In his article, “’A Dark Night’”: The Knoxville Race Riot of 1919”, Matthew Lakin shares part of an interview with Joe Brady, a storekeeper from Andersonville who had been in Knoxville on business. His wagon was commandeered to transport bodies. The bodies were brought to Gay Street Bridge, and then tossed into the Tennessee river below.

Many government officials after the riot refused to acknowledge the racial tensions that had boiled over and caused the riot, instead using the defense that the absolute worst of whites and blacks had been those to take part in the looting and violence. Some prominent African Americans at the time argued that Mays was just the excuse for violence to break out, but if it had been someone else or some other event, violence could have been triggered just as easily.  Despite many prominent whites feeling that the violence was not racially based at all, they still feared a resurgence of violence should the Maurice Mays case not end in a conviction. It is this attitude that became prominent in the months leading up to Maurice May’s first trial.

Maurice Mays was found guilty of murdering Bertie Lyndsay twice before he was eventually executed on March 15th, 1922. Newspaper accounts of the day were much harsher towards him during the first trial, declaring that he was guilty despite him continuing to maintain his innocence. Reporters and editors had no sympathy for Mays and instead memorialized Bertie Lyndsay and sang the praises of the judge who had sentenced Mays to death. Despite the sentence, the ruling was overturned. Recent changes in the law had dictated that the jury had to deliver the sentence in capital case trials, not the judge. Thus, the mistrial was declared in the first case.

Over the course of the second trail, evidence that could have helped to clear Maurice Mays’ name was denied entry into evidence by the new judge. This evidence was the testimony of several people who had been attacked in the same manner as Bertie Lyndsay. The most helpful testimony would have been that of Mrs. Nettie Pingston, who was attacked by someone on October 4th, 1919 who told her to “Lie still or I’ll shoot you like I shot Bertie Lyndsay.” Several cases followed in the pattern associated with the Night Marauder, but no jury ever heard about those attacks.

In the press none of the new evidence was reported, either. Reporters instead focused on the upcoming execution of Maurice Mays execution. At least some of these accounts were sympathetic, indicating that many citizens and even some Tennessee supreme court justices had appealed to the Governor of Tennessee to pardon Mays. Enough people were convinced Mays had to have been innocent.  The execution of an innocent man was a great tragedy, made worse by the fact that the killer was still out there. After his death, some newspapers claimed the reason Mays was executed was to prevent further violence like the Riot in 1919 as well as to prevent the Governor from securing reelection later.

Whatever the reason, the injustice still stands. Efforts to exonerate Maurice Mays have been ongoing for nearly a hundred years and no Tennessee governor has yet been willing to overturn the sentence. Leading today’s movement is the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville. Visit their website to learn more and add your voice to the call for justice.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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