Ask Doc Knox:

Knoxville's Odd Race Riots

Hello Doc Knox,

Do you know any history about a race riot in Knoxville in 1921? I was told about this by an old-timer but have never seen any mention of it anywhere, so I don't know if it's true or not.


Dear Mr. Youalljim:

Yes, in fact there was a riot here in 1921, though it wasn't really a race riot, in the usual sense of the term. It's right obscure, and you'll stump historians and old-timers asking about it. 

Most historical questions about a Knoxville race riot redirect toward the larger, stranger riot of Labor Day weekend, 1919. It wasn't a race riot, either, by the traditional definition, that is, members of one race rioting against the perceived interests of another race. 
The 1919 riot was a white lynch-mob that ran amok--if that's not redundant--resulting in rampant, feral looting by white mobs, followed by apparently confused guardsmen, called in to quell the white mob, aiming machine-gun fire down Central Street downtown toward the barricaded black community. There were multiple fatalities, though the death toll is the subject of 90 years of debate. It's the subject of multiple scholarly articles, none of which agree on all the details, and at least one novel, and is included by scholars in discussion of what's known as the Red Summer of 1919, when race riots occurred in several, mostly Northern cities, but ours was not much like any of them. Though barricaded blacks did fire back at the guardsmen, most of the wounded and dead were black, and most of the damage to Knoxville, especially the looting along Gay Street, was caused by the white mob. It's loaded with twisty facts and incoherent ironies, far too confusing to ever be the subject of a movie or a Ken Burns documentary. 

The 1921 riot was in some ways a more comprehensible rewrite of the battle of 1919. In August of that year, a black man was arrested for attempted rape of a white teacher. A mob of about 2000 white men and women assembled outside the courthouse downtown (the same one that's there today), and there was talk of lynching. When the crowd hadn't cleared, late that Friday night, the sheriff, fearing a repeat of the expensive chaos two years earlier, called in re-enforcements, including soldiers with machine guns. Who fired first was a matter of debate, but in a hail of gunfire, mostly from police shotguns and riot guns, 27 whites were wounded, only a couple seriously. 

The fracas did offer some oddities, including the fact that one of the men arrested for inciting the riot was a Canadian, who attempted to commit suicide in jail. Some participants were World War veterans claiming they were suffering "shell shock": we'd call it post-traumatic stress disorder today. That time, that was about all there was to it, and the black community was never much involved. 

The case against the imprisoned suspect exposed an extraordinary number of bewildering complications, and the days to come brought doubts about whether the police had arrested the right man. 

Both riots got national attention, writeups in The New York Times, etc., and both of them undermined Knoxville's civil-rights credibility; the city had previously enjoyed a reputation for racial harmony unusual in the South. But the 1920s saw a decline in black participation in Knoxville's business and politics, and some exodus of blacks who had the opportunity to move elsewhere. But there would never again be hostility on that scale in the decades to come. 

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ph. U. 


Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.

Comments » 1

  • February 18, 2010
  • 1:59 PM
johnp writes:

Dr. Knox- Do you or anyone out there know what year the building at Chilowee Park burned(the one that the Jacobson Bldg.replaced)? It was in the late 30s. I remembered it burning as a small boy as hugh sparks flew over my house in then Park City.

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.