Knoxville’s Race Riot…100 Years Later

Austin-East Magnet High School Performing Arts dancers. Photo submitted
Austin-East Magnet High School Performing Arts dancers. Photo submitted

By Vivian Shipe

KNOXVILLE, TN — In 1919 an innocent white woman was killed in Knoxville Tennessee. Despite the lack of evidence against him, a black man, Maurice Mays would be accused of the crime. In the ensuring days following the charge, Affluent African American businesses would be burnt down by angry white mobs on Gay Street and other parts of town, homes would be burnt, and countless numbers would die. Mays would be moved to Chattanooga, tried and electrocuted in Nashville, and would go to his grave confessing his innocence. The story is true as Knoxville was one of the cities around America that would experience race riots in the hot summer of 1919. One Knoxville author would gather the research and lay the story down in written word to last forever.

Bob Booker’s book, “The Heat of a Red Summer: Race Mixing , Race Rioting in 1919 Knoxville” was brought to life at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville in the very venue that Booker was not allowed in sit in freely until he was 27 years old. Until then, all African Americans had to sit in the colored section in the balcony. Not so on this eventful evening.

With a crowd so large the fire marshal had to turn people away; the culminating event of Knoxville’s Black History Celebration drew a diverse crowd to watch the book brought to life. Presented by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, The Bijou Theatre, and others, The book came to life under the thunderous and captivating voice of narrator Dr. Maxine Thompson Davis.

The story was told thru dance performances by Austin-East Magnet High School Performing Arts under the direction of Ms. Malaika Guthrie with songs performed by the Knoxville Opera Gospel Choir. Thru the visual dance and soul stirring songs , the story of the riot, capture of Mays, his letters of innocence pleas from jail; an execution of a man , many considered innocent, was boldly carried out.

One of the most riveting performances of the evening was the presentation of a skit called THE CURE, in which Morristown West High School performers, Chris Cox and Dalton Miksa presented a skit from the future where they looked at how to cure hatred as they looked over the past of America and the experiment ending with the cure of love being the answer.

The program ended with words from the author Bob Booker, who also stayed to sign copies

of the book which has been re released in anticipation of the many events planned to commemorate the 100 years. One ongoing event announced by Director of the Beck Center , Reverend Renee Kesler, is a letter writing campaign to have Maurice Mays name exonerated. The email site to join in the call to clear his name is: MauriceMays@BeckCenter.net.

The Carpetbag Theatre, which is celebrating its 50th year will present a SWOPERA (Spoken word Opera) about the riots at the Bijou from Sept 19-22nd and there are also panel discussions planned in the coming months about the riots and the questions left behind …

Where are we 100 years later? and Could it happen again?

This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Tribune

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