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Riots in Tennessee

 

  Chattanooga Daily Times, 3/20/1906  

The murder of Ed Johnson
by a Chattanooga lynch mob in 1906
led to the only criminal trial
  ever conducted by the U. S. Supreme Court  
(United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563)

Chattanooga Daily Times, March 20, 1906

Newspaper Microfilm

Riots in Tennessee
Riots are disasters in a manner nearly the opposite to that of natural disasters. While natural disasters destroy great amounts of property and life and draw society together, riots may cause less physical damage but they destroy communities. The loss of mutual trust within the population caused by the violence of riots is not something that can be repaired, like cracks in a building. When people fear for their lives in their own homes, it is a violation of social order and the contract that binds the people together. Furthermore, when mourning after a natural disaster, people can rely on their neighbors to mourn with them. There is often no community-wide mourning for the victims of riots. Riots divide in their destruction, and, even when the physical wounds are healed and the buildings are repaired, the effects are still felt years later. Sometimes the damage done leaves permanent scars and the community is associated with that one instance of violence for decades, as the following examples will attest.

 

 

 

 

 

  Memphis Race Riot, 1866  

"Scene in Memphis, Tennessee During the Riot
Burning a Freedmen's School-house"

Harper's Weekly, May 26, 1866

Archives Manuscript Collection

Memphis Race Riots, Shelby County, Tennessee,
May 1-3, 1866

The worst race riot in Tennessee history began as an argument between white policemen and black former Union soldiers. It escalated quickly as mobs of white civilians ravaged black neighborhoods. Nearly fifty people died in the three-day riot: forty-six African Americans and two whites (one of the whites is believed to have died when his own firearm misfired). Seventy-five people were injured and 103 buildings were burned: ninety-one homes, four churches, and eight schools. One hundred people were robbed, many civilians lost their life savings, and many of the soldiers lost the money they had just received upon ending their service with the Union Army. Five women were raped. Martial law was finally implemented to stop the riot, but not before much bloodshed and destruction had occured. Despite the widespread violence and investigations by the Freedmen's Bureau and a Joint Congressional Committee, none of the instigators was ever brought to trial. The Memphis riot, and a similar riot in New Orleans, lent power to the Republicans controlling Congress and led to the ratification of the 14th Amendment.

  Memphis Race Riot, 1866  

"Scene in Memphis, Tennessee During the Riot
Shooting Down Negroes on the Morning of May 2, 1866"

Harper's Weekly, May 26, 1866

Archives Manuscript Collection

Testimony of Dr. R. M. McGowan
My name is Dr. R. M. McGowan, I live on South Street near Causey. On the 1st day of May 1866 while at my place I heard shots fired and upon going to the door saw several Policemen (one named Carroll) running up the street away from the mob and when they arrived at the bridge one of the policemen was shot - did not see who shot him - I went to dress the wound, while doing so the police returned with an increased force and immediately upon their arrival they commenced firing upon the colored people indiscriminately. There were women and children amidst the colored people. I saw one colored man killed by the police on the bridge, he was running away from them at the time. I saw another colored man endeavoring to conceal himself, when the police shot him and beat him over the head, he was left for dead. After night a colored soldier came to my house for protection, when a number of white men came along accompanied by police. One white man entered my place and asked me "what are you, you damn nigger doing here." I replied "let him alone, he is waiting for the ambulance to gather the murdered." He then said to me "you damn Yankee son of a bitch you can't come down here to live." I think he also said "we will burn you out." At this time the police came to the door when the man said "here is a damn abolitionist who says that the police are doing wrong," the mob cried "bring him out." I was forced out. The Captain of the Police then interfered and said "let him alone, I know him." The next morning they assaulted my store during my absence and I was forced to leave & close it and it remained closed for several days. I think the man who entered my store on the night of the 1st is named Wm. Porter, a butcher. I can identify him.

Further testimony about the riots . . .

 

  Night Rider Trials, 1909  

Night Rider Trials, 1909

From a composite photograph in Harper's Weekly

Archives Photograph Collection

Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake, Lake County, Tennessee, 1908
Since its creation in 1811-1812, Reelfoot Lake has provided good fishing and incomes for those who live in Lake County. Before the earthquakes that formed the lake, the land that became Reelfoot had been available for sale in land claims. After the lake was created, all the people who used it considered it public domain. In 1908, however, that perception was proven false when the West Tennessee Land Company bought up the land claims and claimed that by owning all of the shoreline, it owned the lake and all of its fishing rights.

The intention of the land company was to drain part of the lake to grow cotton, but the people of Lake County, seeing their lives and livelihoods at stake, formed a vigilante band and used violent means to fight back. They set fire to storehouses, shot at the judge who ruled in the land companyís favor, and, on the night of October 19, 1908, committed murder.

  Captain Rankin and Colonel Taylor  

Captain Rankin and Colonel Taylor

THS Photograph Collection

Attorneys Colonel Robert Z. Taylor and Captain Quentin Rankin, veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish American War respectively, worked for and were stakeholders in the West Tennessee Land Company. On October 19 they were forcibly abducted from their beds at the Walnut Log Hotel and taken into the woods. Rankin was hanged and shot, but Taylor managed to get away and jumped into the lake. To prevent his surviving and possibly telling the tale, the night riders shot into the lake at least thirty times to kill Taylor. He was presumed dead. Fortunately for Taylor, he was able to hide under a cypress log, and he was found over 24 hours later, wandering and bewildered.

Governor Patterson took firm action. He called in the Tennessee National Guard to keep order in the area. He offered a $10,000 reward — dead or alive — for those responsible for the killing. Almost 100 suspects were detained in camps, where they were badly treated. Two people died from abuse before their day in court. Over 300 people were indicted, but only 6 were found guilty of murder. These six people were sentenced to death, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 1909.

The state acquired the title to the lake in 1914.

Walnut Log Hotel

Rankin tree

"Walnut Log Hotel. Rankin and Taylor were dragged from the second room from the right, designated by white cross"
THS Photograph Collection


"Cross designates tree upon which Captain Quentin Rankin was hanged; arrow points to log behind which Colonel Robert Z. Taylor hid and escaped"
THS Photograph Collection


Church used by the night riders

Judge Harris

"Churches were selected by the nightriders for many of their meetings. The church at Samburg, shown above, is said to have been one of the favorite assembling points for raids."
THS Photograph Collection


"The man seated between the two women is Judge Harris, Tiptonville, Tennessee, principal owner of the West Tennessee Land Company, which owns the major portion of Reelfoot Lake"
THS Photograph Collection


Colonel Tatum and staff

Prisoners being taken to trial

"Camp Nemo, Reelfoot Lake. Colonel W. C. Tatum, of Nashville, Commander First Tennessee Regiment, with staff and line officers. The troops and the prisoners get on together famously, with no ill-feeling"
Archives Photograph Collection


"Three prominent prisoners being escorted through the town of Union City, Tennessee, under military guard. They had been brought in from Camp Nemo"
Archives Photograph Collection


Tid Burton

Frank Ferriner

"Tid Burton, on trial as a leader of the night riders"
Archives Photograph Collection


"Frank Ferriner, night rider and star witness for the prosecution"
Archives Photograph Collection



  Crowd gathered at jail in Athens, Tennessee, 1946  

Crowd gathered at the jail,
Athens, Tennessee, 1946

Archives Photograph Collection

McMinn County War, Athens, Tennessee, August 1946
The McMinn County War, also called the Battle of Athens, was the name given to an outbreak of violence as returning GIs from World War II clashed with entrenched political interests in order to deliver the county from a corrupt system. Incumbent political-machine politician Paul Cantrell ran for sheriff again in 1946 after spending four years in the Tennessee State Senate. His crony, Pat Mansfield, had been sheriff in his absence and had cooperated with Cantrell in corrupting the local government. Among other things, they had implemented a system of fees that paid local officials for the number of people they arrested.

Returning WWII soldiers, numbering near 3,000 in 1946 (about 10% of the area's population), were fed up with the current method of justice. Ex-GI Knox Henry ran against Cantrell, and other GIs ran for several other positions in the local government.

  Three young ex-servicemen firing at the jail in Athens, Tennessee, 1946  

Three ex-servicemen firing at the jail
Athens, Tennessee, 1946

Archives Photograph Collection

On Election Day, August 1, 1946, two hundred armed deputies loyal to Cantrell watched the polls, physically beating GIs and a black man attempting to vote. A crowd gathered as deputies moved the ballot box to the local jail. The angry GIs took weapons from the local armory and fired upon the jail for half an hour until ammunition ran low. The deputies in the jail surrendered at about 2 a.m. when the GIs began to lob dynamite, destroying the jailís porch. In the precincts free of voter fraud, the GI candidates, including Knox Henry, won the election by nearly 60%.

By morning all violence had stopped. On that very day a governing council was set up and six men were chosen to police the county in the absence of the regular police, who had fled. After the certification of their victory, local GIs changed the method of payment of officials by limiting their salaries to $5,000, replaced county employees who resigned, and scoured out corruption in the government . . . and, yes, they also repaired the jail.

 

Three young ex-servicemen firing at the jail in Athens, Tennessee, 1946

H.E. Gunther

Three ex-servicemen firing at the jail,
Athens, Tennessee, 1946
Archives Photograph Collection


H.E. Gunther looking over a pile of
smashed slot machines and punch boards
which were confiscated by ex-GI forces
during raids on gambling houses in Athens,
following election mob violence
the previous week.
Athens, Tennessee, 1946
Archives Photograph Collection


 

 

Section researched and written by Kate Williams, Archival Assistant