Remembering Knoxville’s Role in the Red Summer of 1919

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

Monuments and memorials are the things around which great cities construct themselves and by which their builders and inhabitants remember who they are, why they are there, and the important events of their collective pasts. It’s easy to get confused, however, by the nomenclature that describes this type of artifact. While all memorials are monuments, not all monuments are memorials. Further, not all monuments are monumental, nor are all things monumental large.

As for memorials, while all operate as memory prompts, not all are created to serve as memorials from the start. Rather, “unintentional monuments” become memorials over time, as meaning is accreted to them for any number of reasons—an event that may have happened there or simply because something is the last of its kind.

At first, monuments were not added to a city, as we perceive them today; rather, they preceded the city. They were the primary elements to which a city’s tendons and muscles affix over time—the bony centers of constructed artifice. A simple fire became an altar for sacrifice to which a temple was added, and from there, a city was founded—several thousand years ago, anyway.

Knoxville has long had its fair share of important memory markers, but, like most places, perhaps not the best of memories. Few knew of or remembered the Sultana monument in Mount Olive Cemetery (1916) until Jack Neely covered it several weeks ago. There is the New York Highlanders monument (1918) at the intersection of Clinch Avenue and 16th Street, which many pass on a daily basis but few notice. Fewer still know its reason for being. 

Of late, however, memorials are increasingly populating the city’s public realm. Market Square and its environs are home to a gaggle of monuments and representational sculptures in service of memorials, few of which rise to the occasion. And while one could argue that their “art value” is only a secondary concern, that would seem pretty thin gruel. No doubt opinions vary widely on the artistic success of either the bronze Women’s Suffrage Memorial (2006) located on the edge of Market Square, or the improbably seated Dr. William T. Sergeant (2005) in Krutch Park. Both seem to commemorate better than they elevate. That said, they speak to the improved health of the region as an increasingly broad spectrum of stakeholders stakes claim to part of the story of this place.

On the University of Tennessee campus, the classically elegant Torchbearer bronze is undergoing restoration during the renovation of Circle Park. The bronze reproduction of Europa and the Bull by famed Swedish sculptor Carl Milles (1905-1955) was placed on campus the same year as the most recent version of the Torchbearer, 1968. The former, which commemorates nothing local but celebrates something global, is one of the finest pieces of public sculpture in the state. Yet it occupies a relatively incidental location on campus—a space that is more passageway than place. Were it switched with Alice Aycock’s A Startling Whirlwind of Opportunity, in the Johnson-Ward Pedestrian Mall, a major prospect would be greatly enhanced with a single stroke and Ms. Aycock’s whirlwind would be that much less startling. With a chronology of the university inscribed along its central datum, the mall is itself a long flat monument to self-memory, albeit a pedestrian one.

As for other UT memory markers—the well-intentioned memorial to the great Pat Summit located at the corner of Lake Loudoun Boulevard and Phillip Fulmer Way offers an object lesson in the many challenges of siting and designing a successful monument today, particularly when several levels of committees are involved. The public face Coach Summit projected courtside was animated, passionate, and intensely focused. Yet, the representational sculpture of the coach is too inert to be animated, the monument’s surface color and form too insipid to be passionate, the baffling geometry of the ascending perimeter wall too inconsistent to be intense or focused. If this is how the university honors the winningest coach in the history of all college sports, one worries about what Phil Fulmer has to look forward to.

So what is missing from this picture? When cities build monuments to the great men and women who were born, relocate, or in some cases just pass through the place, understandably they celebrate the positive—those events that add luster to one’s home. There are, of course, other histories, other stories, perhaps not so attractive, that nonetheless help us better understand this place and our place in it. How does a city acknowledge those events that were both momentous and monstrous? Dealey Plaza, for example, is a national historic landmark not because the people of Dallas willed it so, but because the rest of the nation and the world did. An otherwise nondescript place, it is the epitome of unintentional monuments.

During the final 48 hours of August 1919, Knoxville became part of a national tragedy, North and South, that was playing itself out on the world stage. Known collectively as the “Red Summer,” between May 10 and Oct. 1, in about three dozen U.S. cities, from as far north as Chicago and as far south as Texarkana, Texas, perhaps as many as 200 African Americans were lynched: hanged, shot, and burned at a stake. Chronicled by several historians during the past several decades, one of the most important documents was produced by Dr. George Haynes, commissioned by President Wilson to document the events, and summarized in a horrifying account published in a New York Times article on Oct. 5, 1919. 

Here in Knoxville, the story is more complex, culminating not in a lynching but a riot and armed conflict at the end of which seven were killed and 20 wounded—two days of racially motivated violence that today would be rightly labeled hate crimes. The final and most violent acts happened at the intersection of Central and Vine, just around the corner from the home and business of Cal Johnson, a freed slave who was still very much alive at the time and an important member of what was then Knoxville’s black business district, the locus of the riot.

Today one can find that intersection only on old maps. The insertion of the antithetically urban West Summit Hill Drive eviscerated this critical part of the city, erasing centuries of physical fabric and collective memories. In its wake it left odd fragments of dross space: a few businesses, far too much surface parking, and a triangular bit of cultivated land fronting Gay Street that has become an increasingly attractive urban park.

Yet there is now an opportunity for Knoxville to participate in an important national event connected to the Red Summer that would at once rework this part of its urban fabric, memorialize an important part of the African-American story in the several histories that make up our city, and place Knoxville at the forefront of a national movement.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has begun an ambitious program to erect memorials marking the 4,000 lynchings perpetrated in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. Knoxville’s Red Summer race riot began with an attempted lynching, foiled when the accused, Maurice Mays, was shuttled to Chattanooga. This did not stop the escalation of violence by the police force and Tennessee National Guard, however, against a small band of black citizens, guilty of being the wrong color at the wrong time and place.

Almost immediately, local and state news outlets in Knoxville and Nashville whitewashed the events of August 30 and 31, referring to it as a “disturbance,” claiming suggestions of a riot were exaggerated. This was soon followed by an out-migration of blacks from Knoxville; if this was only a disturbance, they clearly had no interest in waiting around to experience something worse.

With the story soon sanitized, key black participants killed or having left the city, and two generations later, the very site of the riot erased from the face of the city, one quickly sees how ephemeral are our memories, collective or otherwise. This is yet another reason why we build monuments and memorials: to remind us of the great things we can accomplish. Dr. Sergeant, the bronze fellow sitting uncomfortably on a world globe in Krutch Park, led the way to eradicating polio; the New York Highlanders successfully defended Fort Sanders. These were great things. Great, however, does not mean good. Knoxville’s part in the 1919 Red Summer was a great event, but monstrous. It is also worth remembering.

We need an archaeology of sorts to unearth the forgotten parts of this part of our story and the missing city in which it happened. This, too, would be a great thing.

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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