• U.S.

RACES: White Blood for Black

4 minute read

The three-day race riots at Knoxville in 1921 splotched an ugly stain on the State of Tennessee. Last week Tennessee wiped away its 13-year-old stain with the blood of four white men.

Lillian Gibson, a Tennessee hill girl of 15, lived at Fall Creek, went to school at Stump Valley, near Shelbyville. One afternoon last month she started home after school. A while later, her teacher said, Lillian came running frantically back. Her clothes were partly torn off, her body bitten and bruised. She was screaming “I’m gonna have a baby!”

That night John Gibson, Lillian’s father, and a wrathful posse of 300 hillmen scoured the woods, caught a 22-year-old illiterate Negronamed E. K. Harris. He was accused of Lillian’s rape, taken to the Shelbyville jail. When a hillbilly mob went to Shelbyville, demanding that Harris be turned over to them, authorities spirited Harris away, first to Murfreesboro, then up to Nashville.

Last week Harris’ trial was scheduled to begin at Shelbyville. Circuit Judge Coleman sensed trouble. The sheriff requested from Governor Hill McAlister enough militiamen to prevent disorder. Accordingly, when Harris was brought into Shelbyville he was riding in an olive drab militia truck and men from three companies of the 117th Tennessee National Guard were riding along with him.

Father Gibson had inflamed his mountain neighbors by telling them that Dr. E. E. Moody, a general practitioner of Shelbyville, had told him that Lillian was pregnant. The backcountry folk in turn rallied hundreds of Shelbyville’s rabble, marched on the court house when the trial started. In the court room, Judge Coleman heard the mob shouting outside, tried to calm spectators with the assurance that it was just some sort of Christmas parade. No parade, the mobsters charged the court house twice. The no guardsmen returned tear gas for rocks, held firm. The third time the mob charged, militia officers, determined to hold the court house, ordered: “Fire!” A countryman named Pat Lawes spun around like a top, fell eight feet from the court house porch to a concrete walk below, dying. A house painter named Edwards dropped with a bullet through his chest. Two other countrymen were mortally wounded. Twenty in the mob were peppered in the legs with buckshot.

As the would-be lynchers turned tail under the blast, Judge Coleman hastily declared a mistrial, ruefully admitted that the attempt to prosecute the case at Shelbyville was “a mistake.” Guardsmen wrapped puttees around Negro Harris’ trembling legs, clapped a gas mask over his black face, covered his shabby sweater with a militia greatcoat, rushed him out to an automobile. Determined officers sped the blackamoor to Nashville and safety. Their job done, the troops marched out to the edge of Shelbyville and pitched camp.

Stakes were barely in the ground before the infuriated mobsters returned to the court house square. They upturned four National Guard trucks, set them afire. Then they stormed the 75-year-old court house, sloshed gasoline all over its floors, touched it off with matches. Firemen never had a chance. The mob stood guard over their work until the large brick building was a roaring furnace. The court house burned all night. All county records were destroyed. Shelbyville businessmen, aroused at the havoc their country cousins and excitable fellow townsmen had wrought, held a mass meeting, formed a vigilante corps. Dr. Moody told newshawks that he thought that Lillian was not pregnant, had not actually been raped. Indeed, she was back at school. Nevertheless Father Gibson swore a mighty oath, declaring: “The fire hain’t started to burn yet. Our people back in the hills ain’t agoin’ to forget. They can keep the National Guards here for months, but that won’t matter. I took Pat Lawes, who was my nephew by marriage, and Gill Freeman with me to the trial in my truck. Now both of ’em are dead. Governor McAlister is the man who did it all.”

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