As the summer wound to a close, tensions were at the breaking point across the country.
Immigration issues boiled over. A president whom many decried as a white supremacist occupied the White House. And racial lines were being drawn in communities around the country.
That was a century ago — 1919. Until that point, Knoxville was considered a bastion of racial harmony, but by the end of August of that year, whatever civility that allowed white and black residents of the city to peacefully coexist was destroyed by the actions of a violent mob and National Guard gunfire through a black neighborhood.
Although it’s often described as a race riot, it’s more accurate to call it a mob action, said Linda Parris-Bailey, the executive and artistic director of Carpetbag Theatre, which will tell the story on stage starting Thursday, Sept. 12. Titled “Red Summer,” the series of performances, which take place at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville, shed light on an uncomfortable piece of Knoxville history that still makes some city residents squeamish, she told The Daily Times this week.
“I think when we first started researching the subject, there was some resistance to telling this story, largely from the European-American community,” Parris-Bailey said. “I think that had some difficulty acknowledging that it did happen here, and that race relations, post (World War I), were as complicated as they were. You had all of these tensions and all of these things going on — returning war veterans and competition for employment and so many factors that really led to the incident — but I think it revealed an underlying, for some, issue that people had not dealt with in terms of race, and I think that’s why it’s so relevant today.
“There were political dynamics involved in this; there were elections coming up; and all of those were factors that were part of this mob action, because that’s really what it was. I think all of those influences had to do with exactly what happened and how it happened here in Knoxville. We know it happened all over the country, but what we wanted to examine is, what was peculiar about Knoxville? Why was it different here than it was in Chicago?”
The play takes its title from a name given to the summer of 1919, when post-war social tensions fomented race riots in cities across the country, by civil right activist and author James Weldon Johnson. In Knoxville, the incident began in late August, when a white Knoxville woman was shot and killed by an intruder. Her cousin identified the suspect as a light-skinned black man, and two law enforcement officers arrested café manager Maurice Mays, who was reputed to be the illegitimate son of Knoxville Mayor John E. McMillan.
The evidence was flimsy, but a crowd gathered in downtown Knoxville and eventually grew to 5,000 people, according to some accounts, all of them white. They broke into the jail searching for Mays, who had been transferred to Chattanooga. They ransacked the facility, and the Tennessee National Guard was unable to quell the mob. Confusion reigned, gunshots led troops to march on a largely black neighborhood and open fire with Browning machine guns, rioters looted stores along Gay Street and by the time it was all over, the death toll varied from reports of two deaths to so many that some bodies were dumped into the Tennessee River or covered up in a mass grave outside of town.
“What has been interesting is really reading the court documents and the testimony of those who were charged (all white defendants were acquitted; Mays was eventually executed by the state) and finding where they’re out of alignment,” Parris-Bailey said. “At the time we were developing this story, we were able to collect first-person narratives of people who were there at the time. This is historical drama, in terms of what we know and what we can only speculate on, but because it’s a drama, those things come together.
“It’s rooted in research, trial notes, articles from the (Knoxville daily newspaper) and first-person narratives, and the accuracy of those documents are what we’re using as our foundation. We’re presenting what’s happening in people’s living rooms and on the streets where they’re congregating, because it’s very much based on those interviews we were able to conduct.”
A native of the Queens, New York, neighborhood of Flushing, Parris-Bailey moved to East Tennessee after meeting and marrying a Knoxville native. Her interest in writing dates back to her years in junior high, and by the time she was in high school, she was a student activist with an avid interest in theater. She sought out theater companies that combined art and action, and after moving to the Knoxville area found that The Carpetbag Theatre, established in 1969, suited those needs perfectly. But in looking to get more involved in Knoxville’s African American community, she discovered that there seemed to be a dearth that could be traced back to the Red Summer.
“What I really wanted to find out when I heard this story was why the African American community seemed to have so few services and the degree to which people were essentially disempowered, in terms of our activity politically and our lack of resources economically,” she said. “I was trying to find a doctor in the community, or asking around if (Carpetbag) needed some legal help from our community, and I was not finding the resources until someone said, ‘We had X number of doctors and attorneys back in those days.’ I was amazed at the history, and I began to think about what it was that happened to change and shift this community.”
Although Parris-Bailey conceived of the production, it was developed as an ensemble. Scenes were adapted from a commissioned script; director Leilani Chan brought a contemporary thread to the production to draw parallels between “Red Summer” and the summer of 2019; and the entire cast has committed itself to making sure the atrocities of a century ago aren’t just remembered, but that they’re not repeated.
“We know that the conditions in the country today are at a point where the kinds of dialog that we need to have are not happening, and the piece raises certain questions about some of the contemporary issues that we have, everything from white supremacist organizations to issues around the state of relations between our community and the policing community,” Parris-Bailey said. “All of these questions are being raised throughout the country, and we hope that this will at least stimulate conversation and bring some honesty about the history of this incident and the impact on the community.”