TERROR IN TENNESSEE
Looking for My Ancestor’s War Battles and Finding a Modern Riot
After exploring the site of my great-grandfather’s brutal battle in Franklin, Tennessee, we would soon learn about our nation’s first major racial disturbance after World War II, along with meeting a spirited defender of the Old South. By the way, George and I would also learn about the World’s Mule Capital and the filming location for Hannah Montana.
Our planned route south, out of Tennessee, already traced my great-grandfather’s Civil War marching orders. To set foot on another of Austin Patton’s battle sites, we crossed the Duck River, site of war skirmishes tand into the small city of Columbia. From my homework, I knew that Columbia was famous as the World’s Mule Capital and host of Mule Days. Besides being the filming location for Hannah Montana, Columbia headquartered the Sons of the Confederacy, and was the hometown of President James K. Polk, who led the country into the Mexican War to expand slavery’s reach. Columbia was also the site of the first major disturbance of the modern civil rights movement, the “race riot” of 1946.
George and I went to the visitor center to learn of any commemorative sites for both the battles of the Civil War and civil rights. We found the place unoccupied except for an older woman reading, or maybe sleeping, when George and I walked in. For a moment, I feared she had passed out, face down in an open book, and was about to check on her when her head popped up. Appraising the two tall men who’d disrupted her rest, she immediately became animated. Spry and wiry, apparently a volunteer manning the center for the afternoon, Deane Hendricks engaged us with fervor. When I timidly mentioned seeking Civil War sites and my great-grandfather’s possible battle here, Deane startled me by praising Klan founder and Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, and handed me a pamphlet about him, “Arch-Angel of Confederacy.” Deane asked what role my great-grandfather served in the Confederate Army.
Oh no. There was nothing to do but reveal that Austin was a Yankee, fighting for the Ohio Infantry.
Deane looked at me evenly and absorbed the news quietly, but not for long. She suggested we sit down, so I took a place at a small table while George kept his distance on the far edge of an adjacent bench. Deane sat across from me, folding her hands, and launched into a free-ranging tutorial about Civil War history. She went into moving detail about postwar starvation across Tennessee, along with many other personal hardships borne by ordinary Southerners. And did I realize George Washington was really a rebel? Confederates were merely continuing his work against another faraway, tyrannical power…The North!
A torrent of corrective information followed at random, including how the “redneck” was a result of deprivation, too. Returning Confederate soldiers didn’t have detachable collars to cover their necks, so they got sunburnt when working the farm. “Blacks and Yankee soldiers would laugh at them, call them red necks.” By the way, Deane went on, “Your General Sherman was a war criminal, period. Even though black people saw him as a God, he hated them. He let his men rape not just white women but black women, too. So many black people drowned.” Deane glanced over to George. “Sherman neglected them, wouldn’t even feed them.”
Daylight was burning, and I realized I had to squeeze in a question about modern Columbia. We needed information about the 1946 racial disturbance, so we could get oriented to the location, and seek local sources of memory and commemoration. But Deane ignored my question as a white couple entered. She sprang up and began to gush over Mule Day and the other wonders of Columbia, dismissing George and me without warning.
We decided to visit the county library, right around the corner. The reading room was busy but hushed, so when I asked a reference librarian if there were some commemorative marker or historical display where I could find out more about the town’s 1946 racial disturbance, I felt self-conscious. I lowered my voice but it carried; heads turned. My northern accent must have been obvious. Chairs swiveled. Books and newspapers were set aside. A librarian, Adam Southern, though, responded immediately and offered details. Adam was actually working on an oral history capturing the 1946 riot’s surviving voices.
One of his colleagues stepped forward and gently chided him. “Working on it, Adam? When are you going to take it out of the drawer and finish it?” Two other staff members gathered around like a settling flock, engaged but quiet, watchful (George later said, “more wary than watchful”). Adam went on, undeterred by the attention. Like any good historian he stuck to the facts.
There was no commemoration, he told me, and nothing marked. His colleague nodded, stating that most people in town either knew little about the riot or wanted to forget about it. In 1946, though, the violence brought national media attention to Columbia, largely because it was among the first racial disturbances after World War II and its protagonist was an African-American Navy veteran who’d just served in the Pacific. The vet grew concerned when a white clerk in a radio shop became aggressive with his mother. The small incident exploded: the vet and clerk got into an altercation, the shop window was smashed, the clerk crashed through it, and the vet was charged with felony intent to kill the shopkeeper—who was quite alive. A white mob gathered at the county courthouse.
It got worse and worse. Black veterans and citizens also gathered, just a block downhill from the courthouse around an African-American commercial district, the Mink Slide. Some were armed, and when four police officers entered the Mink Slide, gunfire wounded all four. As white citizens encircled the district, state police arrived and went on a rampage. The officers rioted, shooting and stealing at random, conducting warrantless home searches to confiscate private weapons, and arresting over a hundred black citizens, all deprived of any legal recourse. Police killed two African-Americans held in custody. The overt violence sparked a six-month grand jury case over law enforcement’s unlawfulness.
Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, came to the prisoners’ defense. Eventually, white juries dropped all charges against the white officers. Only one of the hundred blacks was ever convicted.
In the aftermath of the legal case, more state police villainy involved Thurgood Marshall in an incident confounding to those of us who grew up learning of him only as the hero of Brown vs. the Board of Education and as our first black Supreme Court Justice. In the fall of 1946, when Marshall left Columbia after the last trial, state patrolmen trailed his car. The officers stopped him on fake driving violations, essentially chasing Marshall and his associates through the woods and eventually taking him—Thurgood Marshall!—into custody for driving while drunk. The charge was so obviously bogus that a country judge dismissed it.
To this scene, out of a Jim Crow nightmare, Adam, along with his colleague Elizabeth, added a final chilling detail I had not read in any summaries of the riots and the legal cases. With Marshall alone in their patrol car, the officers intended to isolate Marshall at a river sandbar. “This was the historical ‘legal’ lynching spot,” Adam added. Luckily, after the fake drunk charge was dropped, Marshall’s allies escorted the legal team back to the highway.
Clearly, the 1946 Columbia riots marked a made-for-Hollywood instance of state terror in the U.S.A. Its perfect casting included a war veteran demanding respect and a valiant lawyer on the verge of becoming an American icon. The story was one of ultimate vindication for human dignity.
We followed Adam’s directions a few blocks west to scout our own impressions of the Mink Slide today. George and I weren’t surprised that Columbia did nothing to identify the site or remember it publicly. The watchful/wary reception my question inspired at the library still embarrassed me, making me feel every inch the intruding Yankee blundering, uninvited, through Dixie. Still, the short stretch between the library and Mink Slide was its own monument, a sad one erected not by hands but by hands off, decades of neglect. Blocks of soaped-over shops, weedy lots, abandoned gas stations and warehouses, shut-down businesses in an old brick storefronts led past a faded sign, “Dump’s Café,” and to the corner of West 8th and Main. Here was
the site of the 1946 riot, the once-segregated but thriving black business district. Now segregated from commerce and life itself, three impressive old two-story brick facades faced Main with sagging, rusting arcades and ply-boarded windows. A vacant lot faced an abandoned warehouse and an empty parking lot. Mink Slide looked like it had been abandoned for all the sixty-five years since the police rampaged there.
George and I strolled one block north, up a sloping, more promising block that connected the forlorn corner to the classic, light marble courthouse atop the hill. From this angle, downtown Columbia was a beauty, a collection of elegant brick commercial buildings ringing the courthouse’s tall, pillared white clock tower overlooking mostly abandoned businesses.
This pretty City on a Hill looked like a dead zone.
We tried out a theory: maybe the riot was so traumatic to Columbia it never recovered? It remained physically divided between white and black. East of the courthouse a shabby warehouse district occupied a holler-like bottomland. Across that holler and lining a hilltop opposite, a low-density mix of isolated smaller houses scattered on rural-like lanes, a few black folks walking here and there, a few places beautifully maintained and renovated, but most forlorn, and a few collapsing. The west side, on an opposing hill, was identical except it had white faces, more money for renovations, and an air of satisfied prosperity.
Had something altered, shifted, in the town’s orientation? Why was the county seat of a proudly historic region in the very middle of Middle Tennessee all so lifeless? George speculated it was truly that lawless riot of law enforcement, that travesty of justice in the 1940s, become an original sin that had cursed the town ever since.
Just down the road, we’d soon find an even more cursed Tennessee town, its sin so original that George didn’t want me to set foot in the place.