Remembering Rutherford: Rutherford Guard unit confronted Shelbyville rioters

Greg Tucker, The Murfreesboro Post, August 20, 2017

Early Thursday morning, December 19, 1934, Henry Alexander and Tom Givans, along with a hundred of their colleagues in the Rutherford County National Guard unit, were ordered to report to the local armory. Early morning orders from Nashville mobilized and armed the local combat-trained unit for immediate deployment in neighboring Shelbyville.

About noon of the preceding day, a 14-year-old female student had allegedly been raped by Ernest K. Harris outside her school in rural Bedford County.  The local media described the alleged victim as “a white school girl” and the alleged rapist as a “22-year-old negro” who had been loitering in the area of the girl’s school for several days.  The alleged attack took place about noon as the girl was walking back to the school house from the outdoor toilet.

When arrested, Harris admitted to the attack but denied rape.  An initial hearing was set for the following morning.  By nightfall, a crowd of about 500 local residents had converged on the town square demanding that the alleged rapist be handed over.  Witnesses observed that many in the mob were armed and drinking heavily.

Local officials saw the danger.  To avoid a lynching, they arranged for a quick trial and transported the accused to Murfreesboro.  When it appeared that the mob was preparing to go to Murfreesboro, Harris was moved to Nashville.  He was returned to Shelbyville the following morning when the Bedford County court refused to grant a change of venue.

When the 115th Tennessee National Guard field artillery unit arrived from Murfreesboro under command of Major G. S. Ridley and Captain Aultman Sanders, they circled the courthouse and were immediately challenged by the unruly mob.  With fixed bayonets and loaded pistols, the guardsmen held off the first rush by the mob, several of whom suffered gunshot and bayonet wounds.  Anticipating a second charge by the mob, the guardsmen retreated into the courthouse.

With the mob threatening to burn the barricaded courthouse, presiding Judge T. L. Coleman declared a mistrial.  Clearly outnumbered and potentially overwhelmed by the threatening mob, the guardsmen were ordered to abandon the courthouse and retreat on foot to the parked military vehicles.  Several in the unit recalled that they were “forced to march out of Shelbyville backwards” abandoning several vehicles.  The defendant was disguised in a National Guard uniform and rushed into a waiting vehicle which moved with the retreating Guard unit.

“Henry Alexander was driving one army truck when it was seized by rioters and burned.  Alexander stated he pointed his pistol at the leader of the gang that approached the truck and told him if he moved another step he would be killed.  ‘I don’t believe it,’ the mob-man said, and advanced.  Alexander wisely cast the pistol aside and abandoned the truck,” according to page 1 of Rutherford Courier‘s December 21, 1934 edition.

After returning from Shelbyville, several of the young guardsmen stopped at the City Café for supper and to share their experience with restaurant patrons.

“One soldier told of stabbing a rioter when the mob made its first attack.  The soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets, and when the mob surged forward the men in back pushed the front line right onto the bayonets. The blade went deep into the rioter’s abdomen…”

Four of the rioters died of wounds incurred during the confrontation, three from gunshot wounds and one from a bayonet injury to the stomach.  Several dozen others were wounded.  The Murfreesboro Guard unit suffered no casualties.

Harris’ escape was soon discovered and further infuriated the mob.  Anger focused on local officials who had fled the scene fearing for their own safety.

The Bedford County courthouse was burned with a loss of many county records.  As the mob dispersed, a local vigilante committee of approximately 100 citizens led by a local dentist assumed responsibility for maintaining order in the absence of law enforcement personnel.

By the weekend, 600 National Guardsmen were in the town protecting remaining public buildings and utilities.  These were units called up by the governor from Winchester, Nashville, Cleveland and Jackson.

Before the end of the year, Bedford County Sheriff Tom Gant moved with his family to Georgia.  A local Methodist minister, Oliver Largen, tried to organize a committee to identify the mob leaders.  After several threatening letters, the minister’s home was burned with his family barely escaping injury.  No rioters were ever prosecuted.

Within six months of the riot, Harris was tried and convicted of rape by a Nashville jury.  He was executed on May 22, 1936. According to the prison warden overseeing the execution, Harris confessed to the crime before his sentence was carried out.

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