How a lynching sparked the 'Columbia Race Riot of 1946'

Jan 15, 2018 at 10:30 am by Michelle Willard

Rural southern towns in the first half of the 20th century were tinderboxes just waiting for a spark to light the fires of injustice.

Those fires were kindled twice in Maury County.

First in 1933, when Cordie Cheek was kidnapped from Nashville and lynched in his hometown of Glendale.

It happened again in 1946 when the black population of Columbia feared another lynching. They took up arms and defended their homes and businesses in what is mistakenly called a riot by history.

History also draws a direct line from the community's killing of Cheek to the riot 13 years later.

Here's how it all started.

(Note: Most of the information in this article comes from newspaper reports of the time.)

The Victim

Cordie Cheek, 17, lived in Glendale, Tenn., little more than a crossroads south of Columbia in Maury County.

His mother was a domestic worker for a white family, called the Moores, who lived nearby. She had gotten her son work doing odd jobs around the home.

Over time, animosity had developed between Cheek and the Moore's 19-year-old son. The men were reported to have gotten into one fist fight.

On Nov. 16, 1933, Cheek was carrying a load of chopped wood into the Moore's home when he accidentally ran into their 12-year-old daughter, tearing her dress.

The Moore's son reportedly paid the girl $1 to say Cheek had tried to sexually assault her.

Cheek was arrested and taken to jail in Pulaski and then to a Davidson County jail cell because tensions were running high in Maury County.

A Grand Jury was convened but no indictment was returned.

According to news reports at the time, Cheek wasn't indicted because no witnesses testified in the inquest and the family requested no indictment be returned.

The Crime

After his release Dec. 15, 1933, Cheek was taken to his uncle's home in North Nashville for safekeeping after he was released from jail for lack of evidence. Less than two hours later, the young man was kidnapped at gunpoint by two carloads of men from the front yard of a house near Fisk University.

Later that night he was found hanging from a cedar tree in Maury County.

A mob had formed in Maury County to watch Cheek's death.

According to a book about Southern lynchings, he was forced to climb a ladder, blindfolded and castrated before he was hanged.

Cheek had been shot three times in the legs and had a wound to the back of his head. "Fine gravel" on his clothes means he was liking dragged behind a vehicle prior to his hanging, according to an Associated Press report.

In the days following his death, police in Maury County said they had "no idea whatever" as to who may have committed the lynching and "no starting place" for an investigation, according to an AP report.

Following Cheek's death, then Tennessee Gov. Hill McAlister offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case. In today's dollars, the reward would be nearly $20,000.

The Suspects

Most of the suspects were members of the girl's family. Among those accused were a former state legislator, the Glendale, Tenn. postmaster, and a Columbia police officer, among others.

The politician and postmaster owed the automobiles used to kidnap Cheek from North Nashville.

The first Grand Juries convened in Davidson and Maury counties failed to indict anyone in Cheek's death.

Eight months after the kidnapping and lynching a Grand Jury was convened in Nashville. According to an article in The Daily News Journal from the time, six suspects were expected to be indicted but no one was.

The Aftermath

The first major racial incident following World War II occurred Feb. 25-26, 1946, in Columbia. And Cheek's lynching is often cited as the root cause of the "Columbia Race Riot of 1946."

Stemming from an altercation over a radio repair, the riot started after a black Navy veteran and a white radio repair apprentice got into a fistfight over the white man's treatment of the black man's mother. After the fight, the father of the white man convinced the Maury County sheriff to charge the black man with attempted murder.

Fearing another mob and lynching, the black citizens of Columbia armed themselves to defend their homes and businesses as whites circled the area shooting indiscriminately.

Ten people were wounded in the crossfire, including four policemen. None of the officers was seriously hurt.

Columbia's mayor called in the Tennessee National Guard while the sheriff called the Highway Patrol to restore order.

On the morning of Feb. 26, the state troopers arrived and began to distribute arms to the white population, which instigated more violence. Meanwhile, the National Guard cordoned off the black section and rounded up more than 100 black suspects.

Order was restored over the next few days and the State Guard withdrew March 3, 1946.

Overall, two black men were killed and a third was wounded in the conflict. The state troopers also damaged several black-owned businesses during sweeps of the area.

Eventually, 25 black men were charged with attempted murder for shooting at the four policemen and six were charged with lesser crimes. Only four white men faced charges.

The black men were defended by NAACP lawyers Z. Alexander Looby and Maurice Weaver with help from Thurgood Marshall. The attorneys successfully argued for a change of venue to Lawrenceburg, Tenn. and got an acquittal for all but two men from an all-white jury. In a retrial of the two convictions, the charges were eventually dropped.

The case likely set Marshall on the path to becoming the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.


Michelle Willard is a freelance journalist who fills her days with social media marketing, politics and true crime podcasts, and taking complaints. You can complain to her on Twitter @MichWillard or by email michelle(at)murfreesborovoice.com.