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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Race Riot of 1903

Taking a walk down Fourth Street between Vine and Court, one passes two of the most significant structures in Evansville, the Old Jail and Sheriffs Residence and the Old Courthouse. This one-block section of Fourth Street was once the site of a terrible race riot and a dozen deaths.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Evansville was a prosperous city, growing quickly with a thriving middle class and a wealthy elite. But there also was an African American population, mainly clustered in a neighborhood called Baptistown centered around Lincoln Avenue and Canal Street. When black and white did meet, it was often in a negative way. Such was the case on the very hot evening of July 3, 1903.

At about 5 p.m., Lee Brown, a black man, had exited Ossenberg’s Tavern at Ninth and Canal Streets, leaving a debt owed to the bartender who had followed him outside and called for a policeman. Officer Lewis Massey, a very popular officer on the force, was walking his beat and heard the commotion. He followed Brown to the intersection of 10th and Mulberry when Brown turned and fired a pistol into Massey’s abdomen.

Massey was mortally wounded, but managed to fire off a couple of shots that struck Brown. The two men fired wildly at each other until their guns were empty. Brown was lightly wounded, but bleeding. He was arrested in a nearby doorway.

When it was announced the next morning that Massey had died, leaving a grieving widow and children, the crowd outside the jail on Fourth Street became larger by the hour and more agitated.

The sheriff moved Brown under Fourth Street via a tunnel (that still exists) and put him secretly on a train to Vincennes, Indiana. However, the mob that by dark numbered several thousand would not believe it. The mob turned violent, pulling down a telephone pole they used as a battering ram to break into the jail.

The violence grew overnight and by the morning of July 5, 12 people were dead of gunfire, including a 12-year-old girl shot in her parents’ carriage as they rode by on Vine Street. The Indiana governor declared martial law in Evansville and sent a force of 300 state militia.

Many African Americans fled and never returned. Mayor Covert was heavily criticized for not calling on troops to quell the riot earlier, and was blamed for the deaths and more than 40 people wounded during the four-day event. Brown was never tried, as he succumbed to pneumonia July 31 at the jail in Vincennes, a complication of his wounds inflicted by Massey.

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