Home » Tennessee » Erwin

James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.



Basic Information

Type of Place
Independent City or Town
Metro Area
Politics c. 1860?
Don’t Know
Unions, Organized Labor?
Don’t Know

Sundown Town Status

Confirmed Sundown Town?
Was there an ordinance?
Don't Know
Don’t Know
Year of Greatest Interest
Still Sundown?

Census Information

The available census data from 1860 to the present
Total White Black Asian Native Hispanic Other BHshld
1930 3623 11
1940 3350 11
1950 3387 8
1960 3210 4
1990 5015 0
2000 5610 3

Method of Exclusion

  • Unknown

Main Ethnic Group(s)

  • Unknown

Group(s) Excluded

  • Black


“The Negro population, which was very small, was located in two areas in Unicoi County.” Sam’s Gap, descended from slaves owned by Josiah Sams, and Erwin, where they were railroad laborers. “In 1918, unrestrained, ghoulish, mob violence eradicated the Negro popilation in Unicoi County.”
[Charles Edward Price Papers, Box 1, Folder 6, Blacks in Unicoi County, TN,” undated, “Blacks: Tom Devert,” citing Pratt 1960 27-29, U TN Hoskins Library.]

“Tom Devert, Negro, grabbed a fifteen year old white girl as she and her young brother walked along the railroad tracks near the Nolichucky River. When Devert tried to swim across the river with the girl, he was shot twice through the head with a “44” by one of four men playing poker nearby. One of the men pulled the Negro’s body from the water and tied it to a locomotive. It was then dragged one and one-half miles to the railroad power house. A large mob gathered and the entire Negro population, estimated at between 60 and 70 persons, was forced to watch the proceedings. Men piled cross ties and sticks on the dead man, poured oil over the wood, and then set it afire.
“L. H. Phetteplace, general manager of the Clinchfield Railroad Company, interceded when the mob moved towards the Negro shacks with the intention of burning them. The homes were not burned but the Negroes were ordered to leave the county. Law enforcement officers were present the entire time and offered no interference.”
[Audree Webb Pratt, Unicoi County Court: 1876-1918 (Johnson City: East Tennessee State Univ. M.A., 1960), 27-29.]

Erwin citizens met at the court house, 5/21/1918, passed a resolution condemning the burning the body of the dead negro and the ordering “the peaceable and law abiding Negroes to leave the town and community.”
[“Erwin Adopts Strong Resolutions,” Johnson City Daily, 5/23/1918.]

The girl drowned or had been choked to death. The man shot him “by resting the gun in the crotch of his crooked arm, firing at a range of several hundred feet.”[Meanwhile, they don’t know his name or any of the four!] “All the Negro population, some 60 or 70, were summoned from their houses and made to line up, while men gathered wood, cross ties, and sticks and piled them over the dead body….The crowd lingering until far into the night to watch the burning. No attempt at concealment was made on the part of any participant…There was no interference on the part of the officers…The populace inflamed against the negro and all others of his race, are said to have threatened to burn the negro quarters, but were dissuaded by General Manager L. H. Phettaplace of the C. C. and O. Ry., who sought to stop them from their acts. However, all negroes were ordered to leave the town by members of the party, and it is said that the exodus set in early last night, and that today there are few left in Erwin.”
[“Triple Tragedy at Erwin on Sunday When Negro Runs Wild,” Johnson City Daily, 5/20/1918.]

“Judge R. M. Barry, addressing a Red Cross meeting this morning, urged the citizens to let alone innocent colored people and stopped what promised to be an exodus of that race.” This source says four shots were fired.
“Men with pistols, shotguns, and clubs stood before the lined up negroes to prevent their running away, and as the last cross tie and the last dash of oil was thrown on the heap one of the men is reported to have turned to the cowering crowd and said, ‘Watch what we are going to do here. If any of you are left in town by tomorrow night, you will meet the same fate.'”
“This morning there was apparently no attempt at concealment of the participants in the event. Feeling continued to run high against all negroes, many of whom had left town through the night, while others were gathering their effects together for departure before nightfall.”
“During the holding of a Red Cross rally which followed a parade this morning Judge Barry made a forceful and eloquent appeal to desist from further violence and to allow the remaining negroes to live in the city.
There were a few negroes here tonight, and the city was quiet.”
[Erwin Mob Shoots and Burns Body of Negro Who Attacked Girl,” Bristol Herald, 5/21/1918.]

Editorial, “Another Mob,” no citation: “As an aftermath to the scene of disorder enacted at Erwin Sunday night, the whole negro population left the town. Negroes of the best of reputation, sober, industrious, and owners of property, fled in the general exodus following the shooting up of the town Sunday night … Many of them are said to have left without making any attempt to carry with them their household goods. Terror stricken, they sought safety in flight.
“Notwithstanding the most influential men of Erwin have guaranteed them protection against further intimidation, few of them will ever be persuaded to return to the town. At this time when labor conditions are growing more and more critical, the blow to Erwin industry is severe. Nearly a hundred skilled laborers left almost overnight. Some of them were high prices machinists; all of them were valuable workers…”

A local resident testifies:
“One town in TN that you might want to consider is Erwin, located in Unicoi County at the far eastern end of the state. At last word, there are possibly two black men living in the town, but it’s been white ever since 1916 or 1920, I don’t have exact dates at this moment. A black man, Tom Devert, was accused of murdering a white girl. A vigilante group either hanged or drowned him and then all the blacks living in Erwin were told to get the *&% outta town by the end of the night. most blacks in surrounding towns are very hesitant to go to Erwin. Football players at my high school were hesitant and scared to make the trip to Erwin to play….not a problem anymore since they’re not in the same conference. I don’t recall there being any signs of warning to not let the sun set on you in Erwin… It’s one of those dirty little unspoken things around town. The younger generations try to play it all off as a hang up that the older generation had, but there are few blacks in Erwin to this day….
I’m not sure how to explain it. You just know that blacks are not welcome, but it’s not like they come right out and say anything. Even people who aren’t born here know it. I have a friend who attended ETSU but she’s from Cleveland, TN and she knew all about it too, she was white, by the way.
For example, several years ago I was friends with a woman who worked at a convenience store just of the interstate. I was visiting with her one evening when a black couple stopped there for gas and to inquire about a hotel room for the night in the next town, Erwin. Jennifer told them that they would have trouble getting a room if they just showed up. Additionally, she told them that she would call and make the reservation for them because if the owner spoke to someone who she/he thought was black, the owner would tell the caller that their rooms were all booked up. I think this was in 1990 or 1991.”