February 13, 2021

Tom Gillespie and his horse Bonnie
Exhibit at McMinn County Living Heritage Museum

TWO MEN WHO LOVED HORSES

Arley had several horses over the years and loved riding them around the hills of his neighborhood—especially on Sunday mornings (to avoid going to church with us). He felt closer to God on horseback than on a hard church bench, he said.  Tom Gillespie owned a small farm just over the hill and around a few bends from us, and he too loved going horseback riding.  Many times Arley would see him coming toward our house and he would saddle up his favorite horse Jesse and join Tom on his morning ride. I’m not sure what they talked about—probably horses, crops, and war news. I think they enjoyed each other’s company.

Once I ran out to greet them as they were returning from a ride, and in my usual chatterbox way, I asked Mr. Gillespie a question.  Later Arley called me aside to correct me.  “You shouldn’t call him Mr. Gillespie—his name is Tom.”  It just wasn’t done. That was because he was an African American—and in those days in the South, there were other names we used for them.

On August 1, 1946, Tom Gillespie made the news—reaching far beyond Athens—and not in a good way.  It was a local election day in McMinn County and many of the young veterans recently home from war were determined to throw out the corrupt machine politicians that had dominated much of Tennessee for decades.  They’d been fighting for democracy thousands of miles away and they didn’t see much of it back home.  With other community leaders, they campaigned with a G.I. Non-Partisan Ticket for county offices.  They had great popular appeal and the Crump machine politicians brought in over 200 armed deputies for election day—many of them from Georgia—and placed them at the polling stations.  

Voter repression, falsifying election results, poll tax requirements, dead people voting—this had been the norm for years in McMinn County elections.  This time the G.I.s promised: “Your vote will be counted as cast.”

That afternoon Tom Gillespie went to the Athens Water Works polling station to cast his ballot for the G.I. ticket. Deputy C.M. “Windy” Wise told him he couldn’t vote.  Faced with the deputy’s pistol, Gillespie dropped his ballot and began to run up the street.  Wise shot him in the back.  Pandemonium broke out—the poll was quickly closed, and Gillespie was taken to the hospital seriously  injured. As soon as he heard this news, Arley left work and came home.  He was visibly upset as he told us that Tom had been shot. 

 What became known as “The Battle of Athens” continued until about 3 am on August 2.  When the incumbents took ballot boxes into the jail to “count” them, the G.I.s broke into the National Guard Armory for weapons, and from an embankment across the street, riddled the jail with bullets until they retrieved the ballot boxes. Through the night downtown was riddled with fires, dynamite and bullets—cars were overturned and burned. There were some injuries, but no deaths.  In the end, the G.I. candidates won the election and the machine politicians left town. 

Deputy Wise was the only person to face charges related to the election battle.  He was tried and sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison, and paroled after one year.  In an interview 30 years later, Tom Gillespie said he did not think his shooting was racially motivated. Instead he thought it was just because he planned to vote for the G.I. ticket.  Mr. Gillespie was always gracious.  A few years ago, I was pleased to learn that one of his grandsons has come back to live in Athens and is a respected community activist.  It’s no surprise.

Arley’s favorite horse Jesse
Some McMinn County War Veterans
McMinn County Living Heritage Museum

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