The end of slavery in North Carolina did little to ease racial tensions. The struggle between slaves and plantation owners was replaced by the conflict between black sharecroppers and wealthy white farmers. Occasionally this struggle erupted into open violence, as in the 1900 lynching of Avery Mills in Rutherford, North Carolina.
Avery Mills, a North Carolina native born in 1878, was a “new Negro”—an African-American born outside slavery. Mills was a tenant farmer living near Forest City, North Carolina, on land belonging to a prominent white citizen named Mills Flack. Mills likely rented his land from Flack under a yearlong crop-sharing arrangement.
Disputes between whites and “new Negroes” like Mills were commonplace. The dispute that eventually led to the death of both Mills and Flack began when Raney Mills, Avery’s wife, challenged Flack’s right to pick peaches from the Mills farm. Her accusation was a serious offense against the South’s “unwritten code of racial etiquette.”
Flack made a trip to the Mills farm on August 28 in an attempt to sort out the situation. According to Otho, the Mills’ son, Flack and Avery Mills exchanged angry words. Raney Mills threw a rock at Flack, whereupon the white farmer drew his pistol and shot Avery Mills in the hip. In return, Avery Mills shot and mortally wounded his antagonist. Flack was dead within an hour. With his dying breath, Flack called for the death of Mills.
Avery and Raney Mills were charged with murder and ordered to the Rutherford County jail. But Avery Mills never made it. En route to the prison, a mob surrounded the wagon and demanded that “justice” be served. Town Marshall Sam Hamrick and Constable William Hardin tried and failed to protect the prisoners. Angry whites seized Avery Mills, dragged him out to a small dirt road, and shot him approximately twenty times. He died within a minute.
Raney Mills was spared because of her pregnancy. She was sentenced to two years in jail, but was pardoned in 1901 by Governor Charles B. Aycock.
Race and class hatred seethed just beneatfh the surface of early twentieth-century North Carolina. Here and there it bubbled over in events like the Forest City lynching. Slavery might have been long dead, but its legacy lingered on.