Nearly 4,000 black southerners were killed by white mobs in the decades following the Civil War, including 102 victims in North Carolina, according to a new study. At least seven lynchings that fit the pattern took place in WNC’s mountain counties, while another was committed by Polk County men who crossed into upstate South Carolina.
After conducting the most comprehensive study of Southern lynching to date, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 10 released a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. The group’s total count of racial lynchings in the South is about 700 more than previous research had indicated and has sparked new discussion about these spasms of brutality and how to account for them today.
“These lynchings were terrorism,” the EJI asserted in its report. “Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in America and shaped the geographic, political, social and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today.”
At the same time, the EJI’s researchers, who spent four years on the study, found “an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss or address lynching” in most communities where it happened.
North Carolina had the lowest number of lynchings in the South, but the ones that occurred in the state differed little in substance from those in other states such as like Georgia and Mississippi. That’s largely true for the mountain-area lynchings, which mostly began with a perceived slight against a white person, or an allegation of a crime by a black male, and almost always ended with a lawless mob rushing to conduct a public and ruthless execution.
Using information from the EJI study and several previous ones, along with contemporaneous newspaper reports, Carolina Public Press compiled the following summary of WNC’s racial lynchings and what is known about them today. While some of these atrocities were fairly well documented, the specifics of others have mostly been lost to history.
The lynchings, recounted below in chronological order, took place between 1871 and 1900, a period when the practice peaked throughout the South. These accounts should be considered incomplete, as the news coverage at the time was rife with euphemisms, rumors and speculation, and the victims didn’t live to tell their side of the story.
Silas Weston and three children, April 26, 1871, Rutherford County
Silas Weston was a mulatto who was classified as a “free negro” during the Civil War. He lived in the northern part of Rutherford County with his wife, a white woman named Polly Steadman Weston, and four children, ages 1 to 12, three of which Silas had fathered.
In early 1871, three local white men were charged with stealing a quantity of brandy, and Weston was the main witness of the deed. According to newspaper accounts, the men were purported Ku Klux Klan members and threatened Weston with his life if he chose to testify, but he indicated he would, regardless.
On the night of April 26, the men raided Weston’s house, shooting and stabbing him to death as he sat at the dinner table. In the course of the attack, they also shot Polly and the children before stabbing Polly several times and setting the house on fire. The three oldest children perished within minutes of their father. Remarkably, though Polly and the youngest child were gravely wounded, they survived.
Two of the attackers, one of whom admitted to being a Klansman, were convicted of the murders and hung in neighboring Henderson County the next summer. The third confessed to the crime but made an escape from the area and was never seen there again.
John Humphreys, July 14, 1888, Asheville
On a July afternoon in 1888, a 13-year-old white farm girl named Sally Parker reported that she’d been physically assaulted by a black male while walking through the woods near Beaverdam. She said that her bonnet had kept her from seeing the man well, but that he was barefoot and clad in a striped shirt.
Hours later, local authorities arrested John Humphreys for the assault. When they found him, he was wearing shoes and a white shirt. Forced to don a striped shirt and take off his shoes, Humphreys was taken by officers to Parker, who then pointed to him as her attacker.
As rumors and rage built among the local white community, Humphreys was placed inside a locked steel cage at the county jail, ostensibly to protect him from being lynched.
In the wee hours of the night, a crowd of 20-30 white men, most of them masked, amassed at the jail. After exchanging some shots with the crowd, the deputy on duty was disarmed, and the mob then spent an hour tearing its way into the cage that held Humphreys.
They ultimately removed and beat the prisoner, dragging him to a tree a few hundred yards away, where he was rapidly hanged. Newspaper accounts indicate that none of Humphreys’ lynchers was identified or charged for the crime.
Hezekiah Rankin, Sept. 24, 1891, Asheville
A spat between two railroad workers, enflamed by the racial climate at the time, led to Asheville’s second lynching.
On a fall evening in 1891, a white worker, Fred Tyler, issued an order to a black one, Hezekiah Rankin. Rankin refused the task, saying it wasn’t his job, and Tyler responded by hurling a lump of coal, gashing Rankin’s scalp.
An enraged Rankin went to his house and grabbed a pistol; back at the railyard, he shot Tyler in the stomach. In short order, Rankin was disarmed and taken into custody by a group of white railroad workers who crafted a noose and thrust it around his neck.
Rankin begged for his life as he was led across the tracks to an oak tree on the west side of the French Broad River, where he was slashed and strung up.
Found the next morning by local authorities, Rankin’s feet were on the ground, as the limb holding him had sagged, but he was long dead. Two days later, Tyler died of his gunshot wound.
Four white railroad workers were arrested as accessories to the murder of Rankin, but all charges against them were lifted when local officials said they lacked sufficient evidence to move forward with the case.
Dick Wofford, Nov. 22, 1894, Polk County
Dick Wofford was a sawmill worker in Polk County who was accused in the summer of 1894 of raping an 18-year-old white woman.
He was jailed first at Columbus but then moved to a cell in Asheville after a local lynching party formed.
Months later, in November, Wofford was acquitted by a Columbus jury. After the proceedings, the county sheriff told Wofford to make a run for it, lest he be hanged by a mob.
Wofford escaped just across the nearby state line, to a black neighborhood in Landrum, S.C. But a group of Polk County men, intent on capturing and killing him, found Wofford the next day and attempted to take him back across the border and lynch him in Polk.
According to South Carolina newspaper reports, Wofford resisted until the end, and he was beaten and stabbed on the march home. Ultimately, the acquitted man was hung just shy of the North Carolina border.
The men who killed him were never held to account.
Robert Chambers, April 21, 1896, Avery (formerly Mitchell) County
Very little is known today about the life and death of Robert Chambers, a resident of the Cranberry community (which was in Mitchell County at the time, in a place that’s now part of Avery County).
The few remaining newspaper accounts said that Chambers was a preacher who was accused of planning to take advantage of a white woman.
On April 21, 1896, a group of white men tied him to a tree and shot him to death.
A month later, the Asheville Citizen would report, “There is great excitement in Mitchell County over the arrest and trial of the lynchers or Robert Chambers.”
But the historical trail appears to go cold there; Carolina Public Press was unable to find additional details on the case.
Bob Brachett, Aug. 11, 1897, Buncombe County
Bob Brachett was a black Buncombe County laborer who was arrested by local authorities after a white woman living near Weaverville, Kittie Henderson, accused him of sexually assaulting her.
Brachett was placed in jail in Asheville, but hours later, a group of an estimated 200 local men surrounded and stormed the facility, calling for Brachett’s blood. They found that local officers had already moved the arrestee, however, placing him on a train headed to Raleigh for safekeeping.
Members of the crowd intercepted the train at a stop in Biltmore. They absconded with Brachett and took him to a place near Weaverville where he was alleged to have committed the crime.
A local militia company, the Asheville Light Infantry, was dispatched to catch up with the mob, but it arrived too late to spare Brachett. He was hanged as about 100 white spectators watched.
The Asheville Daily Citizen described the scene at the lynching as a fervent gathering, comparable to an “old Methodist camp meeting.” After Brachett’s body was cut down, spectators clamored for souvenirs, seizing bits of his clothes, scraps of the hangman’s rope and even twigs from the tree where Brachett met his end.
George Ratliffe, March 5, 1900, Haywood County
Skeletal newspaper reports said that a black resident of Haywood County named George Ratliffe, age unknown, was charged with assaulting an 8-year-old white girl in Clyde and subsequently lynched.
While lynching victims were often seized from jails to be killed elsewhere, Ratliffe’s case was an exception: A mob tried to breach the Waynesville jail where he was in custody, but after failing to fully do so, they murdered him by firing guns into his cell.
Avery Mills, Aug. 28, 1900, Rutherford County
All lynchings were unique, but the last one that occurred in Western North Carolina was perhaps especially so, both for its circumstances and its detailed documentation later.
In the summer of 1900, Mills Flack, a prominent white Rutherford County landowner and former state legislator, came into conflict with one of his black tenant farmers, Avery Mills. The two sparred over who had the right to fruit on land Mills leased from Flack, and one day the dispute came to a bloody head.
Shots were fired, probably first by Flack. Mills was wounded in the skirmish but shot Flack to death. A posse of law officers took Mills into custody but didn’t make it to the jail with him. A white mob overtook them en route and killed Mills with a hail of bullets.
Just over a century later, Flack’s great-great-grandson, J. Timothy Cole, published an extensive account of the clash, The Forest City Lynching of 1900: Populism, Racism, and White Supremacy in Rutherford County, North Carolina. The book remains one of the few full-length histories of the circumstances surrounding a Southern lynching, and the only one about a lynching in the mountains of North Carolina.