Killing of Asheville black man was part of hysteria
by Rob Neufeld
The 1906 manhunt for and grisly killing of African American gunman Will Harris in Asheville—you can see the nicks his stray bullets had made on the Vance Monument, tour guides say—is famous, thanks in part to Thomas Wolfe’s short story, “The Child by Tiger.”
“The Largest Manhunt in Western North Carolina History: The Story of Broadus Miller” is how essay contributor Kevin Young titles his piece in Stewart’s collection.
Broadus Miller was a 23-year-old black man living with his wife, Mamie Wadlington, in the Eagle/Market Street area of Asheville in 1924. He’d been a toddler in Greenwood County, SC when Harris, a frustrated Olympian manservant, had gone on his rampage in the same Asheville district.
The atmosphere in Asheville was tense in the mid-1920s. An exodus of African Americans from Miller’s region—where lynching was common—aroused hysteria in the “Golden Age” city to which many black refugees fled.
White leaders warned “Negros” to leave white women alone. The city segregated water fountains.
The newspaper reported a series of alleged sexual assaults, including one that had led to the execution of South Carolina immigrant Alvin Mansel. At Mansel’s trial, Young reports, “State officials deployed National Guard troops to the city (Asheville), where one detachment stood guard in the courtroom,” Springfield rifles at the ready.
A group of Asheville’s African American leaders tried to explain the situation to the general public.
“These newcomers,” their testimony in the paper ran, “were brought to Asheville by construction workers to aid in…the creation of the white man’s residential paradise.” Having come from picking cotton and hoeing corn in fields, they suddenly had “pockets bulging with money” and access to “dives and rendezvous as exert a wicked way.”
Broadus’ foster parents—his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Alpha Walker—had moved to Asheville for construction and housekeeper jobs. The boll weevil had robbed them of their livelihood; and the election of 1898 had inaugurated the Democrats’ race-based campaign.
In 1911, when Broadus had been seven, Young recounts, “a mob led by Joshua Ashley, a member of the South Carolina General Assembly,” had “captured a young African American accused of raping a white girl” in Honea Path, three miles north of the Walker residence. The mob had hung the accused upside down on a telephone and riddled his body with bullets.
When Broadus was 13, a mob in Abbeville, about 20 miles south, had lynched Anthony Crawford, a prosperous African American farmer, for arguing with a white shopkeeper over cotton prices. Men had dragged Crawford from jail and hanged and shot him.
A ritual seemed to exist for rage.
Broadus had been a field laborer when he’d been convicted, in 1921, of murdering his African American landlady. A state psychiatrist had deemed him not of sound mind; and Broadus had gotten three years in an overcrowded Columbia, SC prison.
Asheville was Broadus’ new start. His sweetheart, Mamie, age 18, had also recently moved from South Carolina; and they settled in a tenement house. A year later, Broadus returned to Greenwood County. The historical glimpse of him has him pleading to charges of house burglary and spending a year on a chain gang. When he returned to Asheville in 1927, he joined builder Dante Martin’s work crew.
The crew moved to a boardinghouse in Morganton for an extended period to work on Col. Franklin Pierce Tate’s new home. Broadus had Mamie join him.
At this time, a teenage white girl, Gladys Kincaid, began walking past the boardinghouse on the way to work in a mill. One day, she didn’t make it. One of her brothers found her groaning under bushes, her head fatally smashed by an iron pipe, which lay beside her. A neighbor later testified that she’d seen “an African American man walking along the road” who “wore a yellow raincoat and held a short iron pipe in his hand.”
Broadus ran. A bloody yellow raincoat was found behind a door in Broadus’ room, police reported. The hunt was on, as was the media glare.
Black men in many surrounding counties were taken in for interrogation. Citizens turned vigilante to win a $500 reward. One of them, Commodore Vanderbilt Burleson of Caldwell County, caught Miller coming out of the Linville Gorge into Ashford, shot him (later claiming self-defense), and dropped his body on the floor of the Morganton court house, where crowds converged to view the spectacle.
It was Sunday, July 3. Miller had been on the loose for 13 days. The next day, the Ku Klux Klan was in town for the Fourth of July. The Raleigh News condemned the affair under the headline, “Morganton Church-goers Applaud a Gory Matinee.”
Young’s research is one of 13 accounts in Blood in the Hills, which also includes Kevin Barksdale on the State of Franklin; Tyler Boulware on the Cherokee warriors of the 1760s and 70s; and Richard Starnes on the murder of industrialist and land baron Thomas Price on Lickstone Mountain in 1933.
Stewart is the author of Moonshiners and Prohibitionists; and an assistant professor of history at Appalachian State University.
CAPTION: THE BOOK:
Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia edited by Bruce E. Stewart (U. Press of Ky. Hardcover, 420 pages, part of “New Directions in Southern History” series, 2012)