September 26, 1923: One of the most visible incidents of racial terror and intimidation in WNC began on this day in 1923 near the small town of Spruce Pine in Mitchell County. The terror inflicted had parallels with other contemporary violence such as the Tula massacre which occurred just two years prior.
Mitchell County was the epicenter of a feldspar mining industry in the early 1900s and was bisected by the Clinchfield Railroad, both of which drew African American workers to the area. The county witnessed numerous violent acts prior to and during this period including the 1894 lynching of a man named English. The railroad also appealed to the governor for protection in 1899 as gangs of white men forced Black railroad workers across the county line under threats. The number of African Americans in the county dropped by almost 40 percent after this incident. Arthur Clark Smith, a Black former resident whose brother was murdered by a man with pickaxe building a dam around this time, recalled that the guilty man only served twelve months and that his trial was delayed numerous times as “they had the wrong kind of jury here.”
In 1923, more African Americans—incarcerated laborers from the state prison constructing state highways and infrastructure—arrived to toil in Spruce Pine. At some point, John Goss escaped and a white woman alleged that he assaulted her. On the night of the 26th a mob of nearly 200 drove Black prisoners and mine workers out of Spruce Pine while another posse tracked Goss. Governor Cam Morrison, himself a member of the white supremacist “Red Shirts,” nevertheless ordered local National Guard units to the town on the 27th and declared martial law in the interest of protecting citizens and restarting road work. The events during the following days made headlines across the South. Goss was captured near Hickory four days later, but threats of violence continued as guardsmen gradually escorted African Americans back to various work projects. Fourteen members of the mob were initially arrested and 86 were eventually indicted on minor charges. Goss was returned to Mitchell County for a trial lasting only five minutes before he was sentenced to death by electrocution that December.
Hear the oral history interview with Arthur Clark Smith courtesy of Southern Appalachian Digital Collections and Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library: