The Mills house on West Fifth Avenue in the Loray Mill village was crowded in 1920. In the small, rented house lived John and Lula and their ten children who ranged in age from nineteen to two: James, William, Fred, George, Johnsey, Nolie, Garland, Elnora, Elizabeth, and Ruth. To support such a large family, Lula washed other residents’ laundry in the Mills home, while John and three of his sons worked for the Loray Mill. The mill did not employ African American men in the same positions as white men, usually restricting them to lowly, unskilled laborer positions. John and George were wagon drivers; James was a general laborer; William was a scrubber, tasked with cleaning the floor and equipment; and Fred was a breaker, meaning that he would have opened cotton bales when they arrived at the mill. It is important to note that both Fred and George worked full time even though they were sixteen and fourteen, respectively. The younger children, though, did not have to work and were able to attend school. They likely would have not had such an opportunity had the Mills family still lived on a farm in the countryside.
The children of former slaves, John and Lula Mills came from the humblest of beginnings. John was born on April 9, 1877, in York County, South Carolina, and likely grew up in the small village of Clover. It is unclear whether he attended school or not, but John did manage to learn to read and write during his early years. In 1900, John married Lula Johnson, another resident of York County. Lula was born on November 25, 1853, to Nolan and Margaret Campbell and grew up living on the family’s rented farm. John and Lula continued to live in York County for the first four years of their marriage, where they had their first two children: James and William. In 1904, however, the Mills family moved north to the South Point area of Gaston County, North Carolina. For at least the next fifteen years, John and several of his sons would work as farm laborers on rented land, and the family quickly grew in size. Lula gave birth to a new child nearly every two years. Possibly the need to feed a larger family drove John to seek employment in the Loray Mill, and the family moved to Gastonia around 1919.
The lure of the economic and social mobility of the urban North divided members of the Mills family. After 1920, John continued to work for the Loray Mill, and the family moved three times within the African American section of the village. They also welcomed their last child, Sarah, into the world on January 8, 1921. In 1930, John, James, and Garland were all three laborers at the cotton mill, and Johnsie and Nolie were hired domestic servants for local Gastonia families. Over the course of the next decade, however, the Mills family would slowly splinter. John passed away in 1932 from a severe stroke, and Lula moved in with her grown children after his death. She died nine years later from a cerebral hemorrhage. James, William, George, Johnsie, Elnora, and Ruth decided that it was in their best interest to remain in North Carolina. James continued to work in the textile industry in Gastonia, while William became a carpenter and eventually moved to the nearby Charlotte. George left mill work, as well, and served as the maintenance man for the segregated Gastonia High School. In 1930, Johnsie married Oscar Love, a machine operator at the Firestone Mill, and the two would live in Gastonia for the rest of their lives. Elnora and Ruth also remained in Gastonia for several decades following their fathers’ death, although the two would leave Gastonia soon after their marriages. Ruth eventually immigrated to Detroit, and Elnora to Washington, D.C. George and his wife would follow Elnora to D.C. in 1957.
Elnora and George were likely attracted to the nation’s capital because of her family connections within the city and the economic opportunities in the urban North as a whole. In the 1920s and 1930s, many members of the Mills family left Gastonia for better opportunities. In doing so, they took part in the Great Migration, a massive emigration of southern African Americans to northeastern and midwestern American cities in the first half of the twentieth century. Fred was likely the first sibling to leave North Carolina, and by 1940, he was an elevator operator in New York City’s borough of Manhattan. Nolie and Garland soon followed, moving to Washington, D.C., before 1940. There, Nolie would work as a servant in a private home, while her new husband and Garland served in the military during World War II. Elizabeth and Sarah joined them there after 1940. Eventually, George and Elora would also move to D.C. before the end of their lives, and Ruth left with her husband for Detroit. By the 1960s, therefore, members of the Mills family could be found in New York, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Detroit, and even Gastonia.