Ethelyn “Ethel” Kennedy Mills was born on February 20, 1902 in Franklin, NC to James and Florine Kennedy and was the fourth of six children. James was an Episcopal minister who built the first Black school and was the first teacher to black children in Franklin. It seems she learned early the importance of education and how hard work and determination could lead to better education for the black community.
The family moved to Asheville in 1911 when her father became a minister at St. Matthias Church and attended Catholic Hill School, which was later named Stephens Lee High School, where she graduated. She passed the test for her teaching certificate and started her career as an educator right away and taught at Weaverville School for two years. Her starting salary was $30 per month. Later she completed more formal training for teaching through Winston-Salem Teachers College at an extension center in Asheville.
Winston-Salem Teachers College at an extension center in Asheville.
In 1923 she came to Transylvania County to teach at the first wooden Rosenwald school and was there for a year before being transferred to the one-room Everett School, where she was the sole teacher for six years. During that time she married her husband, stonemason Fred Mills, in 1927. She returned to Rosenwald and taught there until the school building mysteriously burned down in 1941. She continued to teach students as they met at various community churches for the next seven years, until the replacement stone building was constructed.
In 1949 the school superintendent, J.B. Jones, appointed Ethel as the principal of the newly reconstructed Rosenwald School. From 1949-1966 she served as principal as well as a classroom teacher for 1st and 2nd grades as needed. Her tenure as principal ended with the integration of public schools in Transylvania County, which led to the closing of the Rosenwald School.
Ethel worked with Head Start for a time before growing into the role of cataloger, documenting and organizing the previously untouched libraries of all schools in the county. She retired after 51 years of service, stating in a 1974 Transylvania Times article that she would “do the natural thing. I’ll clean house. That’s what most working women do when they have a little extra time…I also like to crochet, knit, and grow African violets.” Her words were modest, however, as she did much more than that. Many news articles over the years show that she was involved in the United Fund/United Way and the hospital auxiliary.
Ethel K. Mills passed away in 2004. Her impact on the community cannot be denied. Her legacy of service lives on for the numerous students who were positively impacted by her passion and commitment to education across five decades. Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Librarian Laura Sperry. Sources available upon request. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.