When one thinks of civil rights the African American experience that has been well documented in history is often what comes to mind. However, the purpose of this exhibit is to explore the Lumbee experience with civil rights through the opposition of school desegregation, poverty’s relation to civil rights, and the parallels that exist between the Lumbee and African American experience.
The 1875 amendments to the state constitution brought about segregated schools. In a tri-racial county this bi-racial law did not address the needs of Indians. Indian’s could not attend white schools due having the same laws that applied to blacks applied to Lumbees. Therefore, Lumbees advocated and achieved a separate school system with their own teachers. The Croatan Indian Normal School was established after the 1887 law sponsored by Hamilton McMillan provided for the establishment of a teaching school for Indians. Later, teachers who graduated from the Normal school helped to improve public school education for the Lumbee. 83 years later, the implementation of the HEW mandated county-wide desegregation plan ended school segregation. However, this plan was not celebrated in the Indian community. Having separate schools provided the Lumbee with an environment that was conducive to their culture. As described by James Dial, “knowing the community,” was an important feature that the faculty at all Indian schools possessed. An outsider, mostly referring to whites would not have the understanding of the community that was needed in Indian schools.
An interview by Malinda Maynor with James Dial provides a first hand account of what school desegregation meant to some Lumbee people. A summary of the interview, which focuses broadly on tri-racial school desegregation in Robeson County, is featured below.
Mr. James Dial was born in 1929 and began his career as a school teacher in 1954; he gives a first hand account of his experience in the education and community setting during segregation and after. Due to segregation in higher education, particularly UNC-Chapel Hill, Dial attended graduate school in Georgia during the mid-fifties. He describes the public schools in Robeson County segregated tri-racially. Some Indian schools had “non-local” white teachers and the university had predominately white professors. Due to being in a segregated community, Dial does not recall personal experiences with discrimination. In biracial counties, Dial went into white facilities. Even after desegregation, Dial remembers his mother choosing not to go to previously segregated places such as restaurants. Segregation continued after desegregation by choices in places like Lumbee churches. Dial states that Indian schools were probably better off segregated due to the importance of “knowing the community,” a quality white teachers did not have. The 1970 federal government demanded compliance with desegregation, however; Indian children wanted to continue attending Indian schools. The redrawing of the district lines brought about reactions from Indians, blacks and whites. Peopled made a conscious effort to attend a desirable school. In the 1960’s parents, mostly from prospect, came together to oppose the county school board’s plan. The parent eventually accepted it the plan though. However, since white and black teachers now taught at Indian schools, Indian parents made request for the Indian teachers. Due to tenant farming, many Indian schools were rural. Dial credits tenant faming keeping children out of school as one of the reasons Indian children were not very educated. He also acknowledges that prior to integration, the school system probably supported under education for the benefit of farming. Dial was present for school consolidation and felt that the Indians would have been better off without it. On a higher level, the Robeson County Board of Education, race still plays a major role in selection of positions. Mr. Dial concludes the interview, stating that he does not think that “we,” need to be race neutral at this time, 2004.
During the civil rights movement, Indians had a unique way of responding to the changes that were brought about in their schools. Mr. Dials interview provides a first hand account of how Indians felt about the changes taking place and how they reacted. Indian schools are perhaps where Lumbee’s were most active during the civil rights movement. While others believed that school desegregation was the right thing to do and would provide equal opportunities to all, the Indian did not view it this way. Mr. Dial mentions on several occasions the importance of teachers having knowledge of the community in order to be effective in their teaching. For example, white teachers were not received well by Indian parents once the schools were integrated. Some Parents even requested their children be placed in an Indian teacher’s class room. Incorporating white and black teachers into schools may have been the right thing to do according to civil rights, but these events disrupted the education of the Indian. Cynthia Locklear, a student at Fairgrove School during desegregation stated that she hated it when the schools were desegregated. At her new school, Fairmont, she felt like she was “the only Indian there.” Cynthia’s experience is an example of how desegregation interrupted the education of Indian students. As the only Indian in her class, it is certain that she did not have peers who were knowledgeable of her community, which was very important to the Indian student. In addition, not having someone in the class who “looked like or talked like them,” could have a negative impact on the Indian student. The student may not feel as comfortable raising there hand or engaging in classroom activities. For some Indians, desegregation had an impact that was negative enough to pursue legal action against the desegregation plan. Immediately following desegregation, a group of Indians protesting the desegregation plan filed a law suit, often called the “Prospect Suit.” They viewed their actions as an effort to preserve Indian Identity and autonomy. The suit was dismissed but speaks volumes about the feelings Indians had about sending their children to non-Indian schools. The action taken by this group indicates that Indians felt their children would be better educated in an all Indian facility. Later, the redrawing of school district lines brought about subtle activism in the Indian community. For example, some Indians moved so that their child could remain in an Indian school.
Also, Indians were not the only ones who did not like the mandated integration of the schools. It was obvious enough for Mr. Dial to remember and mention that white teachers did not necessarily want to be at Indian schools either. However, this was not always a racial issue, but more of a community issue. With the mandate to desegregate the schools, teachers would have to travel from schools in their community to schools in Indian communities. For example, a teacher living in Lumberton may have to drive 20 minutes to teach at an Indian school in Pembroke versus 10 minutes to a Lumberton school. The opposition to integration, according to the account given by Mr. Dial, did not seem to be a result of racial differences, but more of a community issue. The communities were largely segregated and the Lumbee people have a distinct way of life and doing things that may not have appealed to others outside the community. For example, Mr. Dial’s account of impact of tenant farming on school attendance would be frowned upon by people outside of the community who did not understand that this was necessary for the survival. Students of tenant farming families would begin school late due to harvesting the crops. My Grandmother, Brenda Locklear Deese of Fairmont, recalls staying home from Fairgrove School because she had to “tend the farm with Mama.” According to Ms. Deese this was not uncommon in her all Indian school, when asked if she stayed home to farm she replied, “Yeah, we all did,” referring to her classmates. Although Ms. Deese’s family was not a tenant farmer family, because they owned the land they farmed, her experience parallels that of tenant families. These practices may not have been understood by whites.
Segregation provided a shield for the Lumbee against discrimination. Living in their own communities with their own schools, Lumbee’s were not always exposed to the feeling of inferiority. After integration, some Lumbees self segregated such as Mr. Dial’s mother. They did not do this because they felt they would be denied their rights, they did it because they knew they were not welcome. In a Lecture given by the Reverend Mike Cummings, he stated that he learned that being Indian was different and inferior when he began school at Red Springs High, a traditionally white school and community. Red Springs was described as a place where whites thought of themselves as superior and it has been rumored that some said that Lumbees might not have souls. He described this time in as life as “just an awkward, challenging time.” Like Cynthia, Mike felt out of place. He focused on his studies as a way to compensate for feeling out of place. It should be noted that Rev. Cummings’ mother sent him to the Red Springs voluntarily, contradicting the common thought that non-Indian schools were not good for the Indian. Rev. Cummings and his Sister said that the people in the community may have thought less of her for sending her child to a white school, but she may have thought that sending her son to Red Springs would create opportunities that may not have been available in Indian schools. They said that their mother looked at education as a way of advancement. Rev. Cummings certainly did gain extraordinary opportunities at Red Springs. His French teacher gave him the opportunity to spend 6 weeks in France, and the Civic group raised money to fund the trip. In the early 1960’s this was not a common thing for Indian students. Rev. Cummings went on to be accepted to UNC-Chapel Hill and become a preacher in the Burnt swamp Baptist Association. Not all Indians were oppose to desegregation, some seen it as an opportunity for a better education. However, regardless views on desegregation it is obvious that it was challenging for the students who experienced it.