In her book Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South, Dr. Lowery briefly addresses the issue of those wandering Croatan turpentiners who never returned to Robeson County. “Today,” she writes, “their descendents are not Lumbee” (66). Because her main narrative focuses on the development of the modern Lumbee identity, Lowery moves on to more relevant topics. But this brief allusion raises an interesting question: if the descendents of these people are not Lumbee, then what exactly are they? Are they Indian? White? Colored? Something else entirely?
This question is of particular importance to me because I myself am one of these descendents. Given my limited timeframe, I cannot hope to address such a broad issue in any definitive way. Instead, I would like to offer myself and my family’s history as a case study or primary source of this phenomenon.
I am descended from diasporic Croatan turpentiners through my mother’s side of the family. Her people were Marlboro County Indians who migrated to York, Chester, and Union Counties in South Carolina. Excluding the Catawba Reservation in York County, this region of the state is a very black-and-white racial environment. And unlike the Lumbee communities in Bulloch County or Baltimore, my mother’s people had no Indian community as a support network. This unique situation engendered a sort of two-fold response. Over several generations, my family racially assimilated into the white working-class community but also retained many distinctively Indian ethnic traits that persist to this day. On the one hand, they adopted racist attitudes, took white spouses, and identified themselves as white to outsiders; on the other hand, they maintained certain Indian healing practices, foodways, and kinship ideas. Among themselves, members of my family also acknowledge their “mixed-up” ancestry.
A Note on Sources
I remember most of this information from stories I heard as a child from my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. I have also had more recent conversations with them and members of my (huge) extended family, and I have nosed through old documents and photos, some which I reproduce here. Please note, however, that this is not an analytical or academic history. Rather, my attempt here is to produce a primary account of my own understanding of my family and ethnic identity, which I hope will be of use to others.
My narrative will get a bit confusing. Here is a county map of South Carolina and a chart of my direct line of descendents, which hopefully will help the reader understand relationship among the most important people and places.
My great-great-great grandfather was an Indian named Malcolm L. Sweatt. I believe it is appropriate to begin my narrative with him, since my mother’s people generally think of “Grandpa Sweatt” as the family patriarch (almost in the biblical sense—he is rumored to have fathered twenty-one children with six or more women). According to my mother, Malcolm was born in the 1850s or ’60s in Opp, Alabama, the child of an itinerant Croatan turpentiner. (Please note that other accounts give his place of birth as Marlboro County, SC). His parents were probably Aaron Sweatt and Nancy Peavy, both originally from the South Carolina portion of the Lumbee settlement area. It is unclear why they would have moved to Alabama so long before the main wave of Indian migrants in the 1890s, but oral tradition has it that they constantly moved around in search of work “dipping turpentine.” They are said to have moved throughout Alabama, north Florida, Georgia, parts of South Carolina, and southeastern North Carolina. It certainly appears, however, that they were based in Marlboro County and were careful to maintain that connection, much like most migrant Indian families.
Malcolm Sweatt is the tall man in the center. Lessie McCloud is the woman on the left, and her husband Jim is on the right. The other people pictured are Lessie’s children.
Little is known about Malcolm’s youth. There is, however, a strong tradition that he was “declared an outlaw” in Alabama after robbing a bank and had to return to his home area of Marlboro County. (In his old age, Malcolm was known to hide out in the woods for days at a time, perhaps to elude phantom Alabaman lawmen. Whatever his motivation, my great-great grandmother would prepare food for him and place it in a predetermined spot at the edge of the trees).
During his return to Marlboro County, Malcolm met a woman named Julia Grant and fathered my great-great grandmother, Lessie Sweatt. She was born in Bennettsville, probably at some point in the 1880s. My family knows almost nothing about Julia Grant—it does not appear that she ever married Malcolm, and she died when Lessie was very young. (To further complicate matters, Malcolm was married to and had many children by another Marlboro County woman whose surname was Alsford.) We are therefore unsure of whether Julia Grant was an Indian, though I believe she was listed as “mulatto” on one census record. Because of her mother’s early death (and her father’s ever-changing marital status), Lessie was raised almost entirely by her father Malcolm, who is remembered in family lore as a controlling, patriarchal, and mean-spirited individual.
Malcolm, Lessie, and his numerous other children seem to have lived quasi-nomadic lives throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My mother, who was close to Lessie, remembers hearing that she and her family “dipped turpentine” and picked cotton in several different states—a lifestyle not unlike that of Malcolm’s own childhood. This arrangement gradually changed, however, as Malcolm’s children began to get married. Malcolm’s children usually took white spouses, though my mother has had some contact with a group of African Americans from coastal Texas who trace their ancestry to Malcolm Sweatt. These married children began to form familial clusters or enclaves in various towns in the Southeastern United States, particularly in Florida and South Carolina. As he grew older, Malcolm regularly circulated among these family groups, spending several months at a time with each. My great grandmother and her siblings sometimes visited Grandpa Sweatt’s people in Florida as well, and this process maintained some level of loose contact among the widely dispersed groups.
Malcolm Sweatt died in the mid-1950s at over one hundred years of age. My grandmother’s generation was the last to know him directly, and he has now become something of a legendary figure. He is best remembered as a bank robber, but the other two most-repeated stories about him both involve acts of violence. The first happened when some of his children (or grandchildren—I can’t remember) were young. In order to get to work—probably picking cotton or something similar—they had to cross through a white man’s pasture. One day, the man’s bull got after them, and Malcolm threatened the owner and told him to put the animal up. The man didn’t listen, and the bull got after the children again, so Malcolm walked into the pasture and shot it dead. In the other story, Malcolm shot a black man (his race is always noted) simply for crossing through his yard in a cart. Other stories about Malcolm emphasize his insatiable sexual appetite or his absolute authority over his family.
At some point during the nineteen-teens or twenties, my great-great grandmother Lessie met and married a white mill operative named Jim McCloud. They had ten children together, nine of whom survived to adulthood. In 1948, after she had raised them, Lessie followed her husband into the textile industry, as did her children. Among this second generation of mill hands was my great grandmother Viola, who helped raise me and was one of the most important figures in my childhood. It was at this point that my family’s racial status became extremely complicated.
Payroll stub from Lessie McCloud’s first paycheck
In South Carolina, textile mill work was a “white” occupation according to custom and a 1915 segregation statute. Like most forms of legal segregation, however, the goal was mainly to disadvantage blacks, not to grant poor whites exclusive privileges, and Indians existed somewhere outside this binary system. Catawba Indians, for example, often worked in the state’s textile industry, though their white co-workers viewed them as a threat and treated them accordingly. It was in this environment that my great-great grandmother Lessie McCloud managed to become legally white—which is the race listed on her Social Security registration form. I am not sure how the registration process worked, but I understand how she could have passed. Although she had a brownish complexion and two non-white parents, she had a white husband, had no official birth certificate, and was not a member of any state-recognized tribal group.
It is important to note, however, that she always described herself as Indian in non-official contexts and was particularly careful to tell this to her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. When some of my family members later attempted to claim Cherokee ancestry—no doubt to concoct a “legitimate,” socially-palatable tribal affiliation—she became irritated and told them that she was “just a plain old swamp Indian,” the term she most consistently used.
Lessie and Jim McCloud outside a mill village house.
Her children developed a more complicated racial self-conception. Like their mother, they almost always presented themselves as white to outsiders, identifying as “Indian” only to explain their unusually dark skin tone. Among family, they acknowledged their Indian heritage, but tended to play up their white ancestry and describe themselves as “mixed.” To my knowledge, all of them took white spouses, usually very fair-skinned ones, and many members of my mother’s generation describe themselves as white. (This was not an unusual strategy among Indians at that time–see Lowery, page 52). My mother herself, however, continues to describe herself as “mixed” or “Indian” and presses me to do the same.
Well into their adulthood, Lessie McCloud’s nine children (and their countless children) lived in separate households on the same street. This doubtless took serious coordination, since they moved several times among York, Union, and Chester Counties. After Grandpa Sweatt began circulating among his dispersed descendant clusters, Grandmama McCloud became the matriarchal keystone in the arch and the clear head of household. When she left the workforce, however, her children began to form small kinship clusters, each headed by one of Lessie’s children. According to my mother, the largest cluster (three or four household) was in Chester, and the smallest (a single household) was in Lockhart. Ours—mine and my mother’s—was in Clover, a mill town in York County. It consisted of two smallish family groups, one headed by my great grandmother Viola and the other headed by her sister Lorene. Lorene’s household included her son J.B. (who never had children of his own) and her husband (who died young). Viola’s included her common-law husband (not blood-related to me), my grandmother Betty Turner (whose real father is unknown), my mother Lisa, and my aunt Rhonda. At times it also included my grandfather, Jim Boheler.
My great grandmother Viola (right) and my grandmother Betty (left). Tellingly, they are pictured with one of the white boyfriends that Lorene took after the death of her husband. Lorene was Viola’s sister and lived across the street from her all her life. Her son J.B. still lives in the same house, right across from my grandmother.
These three clusters were quasi-separate but tied together by Lessie McCloud, who divided her time among them (she always spent her summers in Clover). Interestingly, almost every individual family-household identified very strongly with Lessie’s side of the family, but had a cooler relationship with the spouse’s family. According to my mother, this pattern was by design. She frequently heard very negative stories about the extended families of those who had married in. This created an in-group/out-group dynamic that strengthened the bond within and among the clusters. This dynamic also had a more positive side. Among her children and their families, Gramama McCloud was seen as a matriarch and a figure of immense importance. My mother remembers, for example, that Mother’s Day was structured entirely around Lessie, and that she was the only one who received gifts.
This arrangement had a very pronounced effect on family identification. My mother, for example, can name every one of her eight great aunts and uncles, as well as most of their children and grandchildren. On the other hand, she sometimes struggles to remember even her father’s siblings. I myself remember having Christmas with Lorene and J.B. and a few of the Chester people, but I’ve only ever met Grandmama Boheler once, even though she is still alive. I find this dynamic particularly interesting given how most members of my family self-identified racially. Although they emphasized their white racial heritage, they tied their kinship identity most strongly to a woman with two Indian parents. In this way, Lumbee-like kinship values survive in a modified form even in my generation.
Grandmama McCloud, 1970s. She is pictured with two of her sons, D.A. (left) and Harold (right). The woman on the far left is D.A.’s wife. If I’m not mistaken, they all lived in Chester.
My mother’s family also maintained Indian ethnic traits through a continued use of traditional healing practices. Grandmama McCloud was adept at making poultices and herbal remedies, and virtually every person in my family who knew her has at least one story about an effective treatment she administered. My grandmother also clearly remembers that Lessie believed in blowing or talking fire. Though she could not talk fire herself, she apparently knew an Indian man in Chester who could do so, and she routinely took her children to him to have their burns treated. And when my aunt Rhonda got the thrush as a toddler, Lessie had “Mr. Justice” — a white double amputee who had never seen his father — blow in her mouth. According to my grandmother, Rhonda had not been able to eat or drink for days on end, but within 48 hours after the treatment, she drank an entire bottle of Coca-Cola and eventually made a full recovery. Incidentally, my mother had a very different reaction: because Mr. Justice had no legs, she found the event to be highly traumatizing, and she laughingly notes that she “still isn’t right” after the experience.
My great grandmother’s oldest brother, Malcolm “Mac” McCloud. I just sort of like this picture and regret that Mac died before I was born. He was apparently a very sweet man, unlike his grandfather and namesake. I also believe his phenotype is fairly typical of his generation—their brownish complexion sometimes caused them trouble.
Clearly, then, many Indian ethnic traits have proven highly “sticky” and have endured in modified form despite my family’s racial assimilation. To better illustrate how these identity markers have been passed down, I will now describe my own feelings about my racial and ethnic identity. For reasons that will be made clear, this topic is somewhat uncomfortable for me, and I therefore hope that readers proceed with respect and sensitivity.
Let me begin by noting that my ancestry is overwhelmingly European, and for that reason, I always list my race as “white.” This is not because I am ashamed of my Amerindian and African ancestors–on the contrary, I am incredibly proud of them. Yet as a person who, with a few exceptions, has enjoyed the privileges of whiteness, I feel it is inappropriate to lay claim to non-whiteness in official contexts.
Yet when I am asked about my ethnicity (which I separate from race entirely), I invariably respond that I come from a mixed ethnic background, and I tend to emphasize my Indian cultural traits. One reason I do so is out of respect for my mother, who identifies strongly with her Indian heritage and has always urged me to do the same. Once when I was about five or six years old, I remember that I was playing “Cowboys and Indians” with my brother. My mother came in the room, watched us for a minute, and then asked what we were playing. When we told her, she asked which of the two I was. “I’m a cowboy,” I said, “because they’re the good guys.” I’m not sure I remember a time when my mother has expressed more disappointment in me. She took me aside and explained that my great-great grandmother Viola (who I was very close to) was an Indian and that, in a certain way, I was too. She also made a point of taking me and my siblings to powwows. It is worth noting that my mother views herself as ethnically Indian, but not as a member of any Indian group. Though she has had Lumbee friends and acquaintances with whom she felt a certain cultural affinity, I don’t believe she thinks of herself as linked to them in any formal way. But neither is she much of a subscriber to pan-Indianism. She owns some Southwestern jewelry and admires Chief Joseph, but she doesn’t see herself in that light either.
My relationship to my Indian heritage is not nearly so comfortable or self-assured. In fact, I’ve had something of a tortured relationship with it. On the one hand, I don’t want to come across as a poseur or a “Cherokee Princess”-type figure. On the other hand, I was partially raised by my grandmother and great-grandmother, and I strongly identify with that side of my family. And like the generations before me, I have not gotten a lot of positive feedback from the outside world. For example, when I was in middle school, my great grandmother died after a year-long battle with lung cancer. Lord knows, she wasn’t without her flaws, but I genuinely loved her, and her death was a huge blow to me and the rest of my family. I coped by taking an increased interest in my Indian heritage, which made me feel closer to her. But when I started talking about it at school, I faced an unexpected amount of criticism and resentment. I went to a very mixed-race, inner city middle school in Winston-Salem, but it seems like almost all the negativity came from my white peers. I was repeatedly asked “how much Indian blood” I had and “what tribe” I belonged to — issues that I had never contemplated or particularly associated with Indianness. When I couldn’t come up with concrete answers, I was teased pretty badly. I developed a reputation as “the fake Indian,” which really stung.
Being an impressionable and self-conscious 14-year-old kid, I took a lot of that to heart, and for the next six or seven years, I identified strongly as white. In looking back on it, I believe I may have overcompensated by making incessant, self-deprecating white jokes. I only talked about my Indian relatives with my very closest friends, and even then, I would invariably introduce the topic with the phrase, “Well, I’m white, but…”
For me, the change came when I began studying Lumbee history. Though I certainly don’t see myself as a Lumbee, I was immediately struck by the cultural values I shared with my Indian classmates. Many things that I thought of as family idiosyncrasies turned out to be Indian ethnic hold-outs, and it seems I run into some such revelation almost every week. There are too many to name here, but one illustrative example was the realization that my belief in “totens” was an Indian trait. When I was about thirteen, for instance, a hummingbird flew into my living room. It hovered around for a while before repeatedly slamming itself into the window in an attempt to get out. My mother let it out, but I remember that she was a wreck for days afterwards. She kept saying that that meant someone was about to die, and I began to share her anxiety. Within the week, my great-grandmother was diagnosed with the lung cancer that would eventually kill her. About a year later, another bird flew right into her window, to which she said, “Well, that’s not good.” She died in her sleep a few days later, and no one will ever convince me that her death wasn’t foreshadowed by those two birds. (Incidentally, my mother had given her a butterfly bush three or four years before her death, but she had never been able to make it grow, and I remember the thing looked like a little twig stuck in the ground. The very summer after her death, that bush shot up and bloomed beautifully).
Essentially, this class and the contact I’ve had with Indian people have allowed me to understand intellectually things I had never previously conteplated. And because of the kindness and respect my classmates have shown me, I’m growing more comfortable in embracing the Indian part of my ethnic identity. I still see myself as racially white, and to a large extent, I view myself as ethnically white as well. But I’ve come to believe that my Indian values make up a big part of who I am, and I don’t believe I’ll hide or ignore them again.
(Thanks so much to all my wonderful classmates and to my professor, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, for all the things y’all have taught me).