For the Lumbee people, ghost stories form an integral part of their collective identity. Stories of the supernatural are passed down within specific families, communities, and within the tribe as a whole. Whether the stories tell of well known figures such as Henry Berry and Rhoda Lowrie, or tell of people only known by their immediate family members, Lumbee ghost stories fulfill a special role in the community. Ghost stories help to establish and reinforce the value of Lumbee kinship and ancestry, belief in the supernatural, and the bond between Lumbee people and the land on which they live. This exhibit analyzes the importance of the ghost story tradition in the Lumbee community.
Land is something very important to Lumbee people, specifically the land on which they live. Lumbee land in Robeson County is so particularly valued because it has been inhabited by Lumbee ancestors for centuries. For hundreds of years Lumbees have struggled to maintain ownership of their homes and property. For hundreds of years, Lumbees have lived on, fought on, married on, worked on, and been buried in the land of Robeson County. Through all of this, their homeland has in a way, become an extension of Lumbees themselves. Lumbee ghost stories are often place specific and involve features of the land which are important to the people. By passing down stories with an emphasis on place and land, the importance and connection to land is maintained through generations. An example of one such story is a well known tale about Henry Berry Lowrie. There are many variations of this story, but one version states that every night Henry comes up from the swamps in order to visit the grave of his wife Rhoda. This story is important not only for it’s historical significance, but also for its subtle emphasis on land features. It is important to notice that Henry comes from the swamp to visit Rhoda. The swamp is a land feature which is extremely prevalent in Robeson County. Throughout the history of the Lumbee the swamps have served as a place of safety and protection from the outside world. Rather than having Henry come from an unmarked grave, or merely appear at Rhoda’s tombstone he seems to be a permanent resident of the swamp. This serves as a perpetual reminder of the crucial role that the swamps played in the life of Henry Berry Lowrie. It also places a kind of honor on the swamps. Just as Henry Berry was and is a distinctively Lumbee man, the swamps are a distinctively Lumbee land feature. This ghost story allows for an emphasis on the continued importance of this land feature to Lumbees today.
Gravity Hill is a very well known location in Robeson County with a strong Lumbee ghost story tradition. Gravity Hill is located in between Maxton and Laurinburg at the corner of Stewartsville Cemetery Road and Old Maxton Road. Stewartsville Cemetery Road slopes down and forms a T-intersection with Old Maxton Road. This site is well known because of the phenomenon that occurs there. When one puts one’s car in neutral at the bottom of the hill, it begins to gently roll backwards up the hill. Below are several pictures of the intersection at Gravity Hill.
There are many gravity hills around the world and there is a natural or scientific explanation for why one’s car appears to defy gravity, and roll back up the hill. Physicists claim that this phenomenon is nothing more than an optical illusion. At gravity hills ones view of the horizon is blocked, causing the viewer to believe what he is looking at is an uphill slope when in fact it is a downhill slope. This theory is debated and has not been proven at every gravity hill. In any case, there is another explanation for the phenomenon at this particular gravity hill which is prevalent in Lumbee folklore. The ghost story of Gravity Hill was related to me during a phone interview with Mr. Hayes Locklear. The legend states that years ago, as a car pulled out into the intersection at Stewartsville Cemetery Road and Old Maxton Road, it was hit by a truck. It is said that a young girl in the car was killed in the collision. Now, this girl’s spirit remains at the site of the crash, pushing cars backwards, out of the intersection to safety. Below is the link to a video I recorded of the phenomenon at Gravity Hill.
This story is important as another example of a ghost story connecting Lumbee people to the land. Gravity Hill is a unique place within the Lumbee community, and the people have made it their own incorporating it into their folklore. Gravity Hill is a special landmark which helps make Lumbee country what it is. It is the site of a natural abnormality which is a vehicle for the perpetuation of supernatural folklore; which is so important to the Lumbees. Ghost stories about places are so crucial to Lumbees because of the importance of the supernatural and land. Ghost stories about people or events can be forgotten or lose significance as generations pass. Ghost stories connected to physical locations endure because as generations pass, the Lumbee people occupy the same land and inhabit the same places. This facilitates the passing down of stories because the land doesn’t leave or change with the lives of humans. Ghost stories also give special honor and significance to the land, making places in the Lumbee community more sacred. This manifests itself in Lumbee identity, by intimately connecting people, the supernatural, and the land in a way which affects the Lumbee outlook on life.
Family and Ancestry
Lumbee communities are very acutely organized by family groups. Families are an essential building block of the Lumbee tribe and the basis for Lumbee identity. In large part, Lumbees understand their world based their family, and their understandings of other families in the community. Ancestry is also very important to the Lumbee people. It is important for one to know one’s family; even after family members are deceased. Kasey Oxendine, a Lumbee woman, shared a story with me on the subject of family. After Kasey’s grandmother passed away, her cousin Latoya was visited by her grandmother’s ghost. Her grandmother brought Latoya a message of comfort; telling her everything would be ok. This story is not an uncommon one in the Lumbee community. Below is an excerpt of an interview with a Lumbee woman named Lucille, taken in 1994. The interview excerpt was printed in David Sherman’s article, “Story Logic in Conversational and Literary Narratives.” In the interview Lucille shares a ghost story involving a family member.
Lucille: (a) And my brother … he got killed
(b) but anyway … I’m a tell you . . . honey I seen him in the night
(c) sure as if it had just been in the daytime
Interviewer 1 : (d) Yeah.
Lucille: (e) Now my bedroom was … windows is right there,
(f ) two double windows,
(g) And I seen him when he come up standing
(h) just as pretty as I ever seen him in my life
(i) a-standing there.
(j) And uh … as I went to say to him “Look”
(k) I… I said to him I says. “Look
(1) It… it’s Rufus.”
(m) When I did he turned.
(n) And I got up off of the bed
(o) to see if I could see him go down the little sidewalk
(p) and turn and go that way
Interviewer 1 : (q) Right.
Lucille: (r) but I didn’t see him no more.
Interviewer 1 : (s) Umm.
Lucille: (t) The time I spoke that was it.
Interviewer 1: (u) Umm.
Interviewer 2: (v) Um.
Lucille: (w) Well now and that was . ..
(x) he was just as pretty as ever I saw.
Interviewer 1: (y) Um hm.
Interviewer 2: (z) Amazing.
First, the type of ghost story shared by Lucille is significant. Much like Latoya’s experience, Lucille’s story is about seeing the ghost of a close family member. This, family and kinship, is a prevalent theme in Lumbee culture and oral tradition. It is interesting that Lucille was not scared by the apparition. This showed a level of comfort with the idea of the supernatural, especially with the ghost of a family member. Lucille shared this ghost story in an interview in response to a broad question about the supernatural. The way in which Lucille responds to this question shows that to Lumbees, ghost stories are not narratives told to children simply to scare them, or for entertainment, ghost stories often provide a connection to the past, or a way to remember ancestors. Individual families often have their own stories. Ghost stories of family members who have passed away are often pleasant and viewed as a comforting event. These family stories help to pass on the connection to family members after they have left this world. This is a manifestation of the importance of family ties and helps form a part of identity and outlook on the world for Lumbees.
Henry Berry Lowry
The life and actions of Henry Berry Lowrie have done much to shape Lumbee identity from the 1860’s up to the present. Below is the link to a ghost story involving Henry Berry Lowrie. The story comes from the facebook page, Lumbee Ghost Stories, Legends, and Lore, created by Mrs. Nancy Fields. This ghost story offers an interesting look into Lumbee mindset towards the supernatural and towards Henry Berry Lowry.
The story of supernatural disturbances in this Lumbee home provides readers with an interesting case study of Lumbee attitudes towards ghosts and also towards Henry Berry Lowrie. When the young daughter of this family was first accosted by the presence in her room, her family was skeptical. But their skepticism was not unbelief. As the story tells, experiences like this were not uncommon in their town of Prospect. This Lumbee family had grown up hearing ghost stories which gave them an inherent predisposition to accept, and deal with, a supernatural occurrence. As the story progresses and Vance has an encounter with the presence in his daughter’s room, we are given a glimpse into the Lumbee community’s reaction to the supernatural. Rather than being doubted or scoffed at, Vance and his family are offered advice on how to deal with this supernatural presence. This reaction shows the status that ghosts and the supernatural hold in the Lumbee community. These types of experiences are not made light of or told as a sensational form of entertainment. For Lumbees, interactions with the supernatural, although they are not always as unpleasant as this Prospect family’s incident, constitute a basic life experience. The solutions offered to Vance and his family included checking if the furniture in Emily’s room was in alignment with a cemetery, or checking to see if there was a private cemetery nearby. To an outsider these may sound like outlandish solutions to a farfetched problem. But these traditional solutions show that ghost stories have a long history in the Lumbee community. The solutions involving alignment of one’s possessions with a cemetery show a respect and reverence for the puissance of the dead. When the family realized that the picture of Henry Berry Lowrie may have been connected to the disturbances, they quickly acted and sent the picture to an exhibit at Old Main (Native American History Museum at UNC-Pembroke). Again, their decision shows their intuitive understanding that the spirits have agency and must be respected. This is crucial to the overall Lumbee folklore tradition. Ghost stories are not invented legends, they are overlaps between the physical and spiritual world which are so closely intertwined in Lumbee identity. Lumbees have always been spiritual people; often this is expressed through Christianity, traditional Native practices, or both. Belief in ghosts and the power of spirits is a key to the Lumbee understanding of life. This story is an excellent example of how supernatural beliefs are circulated and passed down.
Lumbee ghost stories serve a special function in the community. The stories involve people and places and are continually passed down through generations. The key aspects of Lumbee identity, kinship and connection to land, influence every aspect of Lumbee culture; ghost stories are no different. Stories of supernatural occurrences reinforce family ties and accrue special honor to land. The strong Lumbee folklore tradition is a venue to pass down the beliefs of elders while reinforcing cultural identity.
Special thanks to Mrs. Nancy Fields for offering her support and information which has been instrumental in making this project possible.