Observations on a Lumbee Funeral

18 01 2010

This weekend I went to Pembroke to attend the wake (aka “visitation” or “settin’ up”) and funeral service for Rev. Julian Ransom, a Lumbee Holiness Methodist preacher with an amazing record of community service, impeccable character, and true leadership. He changed the lives of many people, as all who participated in the funeral service testified. The wake was held at Cherokee Chapel Holiness Methodist Church, in a somewhat remote community known as “Cherokee” that is situated between the Lumbee community of Prospect and the town of Red Springs. It is an ancient community and speaks to the oldest form of Lumbee settlement, kinship, and institution-building. The school is directly across the road from the church, and both are Indian-dominated, even today. I arrived late to the wake and missed the formal part of it, but when we finally got there we found the usual politicking and socializing that happens at these events, saw family and friends, and found Preacher Julian’s family still in the receiving line, having greeted visitors for probably over two hours, at the front of the church near the casket. Miss Florence, his wife, is very close to my husband Willie and grew up with my father, so she’s an old family friend. It always feels so good to hear her tell me “I love you,” and I’ll travel a long distance to hear those words from her.

The service was held at Pembroke’s First Baptist Church, a small church that was filled to overflow capacity. My husband and I got there a half hour early and got the last two seats in the sanctuary. After the family entered–always a dramatic moment where the congregation can see how they are coping with the loss–the service began with the congregation singing loudly and proudly, “It Is Well With My Soul.” The speakers and congregation included many elders who had taken on prominent leadership positions, as well as members of the cast of “Strike at the Wind,” the outdoor drama depicting the life of Henry Berry Lowry. Rev. Ransom played the key role of the “Leader,” or narrator, for the drama for several years and set the tone for all who followed in that role. He was an exemplar of a man with tremendous charisma who does not use that to his own advantage, but for others. Beautiful music imbued the rest of the service, including two songs by Brenda Hunt Storms, a former Miss Lumbee who also played the role of “Rhoda” in Strike at the Wind! She told a story of how the cast would gather around Preacher Julian on nights when the rain, thunder, and lightening would halt the show–he would pray and echo the words of Jesus for the storm to “be still.” Those small moments stick with people throughout their lives and bring them comfort even years later. Passages of scripture were read from Psalm 1, Psalm 23, Timothy, and Isaiah. Rev. Mike Cummings, his wife Quae, and a family friend named Emily sang a beautifully harmonized song in the traditional Lumbee style (or at least what I was raised to know as traditional–Mike and Quae are my aunt and uncle and for years we have gathered around playing piano and singing in the way they did yesterday). In these different ways, the service spoke to the internal values the Lumbee community carries on.

In another way, the service reached out beyond the Lumbee community to remind us of our useful connections with outsiders. Preacher Julian was well-known for being a Republican, one of very very few in Robeson County (and there are even fewer Indian Republicans). His wife, Florence Revels, also comes from a family of Republican supporters–her brother Lonnie Revels was one of the first Lumbees to publicly support the Republican Party. His stance reflected not only his conservative views but his belief that the Democratic Party–which, up until the 1970s, had been known in the South as the “party of White Supremacy”–had not represented Lumbee interests with full sincerity. For more on this subject, see Anna Bailey’s published article, “It Is the Center To Which We Should Cling: Indian schools in Robeson County, North Carolina, 1900-1920,” in The History of Discrimination in U.S. Education: Marginality, Agency, and Power. Ed. by Eileen H. Tamura. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Preacher Julian made a powerful political alliance when he married Miss Florence, an alliance which was reflected in his funeral service. One speaker reported hearing that Preacher Julian loved converting sinners as much as he loved converting Democrats, and he wasn’t sure which one was harder!¬†Former Governor James E. Holshouser spoke at the service, as did Phil Kirk, who served as Chief of Staff for both Governor Holshouser and Governor James Martin (the only two Republican Governors to be elected in the state since Reconstruction). Governor Holshouser, in particular, was well-liked in the Lumbee community for his efforts on our behalf regarding civil rights (see oral history excerpt at UNC Library and this interview with Gov. Holshouser from the University of Florida).¬†But everyone was quick to point out that their affection for the Preacher and his family was not politically-motivated, and that Preacher Julian allowed people of all political persuasions to speak to his congregations. Indeed, Dr. James G. Jones, a Lumbee physician and professor, joked that he was invited to speak as the “token Democrat” on the dais. He described Preacher Julian as a mentor, someone who is responsible for many of his accomplishments. Indeed, Lumbees show a remarkable ability to cross boundaries of politics and religion that help, first and foremost, sustain our unique and distinct place in Southern society.

The service was beautiful, touching, full of humor, and reverent. Perfectly fitting for a man of Preacher Julian’s standing and stature. His body left the church accompanied by the dramatic end to the soundtrack of “Strike at the Wind!”–bells ringing and an orchestra playing a triumphant flourish.