(Little Big Horn Redux). For most of the year 1955 my family and I lived in Lumberton, the largest town and county seat of Robeson County, North Carolina. It was a very interesting place. In 1955 Robeson County’s population was divided in roughly equal numbers between whites, African Americans, and non-reservation American Indians — about 30,000 each.
Racial discrimination and segregation was still the norm in the South, even though the old barriers were gradually breaking down. At the time we were in Lumberton, Robeson County had four school systems — one for whites, one for African Americans, one for American Indians, and one school for those students who said they were Indians but the Indian council said they weren’t Indians. The Indians of Robeson County, sometimes called the Lumbee Indians, were a strange lot. There were blue eyed Indians, curly haired Indians, etc. Some of them liked to claim descent from the Croatan Indians of Lost Colony lore, but their ancestral background was uncertain at best.
Those Robeson County Lumbees were very proud of their Indian heritage, and they had a somewhat fearsome reputation. To illustrate this fact, I relate the following story that was circulating in Lumberton at the time of our moving there. A Robeson County Indian had served in Korea and come home from war only to learn that his wife had run off with another man. The young Indian then got roaring drunk and, with murder in his eyes, stated his intention to go to town and find his wife and her lover. He had no automobile, so he stood on the side of the road and tried to thumb a ride to Lumberton. A group of his friends stood near him shouting advice and encouragement. In the meantime, it happened that the Robeson County Health Department was conducting a public health forum in the southern part of the county, and a prominent African American pastor from Lumberton had come down to address those in attendance. After the meeting ended the pastor got in his car and drove back towards Lumberton. At that precise moment, the drunk Indian ex-soldier had become frustrated with not being able to thumb a ride. He announced his intention to stop the next car no matter what. Just as the pastor’s automobile approached, the young Indian stepped out in front of the vehicle and waved his arms. The pastor tried to brake and miss him, but it was too late. The young man was struck and killed. The pastor stopped and exited his car. Just then he saw a crowd of irate Indians coming toward him in a rush. The pastor jumped back in his car and sped off toward town. He drove straight to the county sheriff’s office and told the officer on duty what had happened. Leaving the scene of a fatal accident was a serious offence, but the officer confided that he would have done the same thing. I believe the pastor was never charged.
A few years after we left Lumberton the Robeson County Indians made national news. An organizer for the Ku Klux Klan came into Robeson County from South Carolina and announced his intention to hold a rally in the small town of Maxton. He had some white sheeted friends with him, and there were a hundred or more curious onlookers as the klansmen went through their ceremonial rites. At that strategic moment, several hundred Lumbee Indians arrived on the scene and let out with a few war whoops and rifle shots. The South Carolina organizer and his hooded brethren grabbed their sheets and headed for the state border post-haste. Fortunately, a few news reporters were on hand to photograph and record the happenings, and there was a big spread in one of the national magazines. As far as I know, that klansman never visited Maxton again. Certainly, the Ku Klux Klan’s reputation in Robeson County was at low ebb after the incident.
(Note: I lived all my early life in the South, but I never encountered the Klan or knew anyone who I knew or suspected to be a member of the Klan. I believe that it was a rather inactive and ineffectual organization in North Carolina during this period, appealing principally to those whom educated southerners sometimes referred to as “poor white trash”. Nevertheless, to our shame, the so-called “Jim Crow” laws were still very much in evidence until the early 1960s.)