Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation

By Cohen, David Steven | Journal of American Folklore, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation


Cohen, David Steven, Journal of American Folklore


Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation. By Malinda Maynor Lowery. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xxvi + 339, introduction, notes, references, bibliography, index, illustrations.)

This book from the University of North Carolina Press raises important questions about which groups are and are not recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as American Indian tribes. The book's author, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and holds a BA in History and Literature from Harvard University, an MA in Documentary Film Production from Stanford, and a PhD in History from UNC-Chapel Hill. She also happens to be a Lumbee Indian.

Professor Lowery claims that the Lumbees, numbering about 50,000, are the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. She acknowledges, however, they have no reservation, no treaties with the federal government, and no survivals of Indian language, customs, or beliefs. Her book purports to show how the Lumbee Indians "have crafted an identity as a People, a race, a tribe, and a nation" (p. xii) in a dialogue between insiders and outsiders. Lowery's argument is based on her extensive knowledge of the history of Native American relations with federal and state authorities and a sophisticated understanding of the concepts of the terms "race," "tribe," and "nation." She notes that these terms were imposed upon Native Americans by Europeans, and they must be viewed in the context of changing times. She frankly admits that both Lumbees and outsiders have used these terms to achieve certain goals in various contestations involving identity politics.

During the colonial period, the ancestors of the Lumbees were considered free Negroes or mulattoes. In the federal censuses from 1790 to 1830, Lumbee ancestors were listed as "free persons of color," a vague term that was used to describe people of racially mixed ancestry. Under the North Carolina Constitution of 1776, they were eligible to vote if they met the property qualification. The Lumbee ancestors were willing to accept free black identity, rather than be disqualified from voting as were American Indians, who were considered at that time to be members of foreign nations. During the Civil War, the Lumbees were assigned fortification duty, a job normally reserved for slaves and free blacks. In March 1865, Allen Lowery and his son William were murdered by the White Home Guard on suspicion that they deserted from fortification duty in Wilmington and aided escaped Union prisoners. Henry Berry Lowery, another son of Allen Lowery, led a band that took revenge on the murderers of his father and brother. From that day to the present, the Lowery Gang has been celebrated as legendary heroes.

North Carolina's 1868 Constitution, passed under Republican rule during Reconstruction, allowed non-whites, including the Lumbees, the right to vote. When the Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 1875, they instituted a system of segregated schools. The so-called "Redeemers" sought the support of the Lumbees, who had voted up until then as Republicans. …

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