When an Atlantic Coastline Railroad train pulled into Red Springs, North Carolina, the conductor faced a difficult dilemma. Whom to allow in coach class with whites and whom to relegate to the back? In an effort to clarify the matter, the mayor of neighboring Pembroke demanded that the railroad build three separate waiting rooms at the town train station.
Such confusion was common place in Robeson County, North Carolina, during the height of the Jim Crow era. That’s because Robeson is home to the Lumbee People, the largest Indian nation east of the Mississippi River and a thorn in the side of those who sought to maintain a simple black/white dichotomy in the South.
Malinda Mayor Lowery’s new book Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) dramatically rewrites accepted Jim Crow narratives. Not only did Indian communities persist in the U.S. South after the Removal – the period of ethnic cleansing generally cited as the denouement of indigenous peoples in the region – but they complicated the racial landscape in unexpected ways, negotiating a space of autonomy and independence with the forces of white supremacy in 20th century North Carolina.
Lowery, a Lumbee herself and assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, offers us that unique combination of scholarly rigor and passionate prose, exploring the complex process of identity formation in the face of – and occasionally in concert with – segregation, federal bureaucracy and the discourse of “race” and “blood.” For students and scholars of Native American Studies, Southern history, and the Jim Crow era, it is essential reading.