Lumbee Elders speak on school desegregation: What was lost and what was gained


A film documenting American Indian education in the era of segregation was premiered at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke on December 3.


James Arthur Jones, Loleta Blanks, Lillian T. Harris, Olivia Oxendine, Mabel Oxendine, Mabel Revels, Stacy Locklear and Purnell Swett

From left: James Arthur Jones, Loleta Blanks, Lillian T. Harris, Olivia Oxendine, Mabel Oxendine, Mabel Revels, Stacy Locklear and Purnell Swett

The 20-minute film, titled “Elder Teachers Project: A Time When We Were One,” is an oral account of a time that is vanishing from memory, said its project director Dr. Olivia Oxendine, a faculty member in the School of Education.

“The notion of segregation is a mysterious one today,” Dr. Oxendine said. “The generation that experienced it is dying, so I wanted to document it.”

For a year, six retired Lumbee Indian educators, all graduates of UNCP, participated in an oral history project – a project that examined the education of Lumbee people during the period of school segregation in Robeson County.

The group, ranging in ages up to 93, spoke during a presentation at UNCP. They are: Loleta Blanks, class of 1955, Lillian T. Harris ‘49, James Arthur Jones ‘48, Stacy Locklear ‘62, Mabel Revels, ’70 Purnell Swett ’57 and Mabel Oxendine ‘35. 

What they said is surprising and at times at odds with conventional interpretations of the time.

“The Elder Teachers Project reveals the dual nature of school segregation,” Dr. Oxendine said. “While the racial divide served to sustain and strengthen Indian ties across school, church and community, the setting of segregation also cultivated conditions of isolation and deprivation.

 James Arthur Jones and Purnell Swett

James Arthur Jones (foreground) with Purnell Swett

The elders addressed the duality of segregated schools.

“We were happy. These were our schools, and the parents supported us,” said Blanks, a retired teacher. “That’s what we lost.”

What was “lost” was a sense of community, the educators agreed.

“It was a stable community of dedicated people, who were mostly tenant farmers,” said Jones, a retired principal.

“Our people were rooted in church and school,” said retired teacher Mabel Revels. “The community respected and trusted its teachers and schools.”

“Our students were very successful,” Jones said. “Attendance was good and there were very few dropouts.”

The road to school integration was bumpy for the Indian community.

“We never asked for integration,” said retired teacher and school counselor Stacy Locklear.

“There was resistance to integration because of a fear of the unknown and how we (Lumbees) had been treated in the past,” said Swett, who twice served as superintendent of Robeson County schools.

As for segregation and the disparities that came with it, Locklear said “I didn’t think about it a lot; that’s just the way it was.”

“Many of our textbooks had names of white students in them,” Swett said.

 Mabel Oxendine with Olivia Oxendine

Mabel Oxendine (foreground) with Olivia Oxendine

“I remember hearing that Red Springs was throwing away books,” Jones said. “I filled up the back of my ’39 Ford with them.”

“There was prejudice,” said Locklear who earned two master’s degrees after graduating from UNCP.

“We had no representation on the county school board until double voting was defeated in court,” Swett said. “Double voting was the practice of residents in city school districts voting in both city and county elections.”

Inevitably, the question was called. Would they go back?

“Would I go back?” Swett said. “No, the world has changed, and to be competitive, you have to reach out to others and learn from them.”

“We gained more than we lost,” Locklear said. “Our opportunities were very limited.

“This was the only school I could attend,” he continued. “My daughter went to Chapel Hill and is a doctor.”

“When Martin Luther King opened the door, we flew out,” said Harris, a retired teacher. “That’s what I tell the children today.”

It was the consensus of the elders that telling the story is important.

“The project forced me to go back and take a look,” Locklear said. “My students were separated and isolated; we just didn’t know it.”

“For history’s sake, it’s important for us to tell this story,” Blanks said. “My grandchildren don’t know about this.”

The project and film was funded by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council. It was directed and co-produced by Dr. Olivia Oxendine and co-produced by Dr Stan Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center.

Videography was provided by James Lawrence, Dr. Jamie Litty, chair of the Mass Communications Department, Nelson Locklear and Tasha Oxendine, marketing director for the Givens Performing Arts Center. Videography assistance was provided by Warren Love, director of the Media Center.

Audio transcription was provided by Tina Emmanuel, technology support technician for the English and Theatre Department, and Marla Locklear, administrative assistant for the Physical Education and Recreation Department. Location coordinator was Rita Locklear and the soundtrack was arranged by Dr. Knick.

Serving on the grant advisory panel are for UNCP: history Professor Dr. Charles Beem, American Indian Studies (AIS) chair Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs, Dr. Knick, Web publisher Lawrence Locklear, AIS Professor Dr. Linda Oxendine, education Professor Dr. Reginald Oxendine, and Tasha Oxendine; and for the Public Schools of Robeson County: Brenda Dial Deese and Rita Locklear.

The UNCP presentation was the fifth for the group.

The film was sponsored by UNCP’s Native American Resource Center. It was co-produced and edited by Dr. Knick. Assisting in the production were Dr. Jamie Litty and Tasha Oxendine.