UNCP student seeks help identifying Lumbee families photographed in late 1930s

UNCP junior Ahelayus Oxouzidis is seeking to identify Robeson County families photographed during the Great Depression as part of a Farm Security Administration collection

The identities of Robeson County families photographed during the Great Depression as part of a Farm Security Administration collection kept at the Library of Congress have remained a mystery for nearly 90 years. 

Even more problematic, the men and women––likely members of the Lumbee Tribe––depicted in the iconic photos are described as ‘mixed-breed’ and ‘Indian mixed-breed.’ UNC Pembroke junior Ahelayus Oxouzidis has made it his mission to correct this injustice. 

Oxouzidis, a REACH Fellow, is collaborating with community partners, including the Lumbee Tribe, to identify the families as part of a months-long research project funded in part by the Mellon Foundation. 

His goal is to share his findings with the Library of Congress in hopes they will address the discrepancies. “This project is important because Native people are still gaining that sense of sovereignty over their names and their tribal affiliation and projects like this are overdue,” said Oxouzidis, a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw, Tlingit, and Haida nations. “It is important for these families to be recognized and documented properly.” 

Oxouzidis recently discussed his “Reclaiming Lumbee Identity” research during an exhibition at the Mary Livermore Library. The exhibit features several digitally enlarged photos and a dozen other digitally enhanced placed in albums. The images were taken between 1938 and 1939 near Maxton and “Pembroke Farms,” which experts believe referred to the Red Banks community. 

Dr. Lawrence Locklear, university historian and director of Student Inclusion and Diversity, applauded Oxouzidis for his research. “This is somebody’s family,” Locklear said. 

“Having these photos on display allows the community to reconnect with these individuals. There is power in these photos. Many untold stories are waiting to be told, and this exhibit is a great opportunity to start that conversation. I would love to learn more about who these people are.” 

Between 1935 and 1943, the Roosevelt Administration commissioned the historical division of the Farm Security Administration to interview, photograph and document rural scenes and farm families across the nation, garnering evidence of the ravages of the Great Depression. 

Of the 60 photos taken in Robeson County, John Bunyan Locklear is the only individual to be positively identified. Oxouzidis plans to display the exhibit publicly this summer during Lumbee Homecoming to gain additional community input. 

“It’s exciting to see this research unfolding,” said Dr. Michele Fazio, the director of the Pembroke REACH Mellon program. “This presentation only scratches the surface in what I hope will be a longer conversation about the photographs, the local community, and Indigenous cultures. 

The 2023 Summer REACH Exploration Program contained several learning modules on the study of oral history and the Federal Writers’ Project to prepare students to interview Lumbee Elders for a new special collections archive. 

"Fellows also worked together to examine these photographs, and Ahe, in collaboration with his mentor Jennifer Randall, special collections and archives librarian, Fellow Unmai Arokiasamy, and myself, have taken the study of the Farm Security Administration to the next level," Fazio said. "It’s exciting to have students involved with this kind of research in the humanities and our work will continue in the coming academic year. I always tell my students that ‘your work matters,’ and this project is a great example of how their research can effect social change.”