By Sarah Nagem
Tyrone Watson ducked as rocks and bottles arced over his head.
It was June 2020 and Watson, president of the Robeson County chapter of the NAACP, gathered among a crowd of about 150 in Pembroke, North Carolina, to call for an end to police brutality. The march was part of a movement overtaking the nation after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The protesters – most of them Black – chanted and carried signs as they marched along the streets of Pembroke, home to a University of North Carolina campus and the Lumbee Native American tribe.
“No justice, no peace.”
“Black lives matter.”
“Hate has no home here.”
As the protesters approached a shopping plaza anchored by a Maxway discount store, they were outnumbered by counter-protesters. A crowd of mostly Native Americans threw whatever they had on hand. One man had a knife, and another carried a military-style rifle slung over his shoulder. A large flag in support of then-President Donald Trump flew from the back of a pickup truck.
Watson, 52, immediately thought of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Instead of KKK signs,” he said, “they were Trump signs.”
The counter-protesters’ actions drew swift condemnation, including from the UNC Pembroke chancellor and the Lumbee tribe’s top leader.
“Racism and bigotry have no place in the Lumbee way of life,” Harvey Godwin Jr., who served as tribal chairman at the time, said in an impassioned speech days later.
But the march brought to the surface long-simmering racial tensions in Robeson County, home to about 117,000 residents in the swampy southeastern corner of the state. Robeson is one of the most diverse counties in the United States, where three races collide.
Native Americans make up 37% of the county’s population, while Black residents make up 22%. White people, who account for about 25% of residents, saw the largest population decrease between 2010 and 2020. Meanwhile, Hispanics and people who identify as two or more races saw the biggest increases.
Watson, a soft-spoken preacher with a slight build, has spent most of his life in Robeson, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina where the loss of the tobacco and textile manufacturing industries hit hard and where violent crime, drugs and hurricanes are a big part of life. He has navigated a world where he says Black people endure racism from two fronts: the whites and the Indians.
“A lot of people don’t even believe what’s going on, what African Americans are dealing with in Robeson,” he said. “You just feel like you have to keep fighting. You just feel like you’re double-teamed.”
The first time Watson experienced blatant racism was in the 1980s when he was a freshman at Fairmont High School. Students on campus burned a cross made of popsicle sticks, a nod to the KKK’s practice that dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe. A riot broke out, Watson said, and the students responsible faced little or no disciplinary action. His grandmother became fearful for his safety.
“She began to tell us about the Klan and how dangerous it was for us,” he said. After that, “We just stayed around our (own) race.”
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More than 30 years later, Watson never dreamed he’d experience anything like what happened at the protest in Pembroke. He was discouraged by the realization that not much had changed.
“It took me a while for me to really get through that,” he said. “I was at the point to just throw my hands up and quit.”
Like elsewhere throughout the United States, African Americans and Native Americans in Robeson County share a history of oppression. Natives were bought and sold as slaves throughout the Carolinas, along with Black people. Some Lumbee men were forced to work at Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast during the Civil War.
White people ruled Robeson County for decades, and white supremacists were active in the area during Jim Crow. On Jan. 18, 1958, Native Americans pushed back the KKK during what became known as the Battle of Hayes Pond in the town of Maxton.
In many ways, Native Americans and Black residents shared common enemies and hurdles.
“We’re trying to figure out what happened in the past that divided these two minority groups who have similar stories when it comes to Robeson County, when it comes to the Confederacy,” Watson said.
White, Black, Indian
Ronnie Chavis, 71, remembers accompanying his grandfather to the local market to sell tobacco grown on the family farm. He had to use the restroom during one trip. The letters on the doors – W, B, I – confused him, so he picked the cleanest one. When he came out, two white farmers were waiting.
“Boy, you can’t read,” one of the farmers said.
“What do you mean?” Chavis asked.
“You are not supposed to use that bathroom,” the man replied.
There was a W on the door. Chavis had used the whites-only restroom.
Chavis grew up among fellow Lumbees with very little interaction with the Black or white communities. He was the son of educators who instilled a strict work ethic, a sense of fairness and a devotion to God, evident by attendance at Island Grove Baptist Church every Sunday.
“They never stressed not to trust the white man or being fearful of the Black man,” Chavis said about his parents. “That was never a point of contention. My mom always said, ‘You know, all children are God’s children. He made everybody so the only difference in one another is our skin color.’ And that was about the end of that discussion.”
Racial ambiguity permeates life in Robeson County. Historians believe the Lumbees descended from several Native American tribes and English settlers of the Lost Colony in Eastern North Carolina in the 16th century. Lumbees adopted the English language and Christianity as the races mingled.
The Lumbee tribe has been pushing for full federal recognition for more than a century. It’s a fight that has forced Lumbees to prove, in essence, that they are true Indians.
“If you’ve hung around Robeson County long enough, you’ll see that there are different folks with different skin tones,” Chavis said. “You see some that could pass for white. Then you see some (who) have dark skin.”
Godwin, who served as the elected Lumbee chairman for six years until his final term ended in January, said he has experienced racism from his own people.
“Being a person of darker skin tone growing up, I was well aware at an early age that even within the Lumbee tribe there was a dark skin versus light skin mentality,” he said in a speech in July 2020. “Growing up, I was called the N-word many times because of the color of my skin. It was done by our own people, to hurt and bully others.”
The hatred comes from outsiders, too. Godwin recalled an incident he endured in 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa, where he attended the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum.
“As I was walking along back to my vehicle, a pickup truck pulled up next to me with four young white men. They had their windows rolled down and said, ‘What up, N?’” Godwin recalled. “I continued to walk to my vehicle, and they proceeded to turn around and follow me. I was defenseless and vulnerable. I could not help but see the connection between how we treat each other and how those who think they are above us treat us.”
Over the years, most people of all races in Robeson County have had at least two things in common: poverty and politics.
The county’s median household income in 2019 was less than $35,000, far below the statewide figure of $57,000. About 28% of people in Robeson lived in poverty that year – more than double the national rate.
Watson said a lack of upward mobility contributes to racism in Robeson, which has attracted little industry despite its prime location along Interstate 95.
“Racism now is based around economics and opportunity,” he said.
A recent shift in politics has highlighted growing divisions. Democrats had a strong edge in Robeson for decades, as shown when President Barack Obama won the county in 2012 with about 58% of the vote.
But four years later, Trump came out on top. And then in 2020, Trump garnered nearly 59% of the votes cast.
Many white voters across the South have switched to the GOP in recent years. In Robeson, so too have the Lumbees.
Socially and fiscally conservative, many Lumbees say the Democratic party no longer represents their values. Democrats “went away from supporting American workers to being a little more globalist,” said Jarrod Lowery, a Lumbee and a Republican running for a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives.
In an effort to keep the momentum going, the Republican National Committee opened an office in Pembroke last month ahead of the midterm elections. It’s the organization’s 21st community center across the country aimed at engaging minority voters, and the first for Native Americans.
Watson said he worries about voters’ change in allegiance. Robeson needs all the outside help it can get, he said, and Republicans’ small-government mentality could do more harm than good.
“We need more government in Robeson County,” Watson said. “It seems like we should be supporting those who want to pour funds into this county.”
Politicians from both sides have jumped at the chance to support the Lumbees’ push for full federal recognition.
North Carolina officially recognized the tribe in 1885, and Congress voted in 1956 to give partial recognition. Without full federal recognition, the tribe doesn’t have access to hundreds of millions of dollars for services such as education and health care for its 60,000 members who mostly live in Robeson, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted last fall for full federal recognition, and now it’s up to the Senate to do the same.
Systemic barriers and changes
Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs walked into the Robesonian newspaper office on Feb. 1, 1988, and chained the door behind them. Armed with guns, they took 17 people hostage.
Their goal was to shine a national spotlight on what they said was the unfair treatment of Blacks and Native Americans by the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. They wanted Hubert Stone, who was white and the sheriff at the time, out of office. The stunt worked. The nation paid attention. The New York Times and other national news outlets ran with the story.
Jacobs, who still lives in Robeson County and is a member of the Tuscarora tribe, said they never wanted to hurt anyone that day – and they didn’t. The hostages were eventually released after a 10-hour standoff after the governor agreed to appoint a task force to investigate their allegations of corruption.
Both Hatcher and Jacobs were convicted. Hatcher served five years of his 18-year sentence but died in jail after being convicted of first-degree murder in an unrelated crime. Jacobs served 14 months of a six-year term. It was worth it, he said, because his case drew attention to injustice in Robeson County.
Julian Pierce, a Lumbee and civil rights lawyer who spoke out against corruption and racism, was running to become North Carolina’s first Native American judge in 1988. He was shot to death weeks before the election. Officials said Pierce’s killer was motivated by a dispute involving the family of a woman he was dating. But Pierce’s daughter, Julia Pierce, told The News & Observer in 2017 that she suspects Stone was involved.
Stone, who died in 2008, was never charged with a crime. His successor, Glenn Maynor, who resigned in 2005, was sentenced to six years in prison after he was convicted of lying to a grand jury during an investigation into alleged corruption in his office.
More than 20 other sheriff’s office employees were charged as part of Operation Tarnished Badge, in which state and federal investigators said the office took part in drug trafficking and stole drugs and money during traffic stops on Interstate 95.
Meanwhile, a big change for schools in Robeson County occurred in 1988. Voters narrowly passed a measure to merge the county’s five, mostly segregated school districts: white students in Lumberton, Native American students in Pembroke, Black students in Fairmont.
The move became a sort of test of tolerance, while also serving as a way to erase discrepancies among schools when it came to resources.
UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings remembers getting hand-me-down textbooks at the elementary school he attended in Pembroke. Cummings, a member of the Lumbee tribe, said the books came from “white” schools that didn’t want them anymore.
“We got these books in the first grade that were worn and torn, and you’d open them up – you know how you would write your name in the book? – there were already five or six names,” Cummings said. “And they were not Indian names.”
Chavis, who worked as a biology teacher and baseball coach at a local high school in the 1980s, was tapped to become the athletic director for the newly merged school district. He recognized the power sports can have when it comes to unity.
“I knew the only way to sell this thing with athletics is I had to prove to everybody that I wanted every school to be as competitive as possible, and every child – Black, white, Indian or Mexican – all these kids had to be treated fairly,” he said.
He drew on his own experiences. Growing up, Chavis was an athlete who loved basketball and baseball. But going to an Indian school meant he didn’t face many white players, and he didn’t compete against Black players until he left Robeson County for a basketball camp at Campbell University.
“The first Black athlete that I played against,” Chavis said, “I was trying to guard him and he pulled a Michael Jordan move, which I’d never seen in my life. He went behind the back with a basketball and I said, ‘My God, what did he just do?’”
He was one American Indian out of 300 kids.
“It didn’t faze me, it didn’t bother me, I wasn’t fearful being there with basically an all-white group of boys,” Chavis said. “I fit in. We were all there for one thing. We were all there to improve our basketball skills. I think things like that helped me grow because it also taught me that these young boys wanted the same thing I wanted.”
The school merger has had bumps in the road over the past three decades.
In 2002, there were at least three “racially motivated incidents” between Native American and Black students at Purnell Swett High School near Pembroke in a two-month span, according to media reports at the time.
Eighteen students at Purnell Swett were arrested following a riot in 2009. Several students reportedly said the incident was racially motivated.
“The only thing we’ve got going for us as a system is at the end of a football game, if one team scored the winning touchdown against the other team, you will see white kids, Black kids and Indian kids jumping on one and the other hugging and just going crazy,” said Chavis, who was named National Athletic Director of the Year in 2009. “We don’t have another thing in this county that can do that.”
‘Swept under the rug for decades’
Nobody seems to talk about racism in Robeson County. There are few avenues to bring a diverse group of people together to discuss it.
Watson, the NAACP leader, said change must begin with county commissioners and other elected leaders.
“If leadership is not really into bringing people together,” he said, “it’s not going to ever get any better.”
In 2020, Robeson officials launched an investigation when a county planning board member, James Fuller Locklear, was heard on an audio recording using a racial slur to describe a Black woman who was a county employee. The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to remove Locklear from the post.
Watson said the current Robeson County sheriff, Burnis Wilkins, is “a decent man” who listens to concerns about race. But there’s still work to be done, he said, especially when it comes to diversity within the deputies’ ranks.
As of October, only 14 of the 137 law enforcement officials within the sheriff’s office were Black, according to a spokesman. Sixty-one were Native American and 60 were white.
Through his own efforts to create change, Watson found what seemed at first an unlikely ally: a white woman.
Leslie Sessoms has been a youth minister at Godwin Heights Baptist Church in Lumberton for more than 25 years. For decades, she said, the church was attended by white, middle-class families.
But when white people began to move out of the neighborhood in the early 2000s and were replaced by a diverse group of new residents, attendance at the church fell. The pastor at the time created events to draw in newcomers, including children.
“So that brought in kids from all different backgrounds, and there was some tension,” Sessoms said. She noticed “micro-aggressions” from some of the older, white church volunteers – a stern tone of voice, uncomfortable body language.
“Some of this stuff is just so entrenched that literally when you say that white people are blind, they are,” said Sessoms, 56. “And so it’s that balance between understanding they can’t see what they can’t see.”
Sessoms grew up in a white neighborhood in Lumberton and attended schools with little diversity.
“I was always taught to respect people of color. But that was pretty much the extent of it, and we didn’t really interact very much,” Sessoms said. “You tend to think that everybody lives the way you do and experiences life the way you do. And so I was very unaware of the struggles that people of color face.”
Watching the interactions at church prompted Sessoms to return to school. She earned a doctoral degree in ministry from Campbell University in 2019 and conducted a research project on race within her church.
After the death of George Floyd, Sessoms attended a meeting of community leaders hosted by Sheriff Wilkins. That’s where she met Watson, who invited her to attend a Juneteenth rally the following day.
“As we marched to the courthouse, I looked around and I was one of the only white people out there,” she said.
Sessoms knew more white clergy members needed to get involved. She teamed with Brianna Goodwin, executive director of the Robeson County Church and Community Center, and together they formed Ministers for Justice. The diverse group of pastors meets monthly to brainstorm ways to tear down racial barriers.
The job of ministers, Sessoms said, is to “bring down the kingdom of God to earth.”
“Which means we have unity, and we have peace, and we have justice, right here, right now,” she said. “So that we live together in that harmony. To me, that’s heaven on earth.”
Ministers for Justice is all about having honest discussions about race and listening to other people’s perspectives, Goodwin said. “These conversations have been swept under the rug for decades in Robeson County,” she explained.
‘Symbols of division’
A SWAT team with the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office shot and killed Matthew Oxendine, a Lumbee, on Jan. 9, 2021. Oxendine struggled with addiction and mental illness, his family said, and he had a history of calling 911 when he drank alcohol or used drugs.
That night, deputies found Oxendine sitting in a PT Cruiser parked outside a relative’s home. Oxendine showed what turned out to be a toy gun, investigators said, and deputies then shot him several times.
If Oxendine had been Black, his death likely would have made national news, Watson said. But Watson was hesitant when the Oxendine family asked him to organize a march to protest the shooting.
“I told them, with the strained relationship between Native Americans and African Americans, it’s going to be hard to get African Americans to support that,” Watson said. “Even though it’s wrong what happened.”
The Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce helped lead a protest in Lumberton earlier this month. The nonprofit group is calling for the removal of Robeson County District Attorney Matthew Scott, who did not bring charges against the deputies who shot Oxendine. Scott has said he made the decision after reviewing an independent probe by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Watson, who did not attend the protest this month, said he got some pushback for getting involved at all in the Oxendine case. But it’s important to speak out against every injustice, regardless of race, he said.
Now, Watson is leading a movement to urge elected leaders to remove the Confederate monument that stands tall in front of the Robeson County Courthouse.
“We can’t move forward when we have symbols of division right in front of the courthouse, which is the people’s house,” he said.
More than a year after the protest in Pembroke, Watson is still trying to wrap his head around the events of that day – and how to move past them.
John Lowery, the newly elected chairman of the Lumbee tribe, said Robeson County needs to embrace its diversity. However, he said, it’s understandable why Native Americans tend to be territorial as they continue to deal with historic trauma.
“As American Indians, we have fought to have everything we have, period,” Lowery said. “I tell our folks all the time, ‘Robeson County is the only place you’re going to go where you’re going to be a majority.’”
Godwin, the former Lumbee chairman, called for unity after the protest.
“Caring about the struggles of the Black community does not take away from the issues facing the Lumbee community,” he said. “I believe it will increase the voices advocating for us. It is clear we have work to do – much work. Conversations must continue and increase within the Lumbee community and our broader community about racism, about prejudice, about tolerance and even about who the Lumbee people are.”
The same can be said, according to Watson, for Black people who have called Robeson County home for hundreds of years.
Kevin Maurer, a Wilmington-based freelance journalist, contributed to this story.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem