Lumbee Indians seek end to a century of questions about identity Proud people from North Carolina find a home in Baltimore

October 12, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

Shirley Jeffrey, an East Baltimore resident, remembers the painful moment five years ago when two Sioux Indians told her that "Lumbees aren't really Indians."

Jimmy Hunt recalls a similar experience as an Army recruit when a sergeant asked the American Indians in the group to stand up. "There were two others besides myself," he says. "Later they said I wasn't an Indian because I was a Lumbee."

Not really Indians? How could this be said of the largest American Indian group east of the Mississippi? The ninth-largest in the United States, with nearly 50,000 members, according to the Bureau of the Census. About 4,300 of them are in Maryland.

The question of identity has troubled the Lumbees for more than a century, but it may be resolved this year if Congress approves a bill introduced by Rep. Charles Rose III, D-N.C., to extend full recognition to the tribe.

It's not that Mrs. Jeffrey is uncertain about who she is. Nor is Mr. Hunt.

She is a Lumbee Indian, who has lived in Baltimore for 39 of her 40 years. She came here from North Carolina with her father. She helps run the day care center on East Lombard Street set up by Baltimore's American Indian Center.

Mr. Hunt is the pastor of the South Baltimore Baptist Church, at 211 S. Broadway, which has a 95 percent Lumbee congregation.

Mr. Hunt's response to those who doubted him was to affirm that he was an Indian. "I am what I am, regardless of what anyone says," he told them.

That attitude seems to be shared by most Lumbees in Baltimore, probably the largest concentration of these people outside of Robeson County, North Carolina.

The Lumbee people first came from North Carolina to Baltimore during World War II in search of jobs. Most had been tenant farmers squeezed out by the effects of farm mechanization and by Soil Bank programs that took much farmland out of cultivation.

They settled around Broadway and East Baltimore Street, where the majority of Maryland Lumbees remain today.

Barry Richardson, the executive director of the American Indian Center on South Broadway, says about 2,500 Lumbee people live between Fleet and Fayette streets, Broadway and Milton Avenue. About another 1,500 live elsewhere in Maryland.

Heading north

Through the 1940s and 1950s the Lumbees came north in old cars and pickups. They would work a while, return to Robeson County, return again to Baltimore. Then some began to stay, then more, until the colony became permanent.

"When I first came here in 1980, it was assumed that when somebody died he would be taken to North Carolina to be buried," said Mr. Richardson. "That doesn't happen so much any more."

Elizabeth Locklear, who followed her husband to Baltimore nearly 40 years ago, agreed.

"A lot of them didn't have their families with them here. Now a lot of them have their whole families [in Baltimore], and the families feel if they bury them here close by they can visit the graves."

Baltimore's Lumbee community is poor. Census figures show an average family income of $22,063 among American Indians in the city, of whom the Lumbee constitute the vast majority. It has the lowest income level of the racial groups -- including whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians -- surveyed.

More than 35 percent of Lumbees fall below the official poverty line, the worst showing among the groups. Mr. Richardson estimates that the average level of schooling among Lumbees is about at the eighth-grade level. Some put it lower. Lumbee men work in construction, as roofers, drywall workers, bricklayers or carpenters.

But the unemployment level stands at around 18 percent. The group is afflicted with all the scourges of inner city life, said Mr. Richardson: alcohol abuse, domestic violence, some drug abuse.

But there is a great cohesion to the community, created in part by the rough transfer from a rural to an urban life.

'No such thing as an Indian'

"When I came here, there was no such thing as an Indian in Baltimore," said Mrs. Locklear. "You were either black or white. But the clannishness, with our own church, our schools mainly with Indians, that gave us an advantage."

The effects of the transition to urban life revealed the need for the Indian Center, which Mrs. Locklear helped found in 1967, as a way of preserving the Lumbees' sense of self as a people. It was needed, she said, because there was "nothing here our children could relate to as Indians."

Most, but not all, Lumbees celebrate their "Indianness" through their diet -- celebratory buffalo stew (the meat comes from a Virginia farm), Indian tacos (fried bread), most of the vegetables native to this continent, such as squash and corn -- and in annual family reunions. Lumbee families tend to be large.

The Indian Center sponsors annual powwows in August and November. Members of tribes from other parts of the country are invited. They do tribal dancing and trade artisan work, such as stone sculptures, baskets and feather work.

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