Traffic roars incessantly along Interstate 95, the East Coast’s Main Street, running from the top of Maine nearly to the tip of Florida through most of its metro centers. But this is Lumberton, the seat of rural Robeson County. “Your name here,” solicits a sign on one of the vacant industrial plants along an adjacent service road. Vines twist through the padlocked gates, and inside, the buildings are musty and dark. Greg Cummings, 66, has spent most of his life trying to keep jobs in places like these. “There’s laughter, then one day, all of a sudden, there’s silence. You’ve got water on the floor, possums running around and pigeons flying overhead.” He’s the economic recruiter for North Carolina’s poorest county and, by at least one measure, the nation’s third-poorest for its size. Nearly a third of the people live below the poverty line, twice the state rate. Unemployment is 40% higher. Half the children are poor. Two-thirds of the population is classified as low-income.
Snuggled against the South Carolina border, this is America’s most racially diverse rural county. Native Americans predominate, as they do in half of the country’s 20 poorest counties. Thirty-nine percent Indian, a third white, a quarter black, most of the rest Latino, minorities are the majority here. Robeson is the state’s biggest county, but its population barely holds its own, growing only 0.5%, from 134,168 to 134,841, since 2010. It’s one of 10 in North Carolina, all in the east, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture labels persistently poor. That means more than 20% of the population has been in poverty through at least three consecutive censuses. People remember Robeson for the wrong reasons, such as the 1993 rest-stop murder of Michael Jordan’s father, two men taking the staff of a local newspaper hostage in 1988 or, more recently, the sheriff and 16 deputies pleading guilty to racketeering and other charges. It had the state’s highest rate of violent crime last year. And the previous year. And the year before that.
Lack of jobs leads to crime, Edward Graham, 53, says. He and his wife, Betty, 56, live in Thunder Valley, a neighborhood of patched, rusting mobile homes near Red Springs, he with multiple sclerosis and both unemployed since the textile mills where they worked closed a decade ago. Outside, about a mile from the convenience-store parking lot where gunfire killed a man, children cheerfully leap puddles as they walk a half-mile to Old Lowery Road because school buses can’t negotiate the unpaved streets. “Busted the oil pan,” Graham says of the pothole that claimed his car. The Rev. Mac Legerton, a friend and counselor who has fought for souls and against poverty since 1975, listens. “I had to do a funeral for one of the young men who’d been in our youth program,” the preacher says. Legerton helped him finish high school and tutored him to pass Army entrance exams. His hitch up, he got gunned down in a drug-related case of mistaken identity. “He’d come back to help his mom.”
Forty-odd years ago, it didn’t seem things would be this way. As enforced segregation ended, Robesonians of all races climbed down from tractors to work beside each other in factories. In 1960, about 11,000 toiled on farms and 3,900 drew manufacturing wages. A decade later, things had reversed, with 4,000 on farms and 9,600 in factories. In 1990, fewer than 2,300 had farm jobs. Manufacturing employed a third of the workforce. At its peak, Converse Inc., the North Andover, Mass.-based maker of athletic shoes, had 2,000 on the payroll at its plant west of Lumberton. “Manufacturing jobs temper poverty,” says Leslie Hossfeld, a former professor at UNC Pembroke who wrote the definitive study of the county’s economy. Her co-author — Legerton, the United Church of Christ minister — adds, “We had poverty down to 22% in the 2000 census, the lowest in the history of the county.”
Good times, however, set the stage for bad. Six years earlier — 20 years ago this year — the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, toppling trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Subsequent treaties lowered Asian barriers. American products weren’t the only things to flow to foreign shores. In 1995, Winston-Salem-based Sara Lee Knit Products Inc. shut down a Robeson plant, moving its 500 jobs out of the country. It closed another one the following year, idling 370. A worker told Hossfeld she was excited when offered a trip to Mexico — she thought as a reward for her loyalty. It was to train her replacement. Converse laid off 166 in August 1996. The plant outside Lumberton, its last in the U.S., closed in 2001, two years before the company was sold to Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike Inc.
“We lost more jobs due to NAFTA than any other rural county in the nation,” Legerton says. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates as many as 10,000. “We say we took one for the team,” says Phillip Stephens, a Lumberton physician assistant who is county Republican chairman. “A disaster for our rural communities,” U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Lumberton Democrat, calls the treaty. Cummings, the economic developer, says, “We’ve been through recessions in ’76, again in the early ’80s and late ’80s. But we’d lose jobs for a few years, then they’d come back. What’s the difference this time? This time, we don’t have anything for them to come back to.” His list of closed factories doesn’t show the collateral damage: Adding lost service jobs to those in manufacturing, more than 18,000 disappeared, along with $600 million of annual household income.
In the small central Robeson town of Maxton, inquiries produce blank stares. Hayes Pond? “Oh, yeah,” a storekeeper says, pointing. “Go up yonder to … ” At the end of an isolated road, cypresses jut out of a shallow lake. It was here on a January night in 1958 that matters came to a head. The Battle of Hayes Pond was a turning point in the history of Robeson County and the people known as the Lumbee. How that history began, no one is sure. The archaeological record of Indian inhabitants covers many millennia, but when white settlers arrived in the mid-18th century — late because there was better land to be had than these swamp-ridden reaches — they found them speaking English, living in houses and farming the land just as they did. Some think them descendants of the Croatan tribe and Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony. Or remnants of the Tuscarora, the Coastal Plain’s mightiest tribe, most of whom left the colony after the 1711-13 war. Perhaps a stray band of Cheraw or Cherokee, allies of the whites in that struggle, who settled here rather than return home.
Isolated, these marginal lands were a refuge, not only for tribes shattered by warfare and European diseases but runaway slaves and white fugitives, their bloodlines evident in the features of many Indians. Considered mulattos, they were designated “free persons of color” by the state constitution of 1835, which stripped their rights to vote and bear arms. During the Civil War, authorities forced them to labor alongside bondsmen to build defense works. Atrocities led to revenge, violence that carried over into Reconstruction in what is known as the Lowry War, waged against the planter class by a triracial outlaw band that gained national attention. Its members killed 18 men before their leader, a young Indian farmer named Henry Berry Lowry (or, as it was often spelled, Lowrie) disappeared in 1872.
As sharecropping replaced slavery, whites needed to drive a wedge between the races they had tried to lump together, an effort abetted by the Indians’ dislike for being treated like blacks. In 1885, the General Assembly recognized them as Croatan Indians and allowed them their own schools. (Amendments to the state constitution established segregated public education for whites and blacks in 1875). Two years later, the legislature let them start a “normal” school to train teachers, the future UNCP. For generations, the county’s triracial system of segregation — with separate schools for three races, three sections of movie theaters, three sets of water fountains — endured. Assimilated into white culture even before the arrival of white settlers, they became a people apart. The state, at their request, renamed them Indians of Robeson County in 1911, adding, over the objections of that tribe, the word “Cherokee” two years later. In 1952, they organized as the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.
In an agrarian economy, the bounty belongs to those who own the land. The Lumbee, despite their number, dwindled in this respect, as small farmers lost or were cheated out of their holdings, becoming tenants. In 1960, only one county in the South had higher agricultural revenue than Robeson, but it ranked among the nation’s 100 poorest in per capita income. “A small handful of people did very well, and a very large number lived very hard lives,” says Gerald Sider, a New York anthropologist who has studied the tribe and its relationship to the Tuscarora. Adds Hossfeld, now a professor at UNC Wilmington, “Race obviously has a bearing on poverty. African Americans and Native Americans are almost three times more likely to live in poverty than whites.”
Born on a farm near Pembroke, Cummings, as was typical, went to the summer fields on his momma’s hip. “We had those big wooden crates with burlap over them for tobacco. When it got hot, my mom would put us in them for shade. That was our day care center.” In daily life, necessity often trumped ethnicity. “Outside folks don’t understand,” says Stephens, the county GOP chairman. “They think we’re at each other’s throats. But in a triracial county, we’ve learned, to get anything done, we have to cooperate. Nothing gets done without at least two groups work together.” Randy Hammonds, 57, recalls his upbringing near the crossroads of Orrum. “We worked hand-in-hand right beside white farmers and black farmers,” says the retired Highway Patrol captain and candidate for sheriff, the first Indian to run for that office on the Republican ticket. His sharecropper family lived in a drafty farmhouse, like most, absent plumbing. “We referred to each other as farm help, and we were all doing the same jobs — raising tobacco, corn, cucumbers — carrying the same responsibilities on the farm and spending time in each other’s homes.” His mother took in sewing. “We used to say if there was anybody poorer than we were, they already died off.”
Cummings was buffered from overt racism until about age 10. When his family’s doctor dispatched him to Duke University Medical Center for diagnosis of a possible brain tumor, he was indulged during the 130-mile trip to Durham. “Anything I asked for, my folks got for me.” In a town whose name he has forgotten, he requested a soft drink and comic book. The merchant studied the family’s tawny skin and dark eyes. “They made us go around back to get it.” When Cammie Hunt, a 46-year-old vice chancellor and former dean of the business school at UNCP, went to work in her first job as a bank teller in Red Springs, “some people wouldn’t let me wait on them because they’d see my last name and know I was Lumbee.”
Today, the Lumbee number about 55,000, most living in Robeson and three adjoining counties. There were about 30,000 in 1958. Back then, James “Catfish” Cole, a South Carolina Ku Klux Klan leader, had been crossing the state line for months to spew hatred and not just for blacks. He and his followers cruised Pembroke, Maxton and other towns, loudspeakers mounted on their cars castigating “half-niggers” and “mongrels.” One Saturday night, about 50 Klansmen and members of their families gathered at Hayes Pond around a generator-powered light bulb suspended from a pole listening to a tape play “Kneel at the Cross” as they readied one to burn. Some 500 Lumbee silently surrounded the site. In the scuffle that followed, a shotgun blast shattered the light. Others, fired in the air, sprinkled birdshot on the white supremacists, many of whom took to the woods. Indians helped Cole’s hysterical wife extract her car from the ditch she careened into in panic. Hunted down, Cole was arrested, convicted and jailed for inciting a riot.
“When we talk about our Indian pride, we always remember to instill in our children where we came from and the struggles of our parents and grandparents,” says Tony Hunt, the tribal administrator in Pembroke. “If we realize where we come from, we have a better idea where we’re headed.” But pride, powerful though it may be, isn’t itself enough to vanquish poverty.
It’s imposing, even in death. Squeezed between N.C. 72 and Holy Swamp, the empty Converse plant sprawls for perhaps half a mile. It was built in 1972, about the time I-95 was completed through Robeson, ending its isolation and exposing its economy to global forces that proved to be as brutal as racism. Factory jobs flowed here, like traffic along the highway’s length, for cheap land and labor. They left for the same reason. “These were some of the first paid jobs they’d ever had,” Hossfeld says. A century after farmers began moving from fields to mills in the Piedmont, those in Robeson followed. But this transition would span barely a generation.
In his office at Lumberton’s airport, Cummings pores over a list more than a decade in the making. Croft Metals Inc. in Lumber Ridge is on it. His first job off the farm was there. He earned $2.10 an hour, including a nickel bonus for his UNCP degree. December 1996. That’s when it shut down, about the time Cummings, after directing the Lumbee Regional Development Association, took his county job. Roughly 75 names are on the list, plants that closed between 1996, as NAFTA took hold, and 2012, claiming 10,613 — more than a fifth — of Robeson’s nonfarm jobs. He paces the floor. Behind his desk is a pen-and-ink drawing of Old Main, the iconic building dating to 1923, when his alma mater was called The Cherokee Indian Normal School of Robeson County. On an easel on the other side of the room is the outline of his presentation to prospects.
“What do we sell?” he asks, a plaintive turn in his voice. “We’ve got six certified industrial sites, and I’ve got 30-some industrial buildings. Companies look for existing buildings, you know. We’ve got the sites, we’ve got the airport. Right out here, we’ve got a 5,510-foot runway. We can handle corporate America. We’ve got the Wilmington port, 78 miles away.” Then there are the two interstates — I-95 and a stretch of I-74 from Maxton to south of Lumberton, completed in 2008 and named the American Indian Highway. He’s also selling this: a place where a third of adults have not finished high school and that contributed only $484 per pupil in local school spending in 2012. In Orange, one of the state’s wealthiest counties, the figure was nearly nine times that.
The Turtle embodies hope here. This morning, its lobby already has a dozen people seeking services. In a field on the outskirts of Pembroke, a weathered town of about 3,000, the maroon-roofed tribal headquarters, nicknamed for its round shape, might be the most modern building in Robeson County. Completed in 2009 at a cost of $4 million, it was built by Metcon Construction Co., founded in 1999 by Aaron Thomas, 38, a Lumbee with degrees from UNC Pembroke and East Carolina University. Metcon had more than $51 million of revenue last year, much of it from work at UNCP and other public clients throughout the state. Surrounding The Turtle is modest but new housing the tribe financed. Next door is an equally new boys-and-girls club, open to all races, one of three in the county with another in neighboring Hoke. “Kids don’t have to go home with mom and dad not there,” Hunt, the tribal administrator, says. Just down N.C. 711, the 620-acre COMTech Business Park, where Metcon is headquartered, is a joint incubator project of the county, UNCP and others.
“If you check housing permits,” Hunt says, “you’ll find we’ve pulled more than anybody else in the last five or six years. We’re getting ready to build a complex for seniors now.” But the tribe’s business model is precarious. The only source for its roughly $18 million budget this year is grants, largely from federal programs and subject to political vagaries. In 1956, when Congress finally recognized the Lumbee — the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi — the legislation specified: “Nothing in this Act shall make such Indians eligible for any services performed by the United States for Indians because of their status as Indians, and none of the statutes of the United States which affect Indians because of their status as Indians shall be applicable to Lumbee Indians.” That means the tribe gets no funds through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Services. Last year, the Eastern Band of Cherokee, less than a third the size of the Lumbee, received $43.7 million.
There’s a lot more money possibly at play. Federally recognized tribes are considered sovereign nations, which is why the Cherokee can have casino gambling on land the tribe owns, even though that’s illegal in the rest of North Carolina. Though Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, it took years of negotiations before a compact was reached with the state that allowed Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort to open in 1997. Since then, gaming and related tourism has been a major driver, pumping $300 million a year into the regional economy, providing thousands of jobs and putting annual stipends of about $7,000 in the pockets of every man, woman and child on the tribal rolls. And the Lumbee — despite their lack of treaty with the federal government — have something the Cherokee lack in their mountain vastness 300 miles away: the East Coast’s Main Street, bringing millions of potential players right by the door. The Catawba, a federally recognized tribe in South Carolina, is jockeying to open a casino on busy I-85 near Kings Mountain, little more than 30 miles west of Charlotte.
Motels and restaurants along the interstate highways already make tourism a prime source of outside income, with an economic impact of $126 million in 2012, when Robeson ranked 33rd among the state’s 100 counties. That pales before the $370 million of agricultural sales that made it the state’s fifth-largest farming county last year, ranking first in corn and wheat production and second in soybeans. But a Lumbee casino is no given, considering the tribe’s long and, so far, unsuccessful bid for full federal recognition. A bill that President Barack Obama, among others, supported failed last year, some say due to lobbying by Cherokee intent on keeping their monopoly on legal gaming in the state. A casino would also face an uphill battle against the conservative Republicans who control state government. The Cherokee fought with Raleigh for more than a decade to add live dealers and table games prohibited by the original compact. Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, which had seemed to support the Catawba effort, swiftly backed off in January after the plan became public.
Despite the money it has made them, gambling still divides the Cherokee, and it’s that way with the Lumbee, too. “I know people would argue with me, that it would bring money, but it would also bring other things to our community that we don’t need,” April Oxendine says. “We have enough addictions already.” A 39-year-old health worker with an undergraduate degree from UNCP and master’s from East Carolina University in Greenville, she represents a new generation of Lumbee. “I can’t say my parents weren’t proud, but they knew there were places they couldn’t eat in or shop, so they didn’t say much about it. Now when people look at me and say, ‘You’re different,’ I don’t mind. I say, ‘Sure, I’m an American Indian.’” But she hews to many of the traditional values her people have long held to. She speaks softly. “I’m a Christian. I know the Lord will provide.” In his office, Hunt reaches behind his desk and produces a 23-page booklet, The Tribal Constitution of the Lumbee Tribe. “It’s in here,” he says. “It would take a referendum — whatever the tribe votes.”
Meanwhile, the news is not all dire. Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp. is adding a 257-acre tract near the Converse plant to its site-readiness program, throwing the marketing power of the nation’s largest utility behind it. Trinity Frozen Foods LLC, based in Pembroke, is spending $15 million on a 150-employee plant in COMTech. Flo-Tite Inc. and affiliated Titan Flow Control Inc. added about 40 jobs in Lumberton, more than doubling their workforce. UNC Wilmington and partners are establishing a sustainable-foods program in which farmers directly supply institutional users such as UNCP and Fort Bragg. Alexandria, Va.-based BP Associates Inc. announced plans for a $10 million building with warehouse, office and research space that could create 200 jobs at a former Sara Lee distribution center near Maxton. But it would take scores of such developments to fill the hole left by NAFTA.
In an aging, brick building on Cedar Street in Lumberton, there’s a file of letters, most painstakingly printed on lined notebook paper. Addressed to Santa Claus, city recreation employees answer them.
I am 27 years old, one of the letters reads, and still believe in you — LOL. I have three children. I know you are just a person trying to make kids happy writing back to them, but it makes me feel good, writing to someone and having a little hope. All I want is a few toys, shoes and clothes for the kids and a good job so I can catch my rent up so we don’t have to move. My husband is such a good person. He tends to the children while I work and makes sure I have a hot plate of food when I get home at 11:30. Please help him find a job …