“Zella, I will be pushing up daisies before I make you lady.”
“I de double down dare you!”
“I triple dog down dare you!”
“Panties up. Skirt down.”
“Do not be uncouth!”
“Treat yourself like a guest.”
I can still hear my grandmother Mur’s adages. I can still remember how she smelled like roses from the perfume that she wore. Even the saltine crackers and peppermints she kept in her tattered leather purse. I was raised by my grandmother Mary Roena Ward who was born in 1910 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mur was my everything. She taught me so much about life and womanhood. Mur sometimes visits me in my dreams or she sends messages when I am at my happiest or my worst. I know she watches over me.
Before the COVID pandemic, I felt her warning me that some form of history would repeat itself. A hundred years ago, the Spanish Influenza decimated tens of millions worldwide. It killed her big brother ‘Buddy’ at nine years old while she and her mother had to watch his tiny body be carried out of their home on a stretcher. I can’t imagine how she felt to lose her best friend and brother at such a young age. The post traumatic stress continued until her dying breath.
I realize now that I am privileged to know who I come from and the intimate details about my mother’s side of the family. We were too busy surviving the next day to pass down legacy to the next generation but Mur made sure that she told her story in her own words. She kept journals and wrote down all of her memories so that we would never forget who they were.
Mur’s mother, my namesake Zella Locklear’s people were Native to this land. I am a descendant of the Locklear clan from the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. The Lumbee Tribe is the largest tribe in North Carolina and the ninth largest in the United States. Lumbee Indians were also known as Tuscarora, Croatan, Cherokee and Siouan. All belonging to the land around the Lumber River in Pembroke, North Carolina in Robeson, Hoke, Scotland and Cumberland County. The Lumbees or Lums have a complex history that dates back to the ‘Lost Colony of Roanoke’, ‘the forefathers’, as some Lumbee historians call them were European settlers that intermarried with Siouan speaking tribes in the 1700s in North Carolina. Lumbee surnames are clear identifiers to these European forefathers and Native mothers; Major John Locklear, Ishmael Chavis, James Lowry, John Brooks, or Charles Oxendine.
Zella’s grandparents, Arthur and Malissa Locklear were farmers and dyers. They migrated with their two children and other Lumbee families to Indiana in the mid19th century. Throughout the twentieth century, Lumbees migrated to Baltimore and Detroit searching for jobs and better opportunities. However, not until 1956 did the United States government recognize the Lumbee tribe as Native American. The U.S. government and the state of North Carolina recognizes them as Native American but without any access to government benefits.
Why? Many reasons but race is a huge factor.
For Lumbees as a group, meanwhile, their long struggle to win recognition has been complicated by their history of interracial marriage — even though interracial marriage was common among southeastern tribes prior to the Civil War. Many powerful western tribes have “a perception that the Lumbee are really a mixed-race, mainly African group,” says Mark Miller, a history professor at Southern Utah University who has written extensively about tribal identity. That “original sin,” he says, is a major cause of the Lumbees’ political problems.
In the Jim Crow South, white ancestry was acceptable for indigenous people, but black blood was not. When the United States was dividing up reservations and providing land “allotments” to Indians, a government commission told the Mississippi Choctaw that “where any person held a strain of Negro blood, the servile blood contaminated and polluted the Indian blood.” Many Native Americans internalized these racial politics and adopted them as a means of survival. After North Carolina established a separate school system for Indians in Robeson County in the late 1880s, some Lumbees fought to exclude a child whose mother was Indian and whose father was black.
Native rights, the struggle for identity and recognition has been a long journey for the Lumbee Tribe. The Lumbees, like many native tribes have survived European settlers, slavery, Jim Crow South, diseases, rape and forced migration. As a child, I heard stories from my grandmother Mur and my mother about Zella Locklear, my namesake. How Zella would burn sage and smudge other herbs before hipsters learned about it. How she would singe my mother’s long hair that hit the middle of her back. Stories of Zella’s uncles who were enlisted as Union soldiers in the Civil War. How Zella kept documents in the attic of signed papers that each Governor had to sign in order for the Locklear’s to pass each state on their way to Indiana so that they would not be enslaved. They were always free. This was their land. All of these stories would later lead me to return to the land.
When Mur married my grandfather Erskine Goode Roberts, an Engineering professor at Tuskeegee University in Alabama, Mur had to receive her blessing from her grandmothers one African-American and the other Native.
“I got Indian in me.” So many Americans have heard people say this, both black and white. Before we were able to access archival documents to prove our ancestry, those who claimed native ancestry were seen as wannabes. Yet many were telling the truth. Even if they couldn’t prove it. There is no denying that interracial relationships happened between blacks, natives and whites in the 18th and 19th century. To allow our heritage and ancestral lineage to be dismissed, disrespects our ancestors who were forced to survive in a society that perpetually condemns us and questions our identity.
However, claiming native ancestry should never dilute or diminish African or European heritage. Especially, African heritage when considering that Native and Africans share mutuality as oppressed people globally. Remember it was African blood that determined if Native people could vote, own land or be recognized by the federal government, not European blood. These absurd rules of white colonial patriarchy persists today. From America’s founding, native people nor people of African descent came up with these decisions on who has the right to land, to vote nor interracial marriages.
The American idea of race has always pitted black, white and Natives against each other in an effort to steal land, suppress the vote and be the hegemonic power. Until 1935, Native identity in North Carolina did not prohibit non-white free persons from voting. However, that practice ended in 1835 when North Carolina revised its constitution by declaring that “free Negroes, free mulattos, and free persons of mixed blood descended from negro ancestors to the fourth generation inclusive could not vote.” This law would now encourage Indians to distance themselves from their mixed ancestry and any association with persons of African descent. This was also around the same time of the Trail of Tears when 60,000 Native Americans were forced to relocate from southeastern United States to designated Indian Territory over a torturous 5,043 mile walk. Thousands died of hunger, disease and the bitter cold.
But then came the legendary Lumbee outlaw, Henry Berry Lowry. During the Civil War, Lumbees were forced to build forts at labor camps for the Confederates near Wilmington, North Carolina. At these labor camps, Natives and enslaved persons contracted malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. A ‘Home Guard’ officer murdered Lowry’s first cousin. Lowry, in return killed the Home Guard officer and hid in the swamps with his brothers in arm. Lowry’s father, Allen was helping Union soldiers escape from Confederate prisons. Lowry’s father Allen and his brother William were killed by Confederate soldiers. Over the next seven years, Lowry and his group of family members and neighbors that included two freed African-Americans and one poor white man fought and killed many Confederate soldiers and their counterparts. After the Lowry War, Lowry mysteriously disappeared in 1872. The authorities never caught him. Lowry is a legend in Lumbee folklore.
My mother Alice has always been on a mission to learn more about the Lumbee Tribe and our Locklear lineage. Her library was always stacked with books about Native American History and the Lumbees. After Mur died, we longed to visit Lumbee territory in North Carolina to see where the Locklear’s came from and reclaim our heritage. My cousin Lisa who is from North Carolina has done extensive research on our family. Lisa was able to identify every Locklear in our family.
As my mother aged, I knew time was not on our side. I began to listen more attentively to her stories as she tried to remember. Realizing that my ancestors were not far away stories but rather real people that lived, loved, sacrificed and fought for what was right. I was so proud that I was able to make that journey possible for my mother and my sons to attend the Annual Lumbee Dance of the Spring Moon Powwow.
My cousin Lisa connected us with her friend Carla Jacobs, a registered Lumbee tribal member and Internal Auditor for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Ironically, my great great grandfather Napoleon Hagan’s sister is her great great grandmother. I called Carla immediately to let her know about our planned trip. When I tell you Lums are the kindest people you will ever meet, believe me. Carla has been so kind and helpful to my mother and I.
My mother was rejuvenated and filled with excitement to make this journey. We packed our bags and loaded our min-van for the 14-hour road trip from New Orleans to Pembroke, North Carolina. We first visited my mother’s grandfather’s town in Wilson, North Carolina and then we drove to Pembroke. When we drove into the Lumbee Tribe Cultural Center in Maxton, North Carolina, we were immediately greeted by one of the volunteers who was so kind to my mother.
My mother began to explain why we were there. One of the tribal members said immediately, “Your grandmother was a Locklear. Oh you are a Lum. Welcome home!”. It rained that afternoon, we piled under the tents and ate collard sandwiches, chicken bogg and grape ice cream. Some of the elder Lums sat with my mother and listened as she told her story, a story similar to many Lumbee descendants who are now returning to the land, searching for home and distant relatives. My teenage sons were in heaven with all the beautiful Lumbee girls who were asking them for their Native ID number. I walked around marveling at the beauty of the tall pine trees and smell of pine cones. The fresh air and smell of smudging. The beautiful jingle dresses and regalia of those participating in the Powwow.
A young Lum came up to me and stroke up a conversation. I was amazed at how he just talked to me like I was a family member. I walked over to some of the vendor stalls that were selling native jewelry and medicinal herbs. I have always made jewelry and earrings, so I was blown away when I saw so many beautiful Native earrings. Warren, a Lumbee vendor told me that I look like a beader. In that moment, I realized how poweful DNA is and how memory passes down. How sometimes you don’t know why you do certain things but you do them. I didn’t know why I had this love for making jewelry and here I am standing a century later on the land they came from reclaiming our heritage. After the rain, a rainbow painted the sky and my mother cried and said, “They are here with us. I can feel them.” We hugged each other and balled our eyes out. We returned to the land.
Since I couldn’t go to the 2020 Dance of the Spring Moon Powwow due to COVID, I called Carla and asked her for her mother’s collard sandwich recipe. Carla graciously gave me the recipe. When I sent her a picture of my collard sandwich, she said, “Girl you sure this is your first time making collard sandwiches? You made it like you have been making it for years.”
For Lumbees, the basic ingredients of corn, collards, and pork have been staples as far back as anyone can remember. Though most people prefer winter collards sweetened by the frost, the greens grow year-round and it’s not unheard of for folks to eat collards just about every day. (Lumbees have long been foodies: Some go so far as to freeze the summer greens to do what nature could not.)
“Corn is an indigenous American food. It wasn’t grown anywhere else in the world before Columbus arrived,” Lowery continues. “Indians can make corn grow lots of places nobody else can. It’s a staple of our diets, and it’s become a staple of our culture because it’s been with us for such a very long time.”
The collard sandwich tells of a people who, until not long ago, often ate their collards by scooping them up by hand, forgoing a fork for a hunk of fried cornbread. Though these ingredients are hardly nouveau in the Lumbee community, their “official” iteration in a sandwich is relatively recent. Sure, many a household likely threw together leftover collards on some cornbread, or perhaps wrapped them up with some fatback to take to the fields or the factory, but it’s only been about 10 years since this combination has been sold commercially.
It’s not often that an ancient people welcomes a new dish into the fold of traditional meals. But the Lumbees have never been all that interested in defining themselves by others’ expectations, instead focusing on the deeper elements by which they define themselves.
Although, my Locklear lineage left North Carolina before Lumbees organized to enroll tribal members, I know where we come from. I know who I am and I know that I am a Locklear.
Carla Jacobs Mama’s Lumbee Collard Sandwich
2 cups of fine ground cornmeal
½ cup of self-rising flour
4 tbs. of butter
¼ cup of granulated sugar
1 tsp. of onion powder
1 tsp. of salt
2lb. of shredded thin collards (slice collards thinly and remove stems)
3 cups of vegetable broth
¼ cup of diced yellow onions
ground black pepper
⅓ cup of sugar
Salt to taste
2 fatback pieces of thick bacon
Crisco oil or lard
Dice a yellow onion and sauté in a pot. Add shredded collards, a little water and fatback grease to the pot. Add ⅓ cup of sugar, salt, black pepper and favorite seasoning. Do not overcook your collards. (Meat is optional to add to your greens. Add in the first step)
In a mixing bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, sugar, onion powder, salt, one egg and melted butter. Add water to make the batter a thin consistency. Use a flat cast-iron griddle to make the cornbread. The pan should be greased with 1 tablespoon of lard or fatback grease on medium-high heat. Ladle the batter as if you are making pancakes or hoecakes. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Set aside.
In a separate cast iron skillet, fry two slices of salted pork or thick bacon. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.
In a sauté pan on medium heat, add a little oil. With a pair of tongs, draining the already made collards, fry the collards in the pan. Assemble the collard sandwich with the bacon.
***Serve with chow chow****
Note: Mur, my grandmother used to always tell me, “Treat yourself like a guest.” In her many etiquette lessons on how to be a lady, she would sit me at the table with a proper dining setting, slap my back so that I wouldn’t hunch my back at the table and serve our daily meal. And we always had to say grace. Even if it was a peanut butter sandwich, Mur made sure that we had a folded napkin, place setting and beautiful dinnerware. Mur was teaching us self-care before self-care became a reminder for our generation. So no matter what, treat yourself like a guest!