Citizenship of the little races

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Gross, Ariela J. “Citizenship of the little races.” What blood won't tell: a history of race on trial in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. 111-139.


Gross discusses the Lumbee, the Melungeons, and the Narragansett of Rhode Island together in this chapter on groups of people of white, black, and Indian ancestry in the Eastern United States who, during the Jim Crow era, challenged both their communities and the courts with their insistence on a full rights of citizenship. She notes the Lumbee and the Melungeons as examples of what anthropologists called “racial islands” or “triracial isolates.” State laws and tax rolls classed triracial isolates, at various times, as mulattoes, free Negroes, free people of color, or mestizoes. Their larger communities assigned them colorful names such as Red Bones or Brass Ankles.

Gross compares the three groups in terms of writings on their ancestry and migration patterns; treatment by local officials and the courts; and their strategies and claims about origins in order to avoid losing some degree of citizenship rights (whether emphasizing Indianness and denying African ancestry; emphasizing Mediterranean origins; or emphasizing Indianness but not denying African ancestry).

In discussing the Lumbee, she relates details of the Henry Berry Lowry era, and Hamilton McMillan's legislation to afford them state recognition as Croatan Indians. She then examines an 1888 North Carolina Supreme Court case in which Nathan McMillan sought admission for his children to the Croatan schools. McMillan had been a slave, and his white father had been his master. The Croatan school committee, sued by McMillan, claimed McMillan's children were not Croatan and would not be admitted to the schools until the law forced their admission. McMillan argued that his children were indeed Croatan because McMillan's wife, and the mother of his children, was the sister of Preston Locklear, a member of the school committee. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that McMillan's children were Negro, not Croatan, and would be excluded from the Croatan schools.

Gross continues through the tribe's name changes–in 1911, from Croatan to Indians of Robeson County; and in 1913 to Cherokee Indians of Robeson County. She then examines, in some detail, discussions, in the 1913 Congressional hearings in the United States House of Representatives, of the Croatan efforts to distance themselves from Negroes. She focuses on the testimony during the hearing, as well as letters submitted as testimony that were included in the report, that cogently illustrate the intricate maneuvers required by Congressman and those testifying (only one brief exchange included Croatans themselves) to reach the conclusion that Croatans should be kept completely separate, and that they should not be allowed into white schools because they were not “full–bloodied Indians,” but also were not Negro because their hatred of Negroes was so strong.

Next, Gross describes the court case in which Willie Goins, a Smiling from Sumter County, South Carolina who had moved to Robeson County, attempted to have his children admitted to the Indian Normal School. Their racial status in South Carolina had been investigated by members of the Indian Baptist Association of Robeson County before they were admitted to an Indian church in Robeson County. Testimony was produced on both sides of the issue, some saying that Willie Goins and his family were of a separate race considered Indian, others that their reputation in South Carolina was as “colored people.” The jury ruled that the children should be admitted to the Indian Normal School.

Gross also touches on the passage of a North Carolina statute, in 1921, creating a racial screening committee for Robeson County Indian schools [1921 North Carolina Public-Local Laws ch. 426, “An Act for the Protection of the Public Schools of Robeson County.”  5 March 1921]. She continues through the 1953 state act changing the tribal name to Lumbee, and the 1956 federal act that extended them partial federal recognition. In summary, she states, “Demanding recognition as Indian allowed the Croatan/Lumbee to create an existence somewhat separate from whites and blacks–yet very different from when they had ‘free people of color' status before the Civil War. Adamant that their intermediate status would not lead to any fluidity in racial identity, the Croatan/Lumbee rigorously policed the line between Croatans and other people of color, whether they were individuals suspected of ‘negro blood’ or other racially ambiguous communities like the Smilings” (p. 126).

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