Native Americans and school desegregation: the Chavis case in Robeson County

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Wertheimer, John W. "Native Americans and school desegregation: the Chavis case in Robeson County.” Law and society in the South: A history of North Carolina court cases. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2009. Pp.165–189. Notes, Pp. 251–264. Key source


This insightful, copiously documented account of the court case, State v. Chavis, originated, as did all the chapters in this volume, from the author's legal history seminar at Davidson College. Wertheimer acknowledges eleven of his students who contributed to this impressive chapter.

One of the chapter's many strengths is the way it integrates events in the history of school integration in Robeson County—both prior to and during the course of this case—into the broader history of desegregation and civil rights activism. For example, Wertheimer traces the influence of Brown V. Board of Education (1954) on Lumbees' integrationist strategies in their activism following that landmark decision. Although he notes that there were also segregationists among the Lumbee at that time, he argues that they were not publicly visible.

He describes, in the early 1960s, support of integrationist Lumbees by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Association on American Indian affairs (AAIA). Then, following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Wertheimer recounts the Lumbee shift to separatism and segregationism. Robeson County Schools' desegregation plan failed the test created by the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case, Green v. School Board of New Kent County. This shift is placed in the context of the African American civil rights movement and its influence on the Native American activist Vine Deloria. Another context discussed is the American Indian Movement.

The extensive research and documentation underlying this chapter can be illustrated by two brief examples. In describing the separatist approach to school integration evident among the Lumbee by 1970, Wertheimer discusses a gathering at Prospect School in early October, 1970. During this gathering, Wertheimer notes that there were manifestations of Lumbee cultural pride (a song by Miss Lumbee, Magnolia Indian dancers, and guitar playing by Lou Barton) as well as a vivid illustration of separatist tactics: a protester lay down on a bed of nails to show the effect school integration would have on Native Americans in Robeson County.

Wertheimer also documents the role of Tuscaroras during this period, using newspaper articles as well as other sources. He perceptively notes that Robeson County Indians opposing school desegregation used sit–ins and lawsuits in the 1960s for integrationist purposes, but also used sit–ins and lawsuits in the 1970s for separatist purposes.

Wertheimer's discussion of the court case itself–State V. Chavis, tried on January 21, 1979, in Robeson County Superior Court, where it failed; and the appellate case, tried in the North Carolina Court of Appeals in the fall of 1979—makes use of trial transcripts and, once again, places the case into broader contexts. Particularly useful and interesting are the well-documented discussions of two aspects of the case. One is the widespread violations of HEW mandates in the 1960s and 1970s as Lumbee parents sent their children to schools in other districts by submitting affidavits saying that the children were living with relatives in those districts. A second is the role of Purnell Swett, who became school superintendent in 1977. Swett  attempted to keep the county school system from losing its federal funding for violating HEW's mandates by investigating with HEW the possibility that he could grant Native Americans “special exemptions”. 

Wertheimer also explains the approach of attorney Bruce T. Cunningham, Jr. in defending the Native American parents whose children sat in at Prospect school during the 1978–1979 school year. Eight of these parents were arrested for violating compulsory school attendance laws, and their individual cases were consolidated into State v. Chavis. Wertheimer uses the trial transcript and other sources to document an illuminating discussion of Cunningham's use of Wisconsin v.Yoder (1972) as a key precedent in defending the Indian parents in the 1979 Robeson County Superior Court trial.

He and presiding Judge Anthony Brannon allowed the defendants much latitude in testifying. The Indian parents argued that their belief was that they were exempt from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it applied to Blacks and Whites, not to Indians. Cunningham reflected later that “Our argument… was that, under the Wisconsin v.Yoder case, if there are strongly held beliefs that would impact the decision of whether or not to send your kid to school [as in Yoder] or where to send your kid to school [as in Chavis], then you could be exempt” from general school attendance laws (p. 181).

In sum, this readable, insightful, and extremely well documented chapter is an important contribution to scholarship on Lumbee responses to school integration.


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