The South today retains powerful, if not governing, traces of the two-tiered caste system which it overly retained until well within living memory. For more than three centuries, racial definitions allowed unique privilege to those who qualified as “white” and insured fear and frustration for those condemned to be “black.” The varying systems for determining racial classification were always running into problems: free light-skinned African-Americans could “pass for white,” and prominent “white” people were occasionally revealed as having African ancestry (rumors persisted about slavery champion John C. Calhoun, and President Warren G. Harding was openly accused of having African “blood”). S.A. Johnson, a white farmer living near Elberton, GA, in the early years of this century often told the story of how, as a young and deeply tanned boy in the 1850s, he had accompanied a prominent and scoundrelly local planter to Charleston and had been sold as a slave by that gentleman to cover some gambling debts. The gray area between the “races” was far broader than the champions of slavery and white supremacy liked to admit.
Further problems arose within the two-tiered classification system when it confronted Native Americans and peoples who were neither obviously “white” nor “black” and whose ancestry was obscure. Several weeks ago this column dealt with some of the troubles confronting Georgian Creeks and Cherokee as they threaded their way through a society in which they had to be either European or African. This week’s column will consider some of the people who fell, and continue to fall, outside even a triracial classification system.
Chris Wohlwend in July 6 Atlanta Constitution wrote about Dr. Brent Kennedy’s search for the origins of the Melungeons, a small community of dark-skinned people who have lived for three centuries in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. The Melungeons were first described by French explorers who reported “Moors” living in the remote Appalachians. As white settlement progressed, the Melungeons, lacking title to their land and legally considered Indians or “free persons of color,” were pushed out of the valleys onto the undesirable high ridges. They were forced to turn to moonshining and banditry to support themselves. Their dangerous reputation reinforced the aversion their white neighbors had to their dark complexions and their isolation grew nearly complete. In this century, many of the Melungeons have moved away, married whites and assimilated completely into the mainstream of American society.
Where did the Melungeons come from? They once referred to themselves as “Portigees” and one source told Dr. Kennedy that “Melungeon” meant “white person” in Portuguese-Moorish dialect. Dr. Chester DePratter’s research on the early Spanish settlements near present-day Beaufort, SC, have shown that there were communities of runaway soldiers in the interior, communities that would have almost certainly included Portuguese of Moorish Berber background. It seems likely that these Afro-Iberians intermarried with Native Americans and later with white settlers. Genetic studies among the Melungeons have shown a profile similar to that of Western Mediterranean peoples on both sides of the straits of Gibraltar.
The new findings on the Melungeons may shed some light on the origins of another Carolinian “little race,” the Sumter Turks. About 30 miles east of Columbia, SC, in Sumter County near the town of Dalzell, is a community of people who have been known for at least two centuries as the Sumter Turks. By tradition the Sumter Turks were Moors who came to North America shortly before the Revolution. Several of them served in that struggle under South Carolina General Thomas Sumter. The tradition continues that Sumter invited them to settle near his plantation, where their descendants remain to present day. The Turks have always stoutly maintained their “white” status, denying any sub-Saharan African or Native-American background. Their claim has been just as steadfastly maintained by their white neighbors, who have always kept somewhat aloof from them, but protected them from the harsher laws affecting “free persons of color” in the antebellum era. Unlike free blacks, the Turks were readily admitted to the South Carolina militia and the Confederate armies. Seven members of the Benenhaly family of Sumter served as Confederate soldiers and only one returned alive.
The Sumter Turks’ origins are likely in the Mediterranean; the name “Benenhaly” seems similar to English versions of Arabic names such as “Jabaley.” Their presence in South Carolina could well date much earlier than the 18th century, perhaps, like the Melungeons, to the early Spanish settlements. Another common name among the Sumter Turks which may point to a part of their origins is “Oxendine,” a rare English surname very common among the Lumbee of Robeson County, NC. The story of the Lumbee can only be touched on here; they are one of the largest Native American groups, but are not recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They were “discovered” in the 1730s by Scotch settlers who were astonished to find “savages” with English names, speaking English, and living in wooden houses deep in North Carolina swamps. The Lumbee are probably the descendants of several small native nations pushed into the inhospitable river lands by the encroaching English as well as the Tuscarora and the Cherokee. Their English roots are generally believed traceable to the survivors of Raleigh’s Roanoke colony who fled among the native people in order to survive; Lumbee surnames closely match those of the Lost Colonists.
The Lumbee got along as farmers until the 1830s when North Carolina, like other Southern states, began a rigid racial classification system which restricted full civil liberties to adult males of unambiguously European origins. Stripped of their rights to vote and to sue white people, the Lumbee soon lost their lands to their white neighbors and subsistence farming. When the Civil War came they were drafted as slave laborers to work on the coastal forts near Wilmington. The Lumbees resisted. Under the leadership of the legendary Henry Berry Lowry many fled into deep swamps where runaway slaves and white Confederate deserters joined them in a modern Robin Hood’s band whose guerrilla exploits against the wealthy planters and Confederate home guards are honored to this day by the Lumbees. Henry Berry Lowry fled North Carolina with a price on his head and was never seen again, but his spirit remains at work among his people: In 1958 the Klan held a rally in Robeson County; a hundred Klansmen found themselves surrounded by five hundred stern Lumbees and decided to postpone their rally indefinitely. The Exalted Cyclopses have never dared air their bedclothes in Robeson County since.
The South has many other old communities of people who have never fit neatly into the region’s racial categories. Many have begun to assert a Native-American identity in the past 20 years. Among these are the Haliwa-Saponi of north-central North Carolina, the “Redlegs” of southwest Louisiana, the Poarch Creeks of south Alabama and the Smilings, the Edisto Indian Association, and the Chavises of South Carolina. The Chavises are a large family who live about 20 miles west of Orangeburg. Like “Oxendine,” “Chavis” is a common name among the Lumbee. Could this name have a Spanish origin such as “Chavez” or “Xavier?” Let us leave that to the onomasticians.
Further study of the “isolates” or “little races” will change many notions about Southern history and, with luck, many notions about “race” itself.
For an excellent history of Henry Berry Lowry and the Lowry Band, read W. McKee Evans’ To Die Game. Information on the Sumter Turks can be found in Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark’s fascinating Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South.
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