- What is Progress?:Desegregating an Indian School in Robeson County, North Carolina
Robeson County, North Carolina's public schools, like many other school districts in the South, did not begin integrating until the 1970s. But unlike many places in the South, Robeson County had to integrate three—not just two—sets of schools. One for whites, one for blacks, and one for Native Americans, members of the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes.
These tribes had fought hard to have their own schools, and when the pressure to integrate the schools became intense, few Native Americans wanted it. They remembered their ancestors' struggle to establish their own school in the 1880s, when the state had tried to force them to attend school with African Americans or not attend school at all. Such a fight resulted in the establishment of the Indian-only school system, a symbol of tribal autonomy, and the founding of what would become the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. For the Lumbee and Tuscarora, to go to school with whites or blacks was to give up control of their children's education, both academically and socially.
This fear was well-justified. While each group had its own schools, only whites sat on the county school board prior to the mid-1970s. The Lumbee and Tuscarora had little say-so over school policy, except for the narrow scope of decisions made by neighborhood Indian school committees. School committees, composed typically of three or four well-respected Native men, controlled who was hired and fired at a school and which children could and could not attend that school. While their decision-making power was limited from the perspective of the white-controlled county school board, their influence was pervasive in the community they served. They and the school administrators functioned as community chiefs, in a sense, living and working in an intimate, reciprocal relationship with Native students and parents. Largely because of this system of governance, the Lumbee and Tuscarora felt intense loyalties to their schools and communities. They were reluctant to accept integration, and many defied the pupil assignment plans that the school board tried to implement in the early 1970s. These loyalties played a large role in the slowness of school integration in Robeson County.
White control of the county school board was the result of an unconstitutional voting procedure known as "double voting." When this procedure was broken by court order in 1974, the Lumbee and Tuscarora quickly gained a plurality on the school board and appointed a Native superintendent. While this was a tremendous victory for tribal control over education, it did not [End Page 87] necessarily ease the transition from segregated school systems to integrated ones. Even thirty years later, many believe that the process is not over and has not been successful.
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James A. Jones, a former principal at Prospect School in Robeson County, talks about these changes and the reactions of Native American parents in his school district. He attended school as a child at Prospect, fought in World War II, then taught at Prospect Elementary and High Schools for thirty-two years, first as a seventh-grade teacher, then as assistant principal, and finally as principal from 1971 to 1984. During his tenure there, he only missed five or six days of work, and these were due to illness.
As Mr. Jones notes, Prospect has a long history as a nearly exclusively Native American community. Some of the teachers at the first Indian school, in 1885, came from Prospect, and members of that community take great pride in the education they have been able to offer their children. His nostalgia for Prospect as an Indian-only school, despite the inequities the students faced, reminds us that a strong community could turn a disadvantaged school into a powerful engine of student achievement. Mr. Jones...