A Report of Research on Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 7 – Refugee Misfits Theory

A continuation of Robert K. Thomas’s Report of Research on Lumbee Origins.  This was transcribed from a photocopy of an original report at the Wilson Library, UNC, Chapel Hill, NC in June of 2012.   Any comments I have will be made at the end of these transcriptions and it will be evident that they are mine.  To see more about Robert K. Thomas, go to:  http://works.bepress.com/robert_thomas/

The other hypothesis about Lumbee origin which does not relate to some Indian source has been posed by some sociologists and demographers. It says the communities like the Lumbees in the Southeast are simply refugee communities which are formed by social deviants clustering up together  – free black, loose Indians, Latin sailors, whatever.  After this social group was formed it took over a middle ground status position between blacks and whites and many scholars have called communities such as this Lumbee, tri-racial groups.  In this they agree with many whites in Robeson County who see the Lumbees as a tri-racial, middle ground caste.  Not to be uncharitable, but I think the analysis as presented by these scholars is largely a refinement of a feature of the general world view of the American middle class; a view that does not see people or communities but only individuals of differing races and ranks.

Further, these scholars see the caste system in the South as the origin of such a community as the Lumbees.  Such scholars think the Lumbee community was created and maintained by the racial caste (p 19 of the report, his page 18) system of the South.  I think this shows two things.  One is a misunderstanding of the dynamics of caste, particularly castes based on race, and the other is ignorance of the history of the South.  A caste system rarely creates a new community of people.  It may create individuals who have the same rank, but it does not necessarily push these individuals into a single community.  Sometimes if there are individuals who have a common rank because of a shared occupation and are then pushed into one geographical area a community can emerge.  Such a dynamic may explain the origin of the Metis in Canada.  Of course, it doesn’t explain their continuation.  But I think it is very rare where people come together simply because of a common rank as individuals in a society and “bunch up” in order to form a common social group based on common rank. 

I think that these scholars are showing a very pronounced middle class American bias.  Middle class Americans will opt for rank over and above relatives or community or anything.  Of course, a great many of the suburbs of cities in the US are formed primarily on the basis of common rank within American society, that is people move to the suburbs and cluster together on the  basis of income and occupation.  They aren’t an occupational group that is pushed into a geographic area and then forms a community, but are in fact single individuals or nuclear families who migrate and close residences.  Needless to say, social cohesion in America is very fragile.  However, I think that for most people in the world association of the basis of common rank is a very rare occurrence.

(P 20 of the report, his page 19) More than that, as I say, such analysis belies a knowledge of the history of the South.  In the first place, most social deviants in the 1700s or early 1800s, if they wanted to, could go to the frontier and simply disappear.  Many such people chose to do just that in the US.  This is only one example of the kind of alternatives open to someone whose main consideration was rank within a fluid society.  It would not be necessary to bunch up in a refugee community in the swamps of NC.  Further, the caste system of the South as we know it really did not start to come into being until about 1800.  The first laws that began to regulate caste behavior were passed in the 1820s and 1830s in the South.  Most of the communities which these scholars are looking at, the Lumbee community specifically, formed many years before the caste system in the South had begun to assume any form whatsoever.  In fact, at the time the Lumbee formed as a community it was still possible in parts of NC for a black man to be married to a white woman, own slaves and be a landholder.  Michelle Lawing has cases of this in the works she has done in northeastern NC.  My point is, I don’t believe that rank of caste as such can explain the presence of these “tri-racial” communities.  As I say, it both belies the understanding of the dynamics of a caste system and the history of the South, as well.  The scholar who most operated according to this hypothesis was Calvin Beale, but Brewton Berry also tends to work from this hypothesis, at least implicitly.

About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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