‘No Accommodations for Indians:’ The Civil Rights Fight in North Carolina

cinematreasures.org Dunn Stewart Theater, in Dunn, North Carolina is seen here in the 1980s.

When Hughie Maynor thinks about civil rights, he pictures a movie theater in Dunn, North Carolina.

White patrons sat on the main floor and African Americans sat in an upstairs balcony, said Maynor, a member of North Carolina’s Coharie Indian Tribe. A sign at the ticket booth banned Natives from entering. It read “No Accommodations for Indians.”

“They wouldn’t let us go upstairs or downstairs,” said Maynor, now 68. “For a while, we could go to the theater and sit with the whites, but one Saturday when we went to the movies, the sign was up and they wouldn’t let us in at all.”

Born in 1946, Maynor came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, an era marked by clashes between white and black Americans—a politically and racially charged period that divided the country.

For Maynor and other Natives in North Carolina, the struggle was even deeper. While African Americans endured segregated seating, separate water fountains and sub-par schools, Natives were caught somewhere in between. Neither white nor black, the state’s eight tribes fought for more than equal rights. They wanted a distinct identity.

Image courtesy of Hughie Maynor

In this 1960 photo, Hughie Maynor, right, poses with a friend.

In North Carolina, one of few states labeled “tri-racial,” the Civil Rights Movement transcended the national efforts of desegregation, Maynor said. In many ways, being Native in a binary society was a bigger struggle than being black.

“I think the struggle was similar,” Maynor said. “But the blacks had a high school. They had a place where they could go to the movies. A few businesses were owned by black people. It was not the same for Natives.”

Although largely lost to history, a separate Native Human Rights Movement took place in North Carolina during the 1960s and 70s, said Marty Richardson, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As in other segregated areas, many of the conflicts took place on school grounds.

Fred Blackwell/AP Images/Jackson Daily News

A scene from the May 28, 1963 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. Seated at the counter, from left, are Native American Professor John Salter or “Hunter Bear,” Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody, who died February 5 at 74.

But the Native battle for desegregation was complex and borrowed strategies from both sides, said Richardson, who is Haliwa Saponi. In the years following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, North Carolina’s tribes juggled a quest for equality in education with the very real battle for a separate identity.

“We used the methods from other civil rights groups,” Richardson said, “but our main goal was to gain an identity all our own, to have our Indian identity recognized.”

From the African Americans, Natives borrowed strategies that helped them gain access to white schools. That included protests, sit-ins and even arrests.

North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

Demonstrators block the entrance to Colonial Drug Store in Chapel Hill in 1964 to protest its policy of serving only whites.

For Maynor, protesting meant the difference between attending high school in town or busing 35 miles out of town to go to an Indian school.

“If we wanted to go to school after eighth grade, we had to go to the next county,” he said. “Most of us wanted to go, so we agreed that we needed to do something so we would be treated like everyone else.”

At age 13, Maynor and his peers went to the white school, picked a classroom and took seats. Although teachers didn’t seem to mind, administrators and school board members did, he said. The next time they went to school, the sidewalks were lined with officers from the city and county police departments and the highway patrol.

“They told us if we stepped off the sidewalk onto school property, we’d get arrested,” Maynor said. “We lined up in front of them and someone said, ‘let’s go,’ and everyone but me stepped off the sidewalk.”

When a police officer challenged him individually, Maynor also stepped onto school property. He was arrested with 20 of his peers and transported to the courthouse.

Image courtesy of Hughie Maynor

Hughie Maynor stands in front of a totem pole near Cherokee, North Carolina in 1974.

As parents took the matter to court, Native students were sent out of town to go to school, Maynor said. A federal judge eventually ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, and Maynor registered for school in Dunn. He graduated five years later.

But not all Natives fought to attend white schools, Richardson said. In fact, some actions were considered “anti-civil rights.”

“Blacks wanted to go to white schools or equal schools, but our people were saying we wanted to be segregated,” he said. “We wanted to be comfortable, for our kids to learn without being taunted. One thing that sets our civil rights movement apart is that we allied with whites on some segregation issues.”

Maintaining separate schools was an expression of sovereignty, said Lawrence Locklear, program coordinator for the Southeast American Indian Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. For more than a century, Pembroke, located in the Lumbee-heavy Robeson County, was a haven for Natives.

UNC-Pembroke, originally the Croatan Indian School, for decades served only American Indians who wanted to study education. The school, which opened in 1887 with 15 students, produced Native teachers who took jobs at public schools across the state.

Image courtesy of Hughie Maynor

Hughie Maynor is seen here in 2015.

Even in the 1950s and 60s, Natives wanted to retain control of the school, said Locklear, who is Lumbee. Natives were not allowed in the state’s higher education system until the 1950s.

Like Dunn, the city of Lumberton, near Pembroke, was tri-racially segregated into the 1960s and 70s, Locklear said.

“Here there were three of everything,” he said. “There were three separate water fountains. At the civic center, blacks and Indians had to go in the side entrance. At the train depot, there was a waiting room for blacks and one for whites. The Indians were using the white room until the mayor complained and asked for a separate room for Indians.”

At the theater, white patrons sat on the main floor while Natives and blacks sat in the balcony, separated from each other by chicken wire, Locklear said. Quarantined together, Natives and blacks conspired against the whites and threw soft drinks from the balcony.

Library of Congress/Wikipedia

An African American patron going in the “colored” entrance of the Crescent Theatre in Belzoni, Mississippi on a Saturday afternoon in 1939.

Though bigoted, segregation opened the door for tribes to assert their sovereignty, Richardson said. As Americans far and wide challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine, Natives were emerging with their own identity—one that would be disputed for generations to come.

“We were colored in the eyes of a lot of people—the federal government, the state, white people,” Richardson said. “We could be colored all day, but once we said we’re not colored, we’re Indian, that’s a different way of being recognized. The hard road was to be Indian.”

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