Robeson County, North Carolina, 1958
Robeson County, the largest county in North Carolina, is located on the central part of the North Carolina/South Carolina border. Although this area often goes unnoticed, parts of North Carolina’s oldest and richest cultural histories are embedded in the flatlands of Robeson. This area has been home to the Lumbee, a federally recognized Native American tribe, since before written history. In 1958, hundreds of years of tension between the Lumbee and the white citizens of North Carolina came to a head at the Battle of Hayes Pond. This altercation between the Lumbee and the Ku Klux Klan was the product of ancient and modern forms of oppression by groups of white North Carolinians.
All the way through history, up to present day, the identity of the Lumbee people has been discussed, argued over, written about, and voted on by all types of North Carolinians. Oftentimes, people will place emphasis on the mixing of Native American families with those of emancipated or escaped African-Americans. Few slaves were held in the Bladen County area and freed former slaves started families that have lasted in the county for years and years. Add the white families that were also involved in interracial communions and the heritage of the Robeson County area becomes both incredibly unique and highly ambiguous (Franklin). The heritage of these people cannot be purely traced back or fully connected to any other area of the country. Perhaps it is this ambiguity and uncertainty that led to so much sociopolitical strife in Robeson County over the years– after all, many people fear and attempt to destroy that which they cannot understand (Sider).
The rights of the Lumbee people of Robeson County shifted and changed in the same ways the rights of all Native American tribes in the United States changed. That is, the rights of a Lumbee were directly related to and often identical to those of an African-American individual living in the same area. African-American, Native American, or deemed “mulatto” – the people of Robeson County were often swiftly robbed of rights in the wake of developments in the cultivation of the slave economy, battles and resolutions of the Civil War, and policy changes related to the World Wars or shifts in American politics related to the Civil Rights movement (Locklear 2). Examples include the pre-civil war slave uprising known as “Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion”. Fear swept through the south after this violent event and Native Americans went from bearing the rights of a freed person of color to working under stricter laws that related more closely to statutes that governed slaves (Sterling 18). Most relevantly, the altercation between the Ku Klux Klan and the Lumbee at Hayes Pond followed a four year surge in Klan activity all over North Carolina. This surge, and the focus put on the racial presence of the Lumbee tribe, were partially encited by the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling made in 1954 (Graham). As Klan activity rose in the area, every minority group became at risk of attack by a group of angry Klansmen .
Issues of identity may seem archaic, they all contributed to the tension that exploded in relatively recent history. The 1950s are remembered as a time of Wonder Bread-infused calm and a general appreciation for sticking to the status quo, but rumblings of distaste with Jim Crow segregation began to shake things up in the later part of the decade.
As stated earlier, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a resurgence of activity following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954. The forced integration of state public school systems led the Klan to target all minority groups and issues once again. The Lumbee people had not been spared the actions of the Klan before but lately the Klan had been targeting mostly African- American groups. In early 1958, this trend of Klan harassment began to include the Lumbee people. To be frank, Robeson County in the 1950’s was primed for racial tension – the area was comprised of three distinct racial groups, each with its own school system and community. 40,000 whites, 30, 000 Native Americans, and 25,000 African-Americans all lived within miles of each other (Graham 3). In light of that information, it may be surprising to some that the main responsibility for The Battle of Hayes Pond can be placed outside Robeson County and the state of North Carolina. Although Klan activities were always group efforts, one individual remains the face of this struggle: James W. “Catfish” Cole. A native North Carolinian but resident of South Carolina, Cole was the de facto leader of much of the Klan activity in North and South Carolina in the late 1950’s. Cole referred to himself as the “Grand Dragon” – one of the terms created to describe the hierarchy in Klan leadership.
Around the time of the Battle of Hayes Pond (also known as the Maxton Altercation), Cole was a leading member of the late-night attacks meant to reflect white America’s distaste with integration. In 1958, Cole decided that the “Indian” population of North Carolina was part of the “integration problem” that needed to be addressed (Dial 160). Cole specifically cited the age-old issue plaguing the Lumbee people – he reported that a Klan rally in this area would be a strong message against “race-mixing” (Graham 4).
Lumbee people say the crosses were burned to intimidate a Native American family that had recently moved a white neighborhood and another Native American woman who had been seen in public with a white man from the area (Dial 158).
In the days between the cross burning and the rally, Catfish Cole made the statement “I am for segregation”. This statement was especially controversial due to the fact that at this time, the Klan was engaged in mainly covert activity (such as the late-night cross burning )(Graham). Despite warnings from the local police force, Catfish Cole was determined to go ahead with a public rally which he said was to “put the Indians in their place and to end race-mixing” (Dial 160).
A field in Maxton, North Carolina, was the planned location for a public Klan rally, scheduled for January, 18, 1958. Cole and other Klansmen heavily publicized the event and the information spread quickly to the Lumbee community. The rally began as planned. The area was lit by a single, bare light-bulb, powered by a portable energy generator. A large Ku Klux Klan banner hung in the dim glow surrounding the Klan elders (Dial). The light was so dim and energy was so high in the crowd of Klansmen that no one noticed the large group of Lumbee that were assembling to surround the field. Hundreds of armed Lumbee stood on the perimeter of the rally, listening to jeers, jabs, and threats related to their families and livelihoods (Graham).
After a relatively short time, the surrounding Lumbee stormed the field, shots were fired and a shattering of glass marked the extinguishing of the field’s only light source (Dial 161). The Klansmen were outmatched in the dark and quickly fled in cars and by foot. Catfish Cole’s wife was sitting in their automobile near the rally. As the violence began, Catfish abandoned his wife and fled into nearby woods. Mrs. Cole ended up hysterically driving the car into a ditch after watching her husband run away. She was later assisted by Lumbee men who pitied the white woman in such a ridiculous situation (Tyson). After the last of the shocked rally attendees escaped the scene, the Lumbee protectors began to celebrate their victory. The site of the rally became the site of an all-night party and media sources captured the jubilant activities of the triumphant Lumbee. In the following weeks, these images were viewed all over the nation. The most famous and poignant image of the Lumbee celebration is that of Charles Warriax and Simeon Oxendine, two Lumbee leaders who wrapped themselves in the KKK banner during the post-rally celebration. Oxendine posed for the photo in his World War II officers hat, and Warriax provided the camera with a huge, sneaky wink. This photo, published in LIFE magazine, was circulated around the nation. Americans in all areas of the country displayed vastly different reactions to the ironic and arresting photograph (Tyson). The footage of this event served to reveal the horrific resurrection of the Klan, a movement that had been shrouded due to the secretive nature of their previous attacks. Additionally, images of the proud Lumbee attackers served to both assert the tribe’s strength in North Carolina as well as incite a certain amount of fear and interest in the minority group that was able to defeat the Klan.
The victory of the the Lumbee at the Battle of Hayes Pond was unprecedented and surprising to the entire nation. Although the Lumbee triumph was unexpected, the years of oppression leveled on the Lumbee people created a culture of resilience and strength that allowed for such an event. Although the Lumbee people still struggle for full recognition by all groups, the Battle of Hayes Pond truly legitimized the tribe as a people worth noticing. The Klan has been inactive in Robeson County since the day Catfish Cole fled the field in Maxton and the Lumbee celebrate the victory at Hayes Pond each year.
“Bad Medicine for the Klan.” LIFE 27 Jan. 1958: 26-28. Google Books.
Dial, Adolph L., and David K. Eliades. The Only Land I Know: a History of the Lumbee Indians. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1996. 154-62. Google Books. Web.
Franklin, John Hope. “Native North Carolina.” The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1995. 114+. Web.
Graham, Nicholas. “January 1958 — The Lumbees Face the Klan.” This Day in North Carolina History. UNC Libraries, Jan. 2005. Web.
Locklear, Carnell. “Interview with Carnell Locklear.” Interview. Documenting the American South: Oral Histories of the American South. UNC Libraries, 24 Feb. 2004. Web.
Parkins, Erv. “Threaten to ‘Scalp”: Klan Rally Doubtful; Maxton Indians Arming.” Maxton Times 17 Jan. 1958. The Trouble Maker: Carolina KKK. 31 May 2006. Web.
Starr Sterling, Glenn E. “Lumbee Voices: North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians in Literature, Art, and Music.” Lumbee Voices. Appalachian State University, Apr. 1996. Web.
Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1999. Print.
About the Author
Emma DeWitt is a first-year Dramatic Art and Public Policy double-major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.