Three races clash in Robeson County
Nakell describes how African Americans fit into his experiences with discrimination in Robeson County. Double voting, a pressing issue for Native Americans, did not affect African Americans as much as it did Native Americans, but widespread educational discrimination hurt both groups. Nakell believes that the need for low-wage labor created a need for an uneducated population willing to work for low wages. Attempts at political advocacy fell short, failing because white politicians managed to divide the Native American and African American electorate. Nakell describes an area where, at least in the mid-1970s, African Americans and Native Americans faced significant obstacles educationally and politically.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Barry Nakell, October 1, 2003. Interview U-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
MM: What about African Americans? What was their situation?
BN: Well, the African Americans were spread among the various school boards, I think, and my recollection is that the Indians were the dominant racial group in the schools in the county. But there were white and black students in the county school board as well. It wasn’t totally Indian.
MM: Do you feel like African Americans had any more say so over the city school boards than say Indians would have, Indians that lived in the cities or—
BN: I'll tell you generally I thought the blacks and the Indians were both oppressed groups in Robeson County at this time, and we're talking in the early ‘70s. That they were equally oppressed, that there were a number of devices that were used to oppress them, a number of ways that they were kept powerless, that this is a device, this double voting so called was a device that had a greater impact on Indians than on blacks. So it was of particular interest to the Indians and the elimination of double voting itself didn’t help blacks as much as it did Indians. But I know, I did know about a lot of other devices that oppressed blacks and also kept blacks and Indians from working together.
MM: Talk about those a little bit. We can get back to the double voting structure. But I’m sort of interested in that moment when you came down here, what you were observing.
BN: Well, I wouldn't say in the moment, I spent a lot of time in Robeson County. I came down often. It’s not a matter of, I mean things were pretty clear from the beginning. But the more I was there the more I learned, and the more I learned about it. The one matter related to the education system that I thought was a concern both the blacks and whites was that the education system was deliberately kept at a low level of quality. At that time and it think still Robeson County depended for its economy on low wage industry. In order to attract industry to Robeson County, folks promised low wages. One way to maintain low wages was to have a large group of uneducated, even illiterate, citizens who would be willing to work for the low wages. So the education process was kept at a poor level in order to be able to produce people who would work for low wages. Another strategy that I learned about was that the county was fairly evenly divided between the three races, not precisely certainly, but there were pretty strong proportions of each of the three races. In order to keep the whites and blacks from joining together in political races in order to win a race for, win a political seat, a political position for a member of one of those two races, the whites would often put up candidates from the white and/or black races to run against other candidates to divide the vote. So if there were a serious black candidate or a serious Indian candidate, the whites would put up a black or Indian candidate to divide the vote, divide the Indian or black or minority vote, and enable the white to win. That was a pretty effective device and it was very strongly used. So those are a couple of things.