Why is there no sympathy for black female victims of crime?

This is a serious issue in America. Black women, Black men, and Black children have been devalued in America and still is.


Source: Prevention Lane

I got a request from reynagirl14 to write about why people, men in particular, refuse to feel for victims of violence against black women. She observes that the media doesn’t “pay attention and whenever they do pay attention, the media place racist stereotypical labels on the Black victims, and the police tend to look the other way when it comes to serial murders of Black women.”

As a black person, I understand that much of society refuses to see black folks as victims or feel sorry for them in any way. However, as a black man, I can never fully understand how it feels to be treated unfairly as a female. Therefore, I feel I have NO RIGHT to tell black women how to feel, what to think or what to say in regards to poisonous misogynoir. Yet, it doesn’t and shouldn’t excuse me from learning, and…

View original post 695 more words


Anti Violence Group Decry Crime in Charlotte

Twenty-two homicides. Fifty-four days.

Members of the anti-violence group Mothers of Murdered Offspring recited that grim statistic Sunday afternoon as they turned out to an east Charlotte cemetery to protest the surge in Charlotte’s murder rate this year.

Put another way, Charlotte has so far seen, on average, almost three murders per week in 2019. That compares to a little over one per week last year.

“We’re at the point that we could be at record numbers,” said Lisa Crawford, the administrator for Mothers of Murdered Offspring who was among those who turned out for the windy news conference. “And if we don’t stand up and say, ‘People look. It could be you. It could be me,’ we could be another Chicago.”


Dee Sumpter also showed up for the event at Sharon Memorial Gardens. That’s where her daughter, Shawna Denise Hawk, was buried in 1993 after she was murdered by serial killer Henry Louis Wallace.

“I can’t believe, 26 years later, that I’m still here. And I’m still making this plea,” Sumpter said. “We can’t let the blood of our children run through the streets of a city that views itself as progressive. It’s unacceptable.”

The event’s organizers urged Charlotteans to do four things to stem the murderous trend:

  • “See something. Say something.” They urged citizens to call Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department detectives or the department’s Crime Stoppers team at 704-334-1600.
  • Be aware that “Black Lives Matter.” Too often, Crawford said, black people are killing black people. “It’s become part of the norm,” she said. “We have got to stop killing each other.”
  • ”Be your brother’s keeper.” Often, Crawford said, people know when friends and loved ones have beefs with others – and they could step in before things turn deadly.
  • “Get involved.” One way, Crawford said, is to teach children that they shouldn’t celebrate violence. She pointed to the many kids who are allowed to play video games where the objective is to kill others. “Parents — What are we doing?” Crawford asked.

Sgt. Ricky Robbins, supervisor of CMPD’s victim’s services unit, also turned out for the event. He acknowledged that the city is going through a particularly murderous period, and said that police must work with others to determine what is causing it — and how to stop it.

“This is a business city,” Robbins said. “And people want to believe they’re safe. We have to keep them safe.”

It seems like history is repeating itself in Charlotte.  Here’s a video chronicling 1993 as being the highest murder toll ever, with 129 murders that year.


Media’s Lack of Coverage and General Society’s Lack of Compassion Regarding Serial Murders of Black Women (A Repost)

Media’s Lack of Coverage and General Society’s Lack of Compassion Regarding Serial Murders of Black Women

“This thing is serious business, until we know women are safe in this community, we will be out here every year,” – Activist Kathy Wray of the Imperial Women Coalition

“We all know, if these young women had been white, the whole town would have been shut down, until it was solved.”- Commenter Mike at Abagond regarding the Henry Louis Wallace serial killings of 11 young Black women in Charlotte
“The police don’t care because these are black women… . It’s not like Lonnie killed no high-powered white folks.  We don’t mean nothing to them.  We’re black. What the @@@@. Just another @@@@@ dead.  The @@@@ should not have been out there on drugs.”
Pamela Brooks, in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper”

This year will be the 10th anniversary of the Imperial House Murders(Anthony Sowell), the 25th anniversary of Henry Louis Wallace(Taco Bell Strangler), and the 40th anniversary of the  Boston Murders.


This will be a year-long series on how mainstream media and society disregards the serial murders of Black women in America.  Eleven years ago, I wrote a blog post, Crimes Against Black Women:  Four Casesregarding the neglect of media and police coverage regarding murders of Black women by people of all races and ethnicities as well as the insensitivity of the general public.  I going to discuss the Anthony Sowell murders, along with the Grim Reaper, and of course, Henry Louis Wallace(a.k.a. Bad Henry).  There has been other serial murderers of Black women in the past and current centuries.  Such as Gary Heidnikwho murdered several Black women in the Philadelphia area. Benjamin Atkins in Detroit in 1991-1992 murders of 11 women.  East Cleveland killer Michael Madison.  Larry Bright killed eight Black women in the Peoria area back during 2004-2005.  The Gary Indiana killer back in 2012.  The still unsolved serial murder case in Rocky Mount, N.C. in 2009.  But my focus will be on the four cases at hand.  The  police  should have warned that a murderer in the community and to make sure community has an input in solving murders and to bring the perpetrators to justice.  How the media should have had more sensitivity to those who are marginalized.

Bad Henry: Nightmare in Charlotte amid the 1990s prosperity 
Here are some of Henry Louis Wallace victims from Bad Henry
Very beautiful young women victims of Henry Louis Wallace from 1994 USA Today’s group photo

 This Vice News documentary needs to be spread to everyone who is concerned with justice and compassion for the most marginalized groups in America.  

The invisible victims of Anthony Sowell:

The Grim Sleeper Documentary

Here are some of Chester Turner’s victims, pretty young women 

There will be at least four parts to this subject.  Because this is repeatedly ignored by the general public, society and media. Professor Cheryl L Neely of Oakland(MI) Community College discussed this lack of attention and police indifference in her debut book, You’re Dead, So What.  She discussed at length how media, law enforcement, and the general public indifference to Black female victims of homicide.  She give examples and comparison between the murder of Imette St. Guillen and Stepha Clark.  How the media and the police treatment of such women are base upon socioeconomic class and race.  

We all know that mainstream media often saturate missing and murdered women with stories about beautiful, middle class White and Latina female victims such as Chandra Levy, Mollie Tibbitts, Nixzmary Brown, Laci Peterson, Kate Steinle, etc. There’s a label for the aforementioned victims, coined as  the “Missing Beautiful White Woman Syndrome.”  They’re also considered victims deserving of sympathy, compassion, and empathy.  Sure, the pedestalization of White American women help solidify the idea of young, beautiful White women as worthy of remembrance. They, along with lighter-skinned non black women of Color are the standard of beauty in America today.   We Americans still refer to celebrity White women as American Sweethearts who captured the hearts of Americans and others worldwide.  They’re considered as sweet, easy on the eyes, and personable.  Also, non black women and girls get the assumption of innocence regardless of circumstances.

In contrast, society have very little compassion for Black women victims of crime, let alone serial killers.  As a matter of fact, Black female victims are labeled in American society and media as being “loose”, “fast”, “crackheads”, “runaways”, drug users, “sluts”,”whores”, “thots”, mentally unstable, “baby-making machines”, and “welfare queens”. Likewise, the mainstream American media and the general public tendency to label Black females as “street women”, “Chickenheads”,”prostitutes”,  “ghetto”,”junkies”, “ratchet” and so on.  For a very long time, Black women academics long contended that the controlling images of Black women(Jezebel, Mammy, Sapphire, Welfare Queen, Crackheads, etc.) are employed to stigmatize an already marginalized group of women. The jezebelstereotype especially. That stereotype justified abuse of Black women by White and Black men since slavery.  Such abuse rarely invoke outrage from the public.  That needs to change.

Going back to the Madonna/whore ideology. From historic times, society in general always label women as either good, chaste women, wives, mothers, nuns or they’re loose women, prostitutes, and mistresses/courtesans.  Renaissance artists reflected societal views of women through the Madonna paintings by famous artists Lippi,BotticelliRaphael, etc., or nude paintings such as the Venus of Urbino by Titian.  

In American society, the Madonna/whore ideology is strong, tinged with class and race components.  White and other non black women, especially East Asian women are considered the “sacred Madonna” while Black, Native American, and certain Latinas, especially the Caribbean Latinas are labeled as “bad women” deserving of their fate.  This view is far more widespread as the lack of coverage, the disparaging remarks in and out of cyberspace, and general indifference on the part of law enforcement to solve murders of Black women in America and Indigenous women in Canada.  

The Madonna/whore mythology were used in how the public reacted to murders of Black women.

For example, the Cleveland convenience store owner showed sympathy to Anthony Sowell, whom he said in the Unseen interview that “he took out the garbage”.  That’s a blatantly hateful remark.  He saw the victims, living and dead, of Anthony Sowell as being “worthless” and “undeserving” to him.  In referring to the slow reaction on the part of Charlotte police in connection with the Henry Louis Wallace serial murder case, a concerned young woman in East Charlotte stated that the police did not care because they viewed the young female murder victims as “fast girls who hang out a lot”.

In the December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair article covering the Grim Sleeper and how law enforcement turned a blind eye to the serial murder of Black women, Franklin’s son Christopher describes meeting L.A.P.D. officers who asked if they could shake his hand, aware that he was the son of the Grim Sleeper. Broomfield was dumbstruck by the revelation. “Christopher told me his father had a lot of fans in law enforcement. Some police officers actually admired Lonnie for ‘cleaning up the streets.’ That seemed, to me, too incredible—that a serial killer could be a person who was respected within certain sections of law enforcement.” Unfortunately, those attitudes are widespread in society, seeing poor, Native American, Latina, and Black women as being of lesser value than other American women.  

There’s a deeply troubling disparity in reporting the disappearance and homicides of female victims reflects racial inequality and institutionalized racism in the social structure. Oftentimes when reporting, there’s a considerable bias when it comes to Black American female murder victims.  The reporters always want probe into the backgrounds of such women, their sexual histories, criminal records, the neighborhoods where they reside, their work/education backgrounds, history of drug/alcohol addictions, and whom their associations were as if they done something wrong to cause their demise.  

They were rarely described in the media as being attractive, beautiful, smart, intelligent, serious, wonderful wives, good mothers, or pretty.  Those descriptions are reserved for middle/upper class and/or famous non black victims.  With precious few exceptions, there are very few media outlets cover Black female homicide/serial murder victims with sympathy and compassion.  

The Cleveland victims of Anthony Sowell  received coverage and even some compassion from local newspaper journalists. Writer Steve Miller wrote a compassionate book focusing on the victims and their lives in the book, Nobody’s Women:  The Crimes and Victims of Anthony Sowell. They didn’t focus too much on the victims’ drug/alcohol addictions, criminal records, poor family lives, etc.  Instead, they discuss about their lives before circumstances took them away.  Even the Grim Sleeper victims are rehabilitated by author Christine Pilasek in her book, The Grim Sleeper:  Lost Women of South L.A.  Of course, the beautiful victims of Henry Louis Wallace.  Although they didn’t get much coverage outside of Charlotte, they were written sympathetically as well.  

Ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about violence against Black women.  I wrote this in an attempt to get America and the world to acknowledge the violence done to Black women in America. 
 So many people, lurkers, scholars, crime experts came to this website for knowledge and information.  However, I will discuss the various serial murders of Black women in full detail and to bring more awareness to the public.  Here’s the link to my old blog post:


This will be at least ten segments regarding media and societal disregard for Black women and girls who are victims of serial murder.  They’re not in the media and the general society don’t care in the least about them unless they’re passing judgment regarding Black serial murder victims like the owner of a Cleveland convenience store featured in the 2016 documentary, Unseen.

Black women and girls were devalued both in life and death.   That attitude needs to change.

In the year-long series, I will be discussing at length the Anthony Sowell murders and his victims, living and dead.  How the city of Cleveland neglected impoverished Pleasant Hill neighborhood, the failings of the police, the residents, and business owners in detecting the murders and the smell of death along with it, the fallout of the Sowell case, and of course, the survivors of  Sowell.  Their voices matter as well.

In the second series, I’ll do a lengthy series on the victims of Henry Louis Wallace.  Third, the Grim Sleeper, and finally the 1979 Boston murders and how feminists and Black groups organized to bring awareness of the murders of Black women in Boston.


Here is the outline of the upcoming segments regarding serial killers of Black women:

I   Anthony Sowell:   The Imperial House Murders
    A.  The Victims and Survivors of Anthony Sowell
          Deceased Victims

          1.  Tonia Carmichael
          2.  Tishana Culver
 3.  Leshonda Long
          4.  Crystal Dozier
          5.  Michelle Mason
          6.  Kim Y. Smith
        7.  Amelda Hunter
          8.  Nancy Cobbs
          9.  Diane Turner
        10.  Janice Webb
        11.  Telacia Fortson

          1.  Latundra Billups
          2.  Vanessa Gay
          3.  Shawn Morris
          4.  Gladys Wade
          5.  Vernice Crutcher
          6.  Melvette Sockwell

    B.   Media Coverage and Trial

           1.  Trial
           2.  Witness testimonies
           3.  Testimonies from Survivors
           4.  Sentencing Phase

    C.   Legacies

          1.  Documentaries
               a.  Unseen
               b.  Vice’s Right Red Hand:  The Cleveland Strangler
               c.   Investigation Discovery Killer Instinct

          2.  Books
               a.  Nobody’s Women by Steve Miller
               b.  House of Horrors by Robert Sberna

          3.  Memorials
               a.  Proposed 11 Angels Memorial

          4.  The Victims’ families’ continued pain  
               a.  Lawsuit and subsequent settlement with the City of Cleveland
               b.  Lack of counseling for the victims’ families
               c.   Survivors of Sowell and their perspectives
          5.  Activism
               a.  Kathy Wray of the Imperial Women

          6.  Podcasts

II  Henry Louis Wallace:  The Taco Bell Strangler, a.k.a Bad Henry
      A. The Victims and their lives
           1.  Tashonda Bethea
           2.  Sharon Lavette Nance
           3.  Caroline Love
           4.  Shawna Denise Hawk
           5.  Audrey Ann Spain
           6.  Valencia Michele Jumper
           7.  Michelle Denise Stinson
           8.  Vanessa Little Mack
           9.  Brandi June Henderson
         10.  Betty Jean Baucom
         11.  Debra Ann Slaughter

      B.  Media Coverage and Trial
            1.  Venue change and jury selection
            2.  Trial and Sentencing

      C.  Legacies and Memorials
            1.  Mothers of Murdered Offspring
                 a.  Dee Sumpter-  Shawna Hawk’s mother
            2.  Documentaries and Movies
                 a.  Investigation Discovery Bad Henry
                 b.  Southern Fried Homicide:  Too Many Women
            3.  Academic Case Studies

            4.  The Victims’ families’ legacies
                 a.  Tribute To The Victims of Henry Louis Wallace 

            5.  Memorials
            6.  Podcasts
            7.  Sheriff Gary McFadden

III  The Grim Sleeper Murders/South Side Murders in Los Angeles
           A.  Why so Long?

B.   Police and Public Apathy

C.   Victims

D.   Arrest and fallout of the LAPD

                  a.  Labeling of victims:  NHI(no human involved)
                  b.  Troubling support of the serial murderer by the LAPD

E.   Trial and Sentencing

F.    Media and Academic Studies

                  1.  Book:  The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women of South Central L.A.
                  2.  Only Good Victims Need Apply:  Tales of the Grim Sleeper
           G.   Activism
                  1. Margaret Prescod 

IV   The Boston Murders
        A.  The media coverage of victims
                  1.  Criticism
            B.  Feminists and Black community criticism of the handling of the murders
                  1.  Six Black Women:  Why Did They Die?
                       a.  Combahee River Collective
                            1.  Barbara Smith

My Analysis on The Family That Preys and Lakeview Terrace


My analysis concerning these two movies that were released around the time of the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  These movies reveal the cultural shifts and old-time prejudices of America society.  The election of Barack Obama to the highest office in 2008 was a watershed event.  Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys deals with interracial friendship between rich Charlotte and working class Alice, with their dysfunctional children.  Charlotte’s son, William Cartwright, is known for his cruelty to his employees and an habitual womanizer who have affairs with women in his office.  The other is Lakeview Terrace.   That movie is about an interracial couple being terrorized by Abel,  their next door neighbor who happened to be a police officer.  In the following year after Barack Obama became President Obama, Disney released The Princess and the Frog.  A story about a poor Black New Orleans girl falling in love with a disinherited Prince Naveen from Maldonia.  These movies are less about Black women, more about rehabilitation of White men, who historically exploited and abused Black women, then disinherited their offspring on the grounds that they have Black ancestry.  Are we going to believe that they changed from their past exploitation, abuse, and disenfranchisement of Black and Brown people?  Should Black women vet non black men when going out on dates, before marrying the men, and meeting their family and friends?  I’m going to examine three movies involving Black women and non black men.  How racial/gender dynamics of the past affect today’s relationships and the mythology of a post-racial society as heralded in mainstream media after the election of then-president Barack Obama.  Hollywood and the media made sure that White women are excluded from the possibility of being involved in interracial/interethnic relationships(witness the backlash against the 2013 Cheerios commercial).  Men of Color, too, are largely excluded from such relationships as well, with few exceptions(The Big Sick comes to mind). Since 2009, there are essays and academic dissertations made mainly by people of Color critiquing one-way view of interracial relationships from the mainstream media and society.  Black women led the way in such criticism because of the traumatic and deliberately forgotten history of White-male initiated and coercive interracial contacts in America, both past and present.




Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys tells a story about a friendship between Charlotte Cartwright and Alice Evans that crossed racial and class lines.  The movie begins in Charlotte’s palatial Atlanta mansion.  Mrs. Cartwright was preparing the wedding for her best friend’s daughter, Andrea Evans and Chris Bennett.  Right from the start, Andrea Evans wasn’t comfortable with the idea that her mother’s best friend is hosting the wedding because it was patronizing.  Her husband to be was in the other room, having cold feet at the prospect of marrying Andrea, his best man, Ben, reassured him that she’s a good catch and that their marriage would be a successful one.  Chris went ahead and married Andrea.  During the reception, the couple was congratulated by William and Jillian Cartwright.  William subtly manipulates the couple by offering jobs in his prosperous construction company after their honeymoon.

That action recalls the historic practice of patronage of select Blacks by the White elite.  William Cartwright’s action is a mixture of patronage and manipulation, for he placed Chris in the construction site, while he places Andrea in the office suite, preferably next to company president’s suite so he can manipulate and exploit Andrea sexually.  We are living in an era of Me too and time’s up campaign against powerful men sexual harassing women in Hollywood and media.  We have a sitting president whose behavior toward women is beyond atrocious.  William Cartwright behaved in the same way as those powerful men mentioned.  He saw women in his office as fair game for his lustful ways.  He didn’t care whether the women were married or not.  He sees women as objects to be consumed, then discarded after use.  Never as human beings in their own right, having agency, feelings, and aspirations.  He even view his former lower middle class wife as naive and docile who wouldn’t fight back.  He took her for granted while pursuing mainly Black women in the office of his family owned construction company.

In previous Tyler Perry movies, successful Black men were shown as abusers to Black women(Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Why Did I Get Married, Madea’s Family Reunion), the Family the Preys showed a manipulative, entitled White man as an abuser to the Black women in the office.  Also, his depictions of Black women are both negative and stereotypical in the majority of his films and plays.

The movie both downplayed ambitious Black men.  In the movie, Andrea’s husband, Chris, was looking for funds to jump-start his future construction company he eventually started.  He’s rebuffed by both Andrea and his best friend, Ben, who had doubts about the idea of owning a Black owned business, saying that he was unrealistic.  As for Andrea’s scorn toward her husband, she was treated well by her boss who was her lover.  He went to several Atlanta banks, only to be turned down before going to Cartwright of all people, to get backing.  William rejected Chris’ vision of starting his very own construction company.  But William is the last person to go to for funding of any kind, for his greed, incompetence, and lust is well-known in the city.  Nevertheless, he persisted.  He wouldn’t let obstacles to his ambition stand in his way.  American society is set up for the dominant group to have a lion’s share of the wealth, property, privilege, and power while everyone else fights for what scraps the group left.  That group happens to be upper class White men.

Atlanta hasn’t always have the “city too busy to hate reputation”.  Historically, Atlanta was segregated along racial and economic lines and still is, with Black and Brown residing south and eastern part of town, while affluent Whites live north, especially in Buckhead.  The city was the center of the historic 1906 riot that killed many Blacks back then.  I really don’t think people of Atlanta, Black and White, truly healed from that traumatic and tragic violent year.





I went to the movie to watch Lakeview Terrace.  I confessed that I watched the movie to see Samuel Jackson acting, not so much the others.  However, there were several cringeworthy moments and actions from that Chris character played by Patrick Wilson.  The Chris character was very unlikable, as he was able to navigate society without thought, consequence, or any obstacles unlike the characters in the movie.  Despite being married to Kerry Washington’s character, he has racist views toward Blacks and at several occasions, showed his racism toward his newlywed during the movie especially.

The movie was directed by Neil LaBute who previously directed the acclaimed movie, Children of Men.  Will Smith consigned the movie.

The movie starts out with Abel spending his morning with his children at home moments before new neighbors moving in next door.

The movie was set in the LA’s San Fernando Valley where the jurors acquit four LA police officers for the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1992, leading to the LA riots following the verdict that last for several days.

One movie reviewer wrote:

“But for the entirety of the movie the viewer is never presented with even a semblance of an example of what these two have in common. There is no exploration of their characters, no scenes of them interacting as human beings with each other outside of having sex or arguing. And all of their arguments center around the same tired theme of him saying something racially contentious or being hesitant about having children,   followed by his wife getting upset and Chris frustratingly losing the ability to communicate, as if he were a 2nd year French student attempting to dissect La perception du changement. Beyond that and without spoiling the plot, there are two scenes involving his wife being in peril or possibly injured and he reacts in a completely sterile, inhuman way. Who could countenance something so horrendous happening to their spouse while reacting with less visceral emotion than someone who was late to work or had spilled coffee on their keyboard? A scene begging for empathy, rage, anything real or revelatory is about as insipid as a dentist’s gloves digging around in your mouth.”

Chris whines about being teased and questioned by two affluent Black men, yet I neither seen nor heard about being persecuted by Whites who are hostile to interracial relationships including the Black women/White men partnerships such as the one Chris is in.  In fact, in the film, it is Black folks who expressed opposition to interracial marriage/relationships rather than White and other non Black folks who are actually far more hostile to such relationships to the point of using either violence and/or the law to persecute interracial relationships.  We never get to see Chris’ family and how they handle their son’s marriage to an affluent Black woman.  Never.  In fact, no White family members and friends were present in the movie.  It’s all about Black men vs. White men in battle royale for access to women of various races.

Tambay A. Obenson of Indiewire wrote the following back in 2014:

“(Samuel)Jackson’s Turner tells Wilson’s Chris, the white husband, how much he hates the fact that, as a white man, he can arrogantly have whatever or whomever he wants, without pause, without concern, without having to ask, or worry how he might be received by the rest of the world. And, as Abel sees it, in his emotionally unstable mental state, Chris’s marriage to a black woman exemplifies all of that, and he challenges him in ways most of us probably wouldn’t so readily consider.”
According to Tambay A Obenson, the movie is less of an interracial relationship than it is about struggles between White and Black men and their claims to dominant patriarchal ideal of ownership of women.  In fact, women are incidental to the film’s plot.


In conclusion, those movies show Black men and women in a negative light, that only a White man can save her from her so-called marginalization and inferiority White Supremacist society place her throughout history, that Black men are less than and unworthy.  Those ideas in the end exploit and destroy Black women and girls.

I want to give a shoutout to Professor Tru Leverette for inspiring me to write the lengthly blog post.  Thank you so much Professor Leverette.

Lumbee Indians Struggle For Reocognition

In March 2012, Heather McMillan Nakai wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs asking the agency to verify that she was Indian. She was seeking a job at the Indian Health Service and wanted to apply with “Indian preference.” Nakai knew this might be difficult: As far as she was aware, no one from her North Carolina tribe — the Lumbee — had ever been granted such preference.

Her birth certificate says she’s Indian, as did her first driver’s license. Both of her parents were required to attend segregated tribal schools in the 1950s and ’60s. In Nakai’s hometown in Robeson County, N.C., strangers can look at the dark ringlets in her hair, hear her speak and watch her eyes widen when she’s indignant, and know exactly who her mother and father are. “Who’s your people?” is a common question in Robeson, allowing locals to pinpoint their place among the generations of Lumbee who have lived in the area for nearly 300 years.

Yet in the eyes of the BIA, the Lumbee have never been Indian enough. Responding to Nakai the following month, tribal government specialist Chandra Joseph informed her that the Lumbee were not a federally recognized tribe and therefore couldn’t receive any federal benefits, including “Indian preference.” Invoking a 1956 law concerning the status of the Lumbee, Joseph wrote: “The Lumbee Act precludes the Bureau from extending any benefits to the Indians of Robeson and adjoining counties.” She enclosed a pamphlet titled “Guide to Tracing Indian Ancestry.”

As a staff attorney for the National Indian Gaming Commission, Nakai understands the intricacies of documenting native bloodlines. In fact, she had submitted 80 pages of evidence to support her case. The Lumbee are descended from several Carolina tribes, including the Cheraw, who intermarried with whites and free African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nakai, 38, can trace her family tree back to at least 1900, when her great-grandfather was listed as Indian on the federal census. “That’s a terrible feeling,” she says, “to have somebody say to you, ‘You’re so not Indian that you need somebody to send you a pamphlet.’ ”

Lumbees rely on historic census documents listing the “Indian Population” of specific counties to enroll members in their tribe. In researching her response, Nakai realized the same documents could be used to argue that Lumbees were eligible for federal benefits. She thought hers was a powerful legal argument. If she could receive Indian preference, then so could other members of her tribe. “When I’m pushed, I don’t run,” Nakai says. “I want to push back.” And so she appealed the bureau’s decision — and kept appealing until her case landed in federal court.

Her battle would force the Department of the Interior to reexamine its policy toward the more than 55,000 Lumbee who make up the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. For more than 60 years, the government has acknowledged that they are Indians, yet denied them the sovereignty, land and benefits it grants to other tribes. It’s a situation that raises fundamental questions about identity: What makes someone Native American? Is it a matter of race, or culture, or some combination of both? The Lumbee don’t fit neatly into any racial categories, but they have long been living as Indians, cultivating unique traditions and community. Can a country divided by race ever accept them?

Clockwise from top: Osceola Mullin, Earl B. Chavis and Heather McMillan Nakai

The Lumbee tribe takes its name from the Lumber River, which snakes beneath bridges and spills into swamps in their sandy eastern corner of North Carolina. The founding families settled along these swamps in the 1700s, fleeing the war and disease that followed colonization of the coastal Carolinas. Many Lumbees still have the last names handed down by those families: Locklear, Chavis, Brooks, Oxendine, Lowry. Some people believe they are descended from members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” of Roanoke who intermarried with indigenous people and fled inland. But most historians agree there was a Cheraw settlement on the Lumber River in the mid-18th century, and that several tribes — along with whites and free blacks — migrated to the area around that time. Their descendants now speak a unique Lumbee English dialect; they cash their checks at the Lumbee Guaranty Bank and enroll their kids at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, the country’s first state-funded four-year college to serve Native Americans.

The state of North Carolina recognized the Lumbee as Native Americans in 1885. At the time, they were labeled “Croatan Indians” — one of many names given to them over the centuries because they are unable to trace their ancestry to a single Native American tribe. In 1888, the tribe started its long quest for federal recognition.

Currently, there are 573 federally recognized tribes and more than 200 that are not recognized. The Lumbee occupy a unique netherworld between the two. Recognized tribes are treated as separate nations by the U.S. government; they also can receive government services, and individual members qualify for other benefits, such as “Indian preference.” Right now, Lumbees don’t receive any of that.

Nakai is trying to secure individual benefits without undergoing the arduous process of winning recognition for her entire tribe. (Her case relies on a 1934 federal law, the Indian Reorganization Act, which grants rights and benefits to indigenous people who can prove they have “one-half or more Indian blood.”) For Lumbees as a group, meanwhile, their long struggle to win recognition has been complicated by their history of interracial marriage — even though interracial marriage was common among southeastern tribes prior to the Civil War. Many powerful western tribes have “a perception that the Lumbee are really a mixed-race, mainly African group,” says Mark Miller, a history professor at Southern Utah University who has written extensively about tribal identity. That “original sin,” he says, is a major cause of the Lumbees’ political problems.

In the Jim Crow South, white ancestry was acceptable for indigenous people, but black blood was not. When the United States was dividing up reservations and providing land “allotments” to Indians, a government commission told the Mississippi Choctaw that “where any person held a strain of Negro blood, the servile blood contaminated and polluted the Indian blood.” Many Native Americans internalized these racial politics and adopted them as a means of survival. After North Carolina established a separate school system for Indians in Robeson County in the late 1880s, some Lumbees fought to exclude a child whose mother was Indian and whose father was black.

In their segregated corner of North Carolina, Lumbees enjoyed more power and privileges than their black neighbors, but this was not the case for Native Americans in every state. In Virginia in the 1920s, Indians were required to classify themselves as “colored,” whereas Oklahoma considered Indians to be white — prompting Creek Indians to reject tribal members with black ancestry.

Heather McMillan Nakai speaks with congressional candidate Dan McCready, second from right, during the Lumbee Homecoming parade in Pembroke, N.C.

By the early 1930s, the Lumbee had spent several decades trying to persuade Congress to recognize them as Indians, and now sought to be recognized under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act. In 1936, representatives of the federal Office of Indian Affairs traveled to Robeson County to determine the purity of the tribe’s “Indian blood.” Harvard-trained anthropologist Carl Seltzer and his colleagues conducted tests on 209 people. They measured skulls, opened people’s mouths and examined the size of their teeth. Seltzer noted whether each person’s hair was “straight,” “curly,” “frizzy” or “fine.” He scratched women and children on their breastbone to see if he left a red mark. (In his view, such redness indicated “mixed blood.”)

Three years after she filed her first request to the BIA, Nakai was digging through boxes at the National Archives when she saw the mug shots Seltzer took of her ancestors, and the looks on the women’s faces after they had been forced to open their shirts and allow a strange man to scratch their chests. She was devastated. “Just even thinking about the possibility that I would allow that to happen to my child — it’s horrifying,” she says.

In the end, Seltzer concluded that only 22 of the 209 people he tested in Robeson possessed one-half or more “Indian blood” and thus qualified for some federal benefits. (In some cases, Seltzer decided that one sibling had the required “blood quantum” and the other sibling did not.) Once the federal government offered some individual benefits to the “Original 22,” they broke off from the Lumbee to form their own political organization. Their descendants have their own complicated history of pursuing benefits and recognition.

The rest of the Lumbees continued fighting for recognition from the federal government. And in 1956 Congress did pass the Lumbee Act, which acknowledged the indigenous people of Robeson County as Indians and called them by the name they had chosen for themselves. But at the time, the federal government was trying to terminate its relationships with native people by disbanding tribes and selling their land. The Interior Department did not want the financial burden of providing services to a large new tribe, so lawmakers struck an odd political compromise: They recognized the Lumbee yet prohibited them from receiving any benefits or services offered to other tribes. Over the next few decades, the law was interpreted to mean that Lumbees could not qualify for health, housing or educational benefits offered to other Native Americans; their land was not protected, their children were not protected from being adopted out of the tribe, they couldn’t form their own police force, and they weren’t consulted when private companies wanted to build natural gas pipelines on their land.

Above all, the law deprived tribal members of a clear label they could use to identify themselves to outsiders. It even confused the government officials charged with enacting Native American policy — people like Chandra Joseph at the BIA, who insisted in her letter to Nakai that the Lumbee were not a recognized tribe. If the BIA treats you like you’re not really Indian, it’s hard to convince people who haven’t closely studied Indian law that they’re wrong. And the constant burden of explaining and justifying one’s identity can take a psychological toll. Reggie Brewer, a cultural coordinator for the tribe, says the current Lumbee recognition quest is not about money but respect. “We know who we are,” he says. “We want our children to have that self-pride, that self-esteem of who they are.”

In her hometown, Nakai rarely had to explain her background. But when she went to summer camp with other Native American children, they started asking questions she didn’t know how to answer. “Everywhere I went, people would say, ‘Are you mixed? What’s your heritage?’ ” Nakai recalls. “And I would look at them blankly.”

Some Lumbees have red hair and freckles, others have tight blond curls, and others have sleek, dark hair and mocha skin. No one is kicked out of the tribe because of their skin tone — and that concept is hard for the BIA to accept, according to Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at UNC-Pembroke. “They don’t like the fact that we refuse to put people out who look too white or look too black. If they’re our people, we keep them.” Jacobs laughed, as if the idea of doing anything else were absurd. “We refuse to give them back. Why should we separate out based on this thing, this race thing? If we have grown them and they speak Lumbee the way we speak Lumbee, and they’ve gone to Lumbee schools and Lumbee churches and we’ve fed them and nourished them, they’re Lumbee.”

Taylor Hunt, Brian Keith Bryant and Shirley Dial
Kaya Littleturtle, Chloe Hammonds and Reggie Brewer

On a hot June morning, Nakai buckled her 4-year-old daughter into the car seat in her Chevy Tahoe and drove to church. As we entered downtown Lumberton — a cluster of hotels and strip malls off Interstate 95 — Nakai explained that native people never used to live there. Robeson County is 41 percent Native American, 31 percent white and 24 percent black, and its neighborhoods have long been divided along racial lines. The county had five school districts, separating children in the cities from Indians in the rural areas, until 1989, when Nakai was 9.

Nakai was baptized in the Lumber River and married her husband in the sanctuary of Smyrna Baptist. Church is such an essential part of Lumbee culture that when a Lumbee teenager gets a new boyfriend, her grandparents will ask him, “Where does your people church?” Families who have “churched” together for centuries share the same burial grounds, and the elders want to make sure their children don’t marry a distant relative.

When Nakai was accepted to Dartmouth College, Smyrna’s deacons sat on the porch of her grandparents’ house and tried to persuade her grandfather not to let her go. New Hampshire was too far away for a Lumbee girl to move to, they argued. Nakai understood that the men were worried about her safety, but she also knew Dartmouth was an Ivy League institution with a strong Native American studies program. If she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a legal advocate for her people, she had to go. She earned her bachelor’s degree there and attended law school at UCLA.

Many Lumbee parents fear that if their children live away from home for too long, they won’t come back and will lose their ties to land and family. But Nakai’s elders also faced decades of discrimination within Robeson County, limiting their hopes for advancement. No matter how hard they worked, someone would find a way to take their land and force them to become sharecroppers. Even if they spoke English and went to church like white men, “they still weren’t the same,” Nakai says. She was raised to believe that she constantly had to prove herself. “It’s just ingrained — you have to work harder,” she says. “Even if you’ve been perfect, it won’t be enough.”

The Lumbee don’t have an official clan system, Nakai says, but children are expected to live near the land where they were raised. When Nakai and her husband moved back to Robeson from Rockville, Md., last year, no plot was available for them to build a house on the dirt road where 35 of her relatives live. Instead, they moved into a country club development about half an hour away — shocking fellow Lumbees, who asked Nakai, “They let Indians live there?”

In 2015, Robeson County had the highest poverty rate in North Carolina, with 32 percent of its population living below the poverty line. It also had the highest rate of violent crime. Nakai doesn’t think the Lumbee can fully tackle these problems until their political status is resolved. Federal recognition would allow them to protect their land and alleviate the costs of housing and health care — in addition to enjoying the economic boom a casino might bring. “It’s like a cloud hanging over us that most people aren’t even aware of,” she says. “Right now, I’m still arguing about whether I exist or not.”

Brittany Hunt is also accustomed to defending her Native American identity. She’s a PhD student in educational research at UNC-Charlotte, hoping to become a professor who will bring more indigenous perspectives to classes on race and education. At 27, Hunt has hazel eyes, dark hair and a smattering of freckles. She smiled broadly when I asked her why she’s so proud of her Lumbee heritage. “I think being Indian is just the best,” she said. But it is “amazing and terrible at the same time.”

Hunt’s mother fought for her to attend gifted and talented classes in Robeson County schools, after the principal told her that no one from her side of Lumberton would qualify for the program. When Hunt enrolled at Duke University in Durham, she was the only Lumbee undergraduate on campus, she says. She quickly learned how to defend her identity. “I felt like I was on trial for my Indian-ness a lot of times,” she recalls.

At school Hunt befriended her black classmates because she felt they had similar experiences with discrimination. Still, they had trouble accepting her native identity. Some would point out that Lumbees had black ancestors. “That’s true, but I don’t have any family members who identify as black and I don’t identify as being that,” she would respond. Others would insist she was black or call her “light-skinned.” And she would argue, “No, I’m not light-skinned, I’m Lumbee.”

Clockwise from top: Kerigahn Jacobs, Dean Clark and Richard Jones

Questions of race and culture don’t just affect whether a tribe can gain recognition as Native American; they also influence which individuals can feel at home in — or join — a particular tribe. In Hunt’s view, cultural traditions — shared norms like humor, food, devotion to land and family — are more important aspects of Lumbee identity than race. Yet she concedes that Lumbee children with one black parent might not feel accepted by the tribe. “There’s a lot of racism that exists within native tribes,” Hunt says, left over from the days when segregation was used to “divide and conquer” people of color.

Jacobs, the UNC-Pembroke professor, points out that many mixed-race children who were raised as Lumbee moved away from Robeson County and left their Indian identity behind. “Plenty of people left and became white and left and became black,” she says. But if they came home regularly, kept their ties to family and community, and identified as Indian, they were considered Lumbee.

Such racial conundrums are not unique to the Lumbee. Wealthy members of the Cherokee Nation once owned slaves, and their African American descendants were treated as equal citizens of the Oklahoma tribe for decades — until 2011, when the tribe stripped thousands of black Indians of their enrollment rights on the grounds they could not prove their “Indian blood.” (In August 2017, after a lengthy legal battle, a U.S. District Court restored their citizenship rights.)

Before Native Americans were forced to prove their identity to the U.S. government, they formed a sense of identity through kinship — if your mother or father was part of the group, then you were, too. If outsiders married or were adopted into the group, they became part of that lineage. But once the federal government began forcing them onto reservations, redistributing their land and doling out benefits, they began to care about “blood quantum” — that is, how many direct ancestors were listed as members of their tribe on official government tallies.

To enroll and receive benefits from a recognized tribe, members now have to use historical census documents and “base rolls” to prove that they have some fraction of Indian ancestry. They submit this information to the tribe, and each tribe relies on a different fraction to meet their enrollment standard. “I don’t know of a single tribe that doesn’t require biological relationships with ancestors on the base rolls,” says Kim TallBear, an associate professor of native studies at the University of Alberta, who has written extensively about race, genetics and Native Americans. “But we do have very active debates on how much culture should matter.” The problem, she says, is that “being the culture police isn’t going to be any easier” than tracing bloodlines. How, after all, do you evaluate if someone is culturally Indian?

Lumbees focus on both culture and kinship when enrolling members in their tribe. Applicants must have at least one ancestor listed as a member of the “Indian Population” on the 1900 or 1910 Census, and prove that they maintain current ties to the Lumbee tribe. In the tribe’s view, familial ancestry is not the same as racial ancestry. Government officials devised the categories of white, black or Indian, and then decided how much white or black “blood” was acceptable for a person to be called Indian. Lumbees couldn’t always squeeze themselves into those categories, and, as Lumbee historian Malinda Maynor Lowery notes, “we’ve suffered mightily for it.”

What many tribes fear — particularly those who oppose Lumbee recognition — is losing their identity. They want their members to be able to trace their ancestry to a single tribe that had a documented, indigenous culture and customs that are still practiced today. Lumbees can’t do that, because they began mixing with other tribes and races very early on. Southern Utah University’s Miller points out that when the Lumbee were “discovered” by colonists in the mid-18th century, they were already farming, wearing European clothing and speaking English. Some leaders of recognized tribes view this as “you guys were always assimilating racially and culturally,” Miller says.

In theory, DNA tests to determine a person’s overall Native American heritage could solve some of these quandaries, but both TallBear and Lowery say such tests are irrelevant to most tribes. When Lumbees contact her, alarmed that biological tests don’t reveal their native DNA, Lowery reminds them that the companies doing the testing don’t have base samples of their ancestors’ DNA. “People are allowed to be African American in this society and not have 100 percent African DNA,” Lowery says. “Are the Lumbee being held to a different standard?”

Lumbees swim in the Lumber River, from which the tribe takes its name.

Eight decades after it was conducted, the Seltzer study continues to haunt Lumbees. The BIA still cites it: In a June 2012 letter to Nakai, Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel told her one of the reasons she didn’t qualify for “Indian preference” was because she was not among those “Original 22.” “Right now,” Nakai said of the BIA, “they are sitting somewhere, trying to figure out how to make an argument that says that I am not an Indian under the law because no one ran a pencil through my hair without it getting tangled.” (Spokeswoman Nedra Darling says the BIA cannot comment on matters that are still being adjudicated by the agency.)

There are two ways for a tribe to become recognized: by an act of Congress or by petitioning the BIA for acknowledgment. In 1987, when Nakai was 7, the Lumbee prepared a lengthy petition for the BIA, only to have it rejected two years later. Since then, at least 27 bills to fully recognize and extend federal benefits to the Lumbee have been introduced in Congress. The closest they’ve come to success was in 2010. President Barack Obama had courted the Lumbee vote en route to winning North Carolina narrowly in 2008, and a recognition bill passed the House with the support of his administration. But it died in the Senate after news broke that Lumbee tribal leaders hired a gaming consultant company to lobby for them — even though the bill promised no casino would be built on their land.

Indeed, gaming is a major hurdle to Lumbee recognition. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates a casino in the mountains of western North Carolina, and its profits provide individual members of the tribe with $8,000 to $10,000 in annual payments, Miller writes in his book “Claiming Tribal Identity.” No other tribe has a casino in the state. In 2009, the Eastern Band, along with other powerful southeastern tribes, used its casino profits to lobby against Lumbee recognition, according to Miller. (Lynne Harlan, public relations manager for the Eastern Band, declined to comment for this story.)

That year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $786 million over a four-year period to extend federal benefits to the Lumbee. Other recognized tribes balked at that number; they don’t want their share of BIA funding to shrink. As Principal Chief Richard Sneed argued in the Cherokee One Feather newspaper last September, Lumbee recognition “has some staggering implications” for the Eastern Band’s economy. “The increase in competition for federal funding will grow exponentially if the Lumbee and their estimated 50,000 members gain recognition,” he wrote. “This will impact our housing and roads money among other federal funds which are dwindling with the proposed budget.”

BIA officials have stoked such fears by holding meetings with powerful tribes in western states and warning that their federal funds will be “significantly lessened if the large Lumbee tribe secures status,” Miller writes. For their part, the Lumbee have no casino profits to use in their lobbying efforts.

Stinston Revels, Nola Graham and Bryce Locklear, and Mickey Revels
Azalea Thomas, Austin Brayboy and Jerlene Maynor

And yet, a glimmer of hope arrived in December 2016, when the then-solicitor of the Interior Department admitted that Nakai was right — sort of. In a 19-page opinion, Hilary Tompkins wrote that the Lumbee Act did not disqualify all individual Lumbees from federal benefits. The BIA was wrong to automatically reject Nakai’s request for Indian preference simply because she was Lumbee, Tompkins wrote, and must reconsider her application. She went on to say that the Lumbee tribe could apply for federal recognition from the BIA, and if recognition was granted, they would qualify for all the benefits offered to other tribes.

For Nakai, this was a small victory: She had changed the government’s stance toward her tribe. But she still hadn’t won her case. She now had to supply even more documentation to the BIA, showing that she has “one-half degree or more of Indian blood.” As of July 2018, her case was still pending.

Meanwhile, the Lumbee are hoping Congress will grant them recognition. In the summer of 2017, two Republicans from North Carolina — Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Robert Pittenger — introduced bills to give the Lumbee full federal recognition. Pittenger, whose district includes Lumbee territory, cited the millions of dollars of damage done to homes, schools and businesses in Robeson County during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. He argued that some of the damage could have been prevented if the Lumbee had better access to emergency funds reserved for federally recognized tribes in advance of the storm. “The Lumbee tribe is not asking for special treatment,” Pittenger said. “They are asking for parity and consistency in the way that the federal government views them.”

When tribal chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. testified before a House subcommittee in September 2017, he noted that recognition would “greatly aid” economic development in his rural part of North Carolina. “We would be able to create a police force to address the violent crime and drug problems riddling our community,” he said. “We could build schools for our children that teach our culture and our history.” (Godwin did not return requests for comment for this story.)

Yet officials who oppose Lumbee recognition have argued that the relatively prosperous tribe — which at one point claimed to have more PhDs than any other Native American group — should not rely on federal assistance. In 1988, Ross Swimmer, a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and then-assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, told Congress that providing BIA services to “a sophisticated, well-educated” tribe would create a “pocket of paternalism” in Robeson County.

Gaming presents its own complications. Pittenger’s recognition bill prohibits gaming on Lumbee land, but Burr’s would allow it. Arlinda Locklear, a prominent Lumbee attorney in Washington who represented the tribe in its 2009 recognition quest, says the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians still poses a formidable impediment to the bill. The “Eastern Band of Cherokee has money and we do not,” she says. “Their ability to lobby on this bill far exceeds the Lumbee ability to match that.”

Solicitor Tompkins’s opinion could also hurt the bill’s chance of passing. Until now, the Lumbee could argue they had no choice but to go through Congress, because the BIA refused to recognize their tribe. But now that Tompkins has made clear that they can petition the BIA for recognition, Congress may think a law is unnecessary. “It really kind of makes it harder, rather than easier, for us to get the legislation through,” Locklear says.

Nakai, however, remains determined to win her battle with the BIA. She wants to make sure future generations of Lumbee don’t have to argue with the government over their “blood quantum.” She and her husband moved back to Robeson County last year so their daughter could grow up knowing more about her heritage. “Everywhere she goes, people reaffirm not just who she is, but her place in her tribe and in her community,” Nakai says.

Strangers who meet the 4-year-old at church or school can identify “her people.” They can look in her brown eyes and see the generations that came before her. “That’s what it feels like to be Indian,” Nakai says. “To be Lumbee is to know that, come what may, you have a place that you belong.”

Clockwise from top: Jamie K. Oxedine, Mychalene Deese and Mary Deese, and Nancy Locklear

On the first weekend in July, Nakai took her daughter to the 50th annual Lumbee Homecoming parade. More than 20,000 people would be attending. Lumbee Homecoming started in 1968. Many Lumbees had begun moving to cities in search of factory jobs, but they still came home to visit their families during the summer. The festival was a way to celebrate their return and foster pride in their heritage. The week-long event included the Miss Lumbee beauty pageant, a golf tournament, a play about Lumbee history and a powwow. Vendors were selling jewelry and handmade pottery, along with T-shirts that said “Make America Native Again.”

Among those marching in the parade were North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. At one point, a small group of people marched by carrying a banner that read, “Full Federal Recognition Now!” They were campaigning with Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate for the 9th Congressional District, which includes Robeson County. Pittenger lost the Republican primary in May, and Democrats now hope to flip the House seat, which has been held by the GOP for more than five decades.

When the festivities paused to allow a train to pass through downtown Pembroke, Nakai walked over to introduce herself to McCready. Amid the roar of the crowd, McCready made clear he would advocate for the Lumbee. “We’d love to talk about that,” he told Nakai.

Nakai looked at him, taking in his eagerness to please. She’s devoted six years of her life to a legal battle that no politician has ever won. Her people have been disappointed by government officials for more than 130 years. Yes, she would be happy to meet with one of McCready’s staffers — but first she had a parade to attend. “I’ve got some ideas,” she said, and walked back to join her people.

Lisa Rab is a writer in Charlotte whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Harper’s and Politico Magazine. 

Credits: Story by Lisa Rab. Photos by Travis Dove. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.