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Welton Lowry: The Spirit Of Henry Berry Lowry

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 6/10/2001. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

On the night of Jan. 18, 1958, Welton Lowry and hundreds of other Lumbee Indians surrounded a Ku Klux Klan rally near Maxton, 90 miles south of Raleigh in Robeson County. The Lumbee launched barrages of gunfire over the Klansmen's heads and drove the hooded crowd away. Their victory was featured in Life magazine and helped inspire an Indian pride movement throughout the United States.

The Klan's leader was James "Catfish" Cole, a former carnival barker and tent evangelist. Since 1956, Cole had been barnstorming the Carolinas, preaching against "race mixing and Communism"--which he made sound like the same thing -- to crowds as large as 15,000.

Routed in a gunfight with an NAACP chapter the previous fall, Cole and the Klan had hoped to redeem themselves in Robeson County. Cole had accused the Lumbee, a third of the county's residents, of not respecting the South's code against interracial relationships. "There's about 30,000 half-breeds in Robeson County, and we are going to have a cross burning and scare them up, " Cole boasted.

When Welton Lowry stood up against the Klan, he was following in a family tradition. His great-uncle, Henry Berry Lowry, was the legendary Lumbee "Robin Hood" who protected poor people of all colors against Confederate guerrillas and the Home Guard during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The story of his "Uncle Henry" is told in a popular outdoor drama in Pembroke, 10 miles from Maxton, and was recently the subject of a fine novel, "Nowhere Else on Earth, " by Josephine Humphreys.

Now 88, Weldon Lowry is a retired educator, farmer and minister. I interviewed him at his home in Pembroke, where a portrait of Henry Berry Lowry hangs over the mantelpiece.

In Welton Lowry's words: 

Welton Lowry. Photo by Chris Seward, 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.

Catfish Cole had made a statement that he was going to have a meeting and put the Indians in their place. The city manager told Cole's boys we didn't want them to come here. He told them he couldn't protect them. But Cole said they'd already rented a field, and they were going to come. So Sheriff McLeod comes to Pembroke and had a meeting with the mayor and some of us and said, "Fellas, we don't want any killing."

The day of the Klan meeting, I went over to the tobacco barn and made an effigy of Cole. I put on the pants, filled it full of hay and put one of my old shirts on and stuffed it and put in it my car. My wife didn't want me to do it, but me and another man, we went over there and made him.

I drove up there that night. Yes sir, it was the coldest night! When I got up there, I opened the trunk, and I said, "Come here, boys. I want to go back to town and burn this effigy tonight. But if Cole makes us run, I don't want you telling that I had him." They said, "Oh, he's not going to make us run!" I was a'trying to stir them up. I didn't have a gun, but I had him.

I was sitting in my car, a man a'wedging to get by, and that gun in his pocket was right there in my face. I was trying to bend over to see who it was. He was one of the Klan men. I met a man I knew, and I said, "Come here, Lacy." This man was one of us. I told him, "That man had a pistol a'hanging on him and a gun." Lacy said, "We got something that will make them look like a cap pistol."

About that time a car drove up with four blacks. "Listen, " they said, "we going to be down the road here. If you need us" -- I saw the guns laying up there in their car -- "let us know."

I didn't think there was going to be any shooting, but the young people took it out of what we had planned. I haven't talked with many people about what the plan was. The plan was, we had some gasoline. And which way the wind was blowing, we would have been on that side for it to be blowing around where Cole was speaking. Then we'd throw a light out there and, wherever it was, there'd be a fire. This was the idea, that this would scare them, and they'd leave that place.

The gas was there. The man was there to carry it. Our better class of people were involved in it. Our better class. I was principal of the school. Harry Wes was on the board of education. The president of the Normal School was the one that had the gas tank.

We were supposed to have grabbed us one of Cole's men and made him come get in our car, too. I was to bring one of them to Pembroke. It was out that the boy that delivers Coca-Colas was one of them, and we wanted to find out. We got to find out who they are instead of them being in the hoods and we not knowing who they are.

See, when here comes one running by, you could have easily grabbed him and put a gun to him and got his rifle. Some of them had rifles. We were supposed to have brought him here, and our job was to take the hood off and see his face. That's all we would have done. "OK, here is the drink man come to the Pembroke area every day delivering Coca-Cola." I bet you could have bought them for a dime.

But we didn't have to do it. Our plan was never finalized because of the young people. I don't know who shot first, but it was the young boys -- 16, 18, 20 years old. We older ones, we were going to use that gas, no shooting. After the first shooting, one of the Klansmen come running by me with his rifle getting his car there and getting gone. Here come another with a child in his arms. They had on coveralls, getting in the car leaving. You could hear them guns shooting. I would say there were a thousand Indians out there that night.

I didn't see any blood shed, but honestly, I think somebody got hurt. I know one thing. I went up there Sunday evening to hunt me a cartridge for a souvenir. Couldn't find a one. It was clean. Everybody wanted one. But from the tracks they left in the mud, I saw somewhere some people were running looked like they were making steps from here to that vase of flowers sitting over there. One of the guys said, "Boys, here's where one went. Look how fast them steps were making!"

After we ran the Klan off, everybody came back to Pembroke. They were a'hollering and having a time, and I finally decided I'd let them know what I had in my car. We went and got a chain and hung the effigy up and burned it. We burned him right at the crossroads here in Pembroke right around one o'clock. I said, "Boys, let me tell you what I got in my car. We need to burn him!" Boy, it was a hollering time when he was burning!

Well, that was the spirit of Henry Berry Lowry.

David Cecelski is the Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at East Carolina University.

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "Welton Lowry."  Photograph. 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer. 

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