In a field indistinguishable from the thousands that blanketed the North Carolina countryside, a bead of sweat dripped from O.C. Martin’s chin.
It cut through the air, bumping the water particles collected in the dense August morning air, and, for a moment, rested on one of the green leaves gathering at his waist. Then, it burst. The pieces fell to the soil and were soon toppled and mashed by O.C.’s foot. The broken bead was followed by another, then another, until a continuous stream ran the long familiar path from his brow, down along his high cheek bones and just around the dimple that formed when he smiled, before gaining speed on his chin and cascading toward its final destination. The stream continued. The beads, shining from the water and the crystals of salt they were transporting, continued to pass along the brown skin in grooves that had been carved out years before, just as it had shaped the skin of his ancestors.
At the time—we’ll call it 1955—each bead meant little to O.C., except that he’d be thirsty in a short while, when he’d holler for his boys to gather up for lunch. But the stream would start right back up in 20 minutes, when he and his boys, all of them with dark hair and skin like him, were back in the field. The stream didn’t stop until the sun began its nightly flirting with the tree line. The routine was in place, the same one he’d learned from his elders, the same one he’d teach his kids; the sweat, the long hours, the instability. None of it was new or unique to his line of work or his mind. This was life, or at least his way of living, and it worked.
People that grew up then claim life was simpler—not easier or better or something to return to, just simpler. Simpler in that if you wanted something, you went out back and got it; simpler in that your list of daily concerns started and ended with the Lord and your family. I assure you, it was a tougher, crueler life, but it made sense. Every role felt defined, from man to woman, boy to girl, black to white to other, almost from the time you were born. If you were strong enough and lucky enough, you just might make a go of it in that role, but that was as far as it went.
The availability of options for rural minorities in America is a shockingly fresh concept. It’s so fresh that to actively discuss the South’s transitionary period, going from Jim Crow to the New South, where the switch slowly flipped and suddenly a person of color could look past the county line, feels like a bizarre mix of appreciation and devastation to a Native American like myself. Having grown up in the South, it’s clear that the ability to openly discuss the connecting thread between the ‘60s and now is one that still needs to be talked about in hushed tones, with the occasional area search for any involved parties. People discuss “back then” as though the folks who integrated the schools and their communities aren’t going through life right alongside them this very day.
Moreover, the history you learn in high school and even in college is incomplete, unless you happen to be a Native American Studies major—and still, there’s nothing you can learn in a classroom that can adequately replace 18 years of formative cultural osmosis. The South prior to the Civil Rights Movement was a land that was fractured by race, yes. But it was not split between black and white. It was split black, white, and other—and for too long, the story of the “other,” though it has not gone untold by Native peoples, has been all but unheard by the American public.
I come from the Sappony tribe of North Carolina. O.C. Martin is my grandfather. Very early on in their marriage, he and my grandmother, Nannie, seized upon arguably the most life-changing and astonishing revelation any Sappony family has ever had: Together, they realized the societal bounds that had tied them to the fields of eastern North Carolina would not be applied to their kids, at least not like they had been applied to them. They sensed a window opening in their part of the country, one that might close before they called it quits on their tobacco farm, and they meant to get all 11 kids through that window while the air was still flowing.
But before you can fully appreciate the story of O.C. and Nannie, you need to go back—a good way back—to a time before white people had set foot on even half of what would become America. A time when the indigenous peoples that lived on the East Coast still regaled each other with tales carefully passed down among the generations of when they and they alone called this patch of land home. You’ll also have to spend time understanding how the United States government, in a rare turn, implemented changes to tobacco policy and school segregation aimed at helping the poor working class, all before turning heel. Then, maybe, you’ll be able to fully appreciate your time with O.C. in the tobacco fields, and with Nannie in her lifelong fight to be an educational lightning rod.
The following story is one I’ve been trying to tell for about four years. It’s O.C. and Nannie’s story. It’s also the story of the Sappony, of North Carolina, of the rise and fall of an industry and way of life that shaped the state, and of and thousands of other small family farmers across the nation, but really, it’s theirs.
Finding High Plains
The Sappony have been around for a little while.
When it comes to tracing the history of my tribe, even within the past century, much of what’s passed down comes in the form of stories that tribal elders (meaning our grandparents and their siblings) tell the younger generation.
As a tribal member and a grandchild born in the ‘90s, the stories seem not just from another time, but from another place. But because North Carolina had little interest in accurately documenting Sappony history until the last 20-odd years, the responsibility fell to a tribe that functioned more like a large extended family to maintain and update its own records. This naturally resulted in gaps in the Sappony story; moreover, it also left little concrete evidence for historians and journalists to trace the rise of the tribe through the mid-20th century. Tribal members know where the Sappony ended up, but only a handful of Americans outside the tribe understand just how far it has come.
The early and even recent history can be a bit fuzzy at times. The gist is that by the late 17th century, the Sappony had come to find themselves living in and around the Dan River in Virginia, close to what would become the North Carolina border. The Sappony (then the “Saponi”) befriended several nearby tribes, such as the Occaneechi, Stenkenocks, and Tutelo, according to An Indian Vocabulary from Fort Christanna, 1716 by Edward P. Alexander—and aligned with the British colonizers, who claimed they would provide protection from nearby Iroquois tribes.
Beginning in 1714, the Sappony lived at Fort Christanna, a walled-off village roughly six-square miles in size, by what is now Lawrenceville, VA. The state’s governor, Alexander Spotswood, had the Virginia General Assembly charter the Virginia Indian Company, which, in addition to owning the trade rights to the post at the fort, was responsible for funding Fort Christanna’s upkeep. The company, in partnership with the College of William & Mary, also financed a school that taught 70 Native children, as well as a church for the tribes to be converted to Christianity.
The fort housed both settlers and the aforementioned Native American tribes. Come 1717, the General Assembly, run by businessmen who fancied themselves a spot in the “Indian trade” business, disbanded the VIC, claiming it gave the governor too much control. Thus, the funding for Fort Christanna was cut off. The Sappony hung around the Fort Christanna area for roughly 20 years after it was defunded, dispersing sometime around 1740. The time at the fort is a small blip on our tribe’s timeline, but one remembered for the enduring mark it left. If there are two things worth remembering from this brief period, it’s Education and Religion.
British surveyor William Byrd stumbled across the Sappony in 1728 while drawing the North Carolina-Virginia border on King George II’s demand. He picked up Bearskin, a male member of the tribe to use as his guide; after his work was done, Byrd concluded in his eventual book History of the Dividing Line, “indeed they ever had the reputation of being the honestest, as well as the bravest Indians we have ever been acquainted with.”
As pleasant as the British recorded themselves as being toward the Sappony, their forced Christianization of the Sappony children, along with a series of attacks by local colonists, did not win them the long-standing loyalty of the tribe.
After leaving the area around fort, the tribes dispersed, finding their way to south-central North Carolina, New York, and the northeastern Virginia-North Carolina border, where our story takes us. In what would one day be called Virgilina, a small farming community just 50 miles north of Durham split by the border, the Sappony came across a plot of land that would forever be known as High Plains.
While they were previously friendly with the British government, the Sappony were smart enough to recognize that there was a similarity between themselves and their surrounding white colonist neighbors, who were growing discontented at being poked around and ruled over without having much say in the matter. Where the similarity ended was that the colonists’ sheer numbers, timing, technology, and unity allowed them to do something significant about it.
The Sappony joined their cause, sending men off to fight for the United States in the Revolutionary War. (They’ve fought in every subsequent American war too.) When the war ended, the U.S. and North Carolina governments responded to the tribe’s participation by “allowing” them to settle the High Plains area. Within roughly 40 years, the Sappony had established a small tenant farming community in Person County, close to what would eventually become the small towns of Roxboro, South Boston, and Virgilina.
There, they did their best to continue the practices they had picked up at Fort Christanna. The Sappony initially went to church with their white counterparts at Bethel Hill Baptist Church, with members listed in the church’s records as early as 1801. But as the South careened toward the Civil War, the surrounding communities slowly edged the tribe away, leading them to start up their own church. Christ Church Mayo Chapel, a Southern Baptist institution, was built in 1850 on the Virginia side of the border.
Resting on land donated by tribal member William Epps, it was in that church that the Sappony would start their own school, with classes taught to a few children in the single room separate from the congregation area. There, Sappony children learned to read and write, and thank the good Lord they did—without education being carved into the tribe’s foundation before the Civil War, when public school funds would be sapped and boys would be sent off to fight, the Sappony may have never been in a position to succeed a century later.
Through its first 38 years, through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and beyond, Mayo was the community’s sole cultural hub, housing both the congregation for weekly sermons and the tribe’s students for their daily lessons. By 1888, though, the one room had become a bit too snug and the materials obscenely outdated for the Sappony children that needed to attend school.
Unfortunately, their efforts to appeal to the North Carolina General Assembly for a state-backed education system would come to be defined by the color of their skin.
The Lonely Space Between Black and White
The Sappony weren’t “colored,” at least not in the eyes of the North Carolina government. But they weren’t white either.
If you’re going to get the story of Nannie and O.C. and High Plains, there’s no way to circumvent what the harsh realities of Jim Crow meant for Native Americans. North Carolina was one of the few states in the nation—California, Nevada, and Oklahoma were among the others—to operate a segregation system that legally and officially split three ways: black, white, and Native. A 1985 East Tennessee State study found that North Carolina’s system of tri-segregation principally affected the Cherokee, the Lumbee, and several “minor tribes,” such as the Sappony.
With the Democratic Party of the 1870s focusing its efforts on draining the funding from any schools serving black children, the Sappony and their fellow tribes were barred from attending both white and black schools, all while being denied public funding to establish their own.
After more than a decade’s worth of Native children went uneducated, North Carolina first established the precedent for state-funded Native schools in 1885, when it set aside funds for the “Croatan Normal School” in Robeson County, 170 miles away from the Sappony.
The Lumbee tribe population made up the majority of Robeson County, where they were principally based. They had thousands of members, with the numbers, infrastructure, and organization to begin running whole towns, so they were able to at least occasionally get the attention of the state legislature. The Sappony Tribe, meanwhile, was and is mainly comprised of seven foundational families—Coleman, Epps, Stewart (also spelled as Stuart), Johnson, Shepherd, Talley, and Martin, my family.
Relying on the Croatan School, hundreds of miles away, wasn’t going to do the educational trick, but the General Assembly didn’t seem to be in a hurry to provide any funding for a new Sappony school.
Instead of looking to Raleigh, the Sappony focused their efforts locally. After the the Person County government promised to pay for one teacher if they could get a plot to put a school on, Green Martin, a tribal member with a bit of land to spare, donated just over an acre. On that acre, the first iteration of the High Plains Indian School was built in 1888.
The standalone school, like its predecessor, was initially confined to a single room; this would give way to an expanded schoolhouse built on land donated by fellow tribal members Ditrion and Mary Epps in 1903, per the North Carolina historical marker erected on the land where the school once stood.
But the High Plains Indian School needed more than land if it was going to be provide the boost Sappony parents dreamt of for their kids; it needed good-paying teacher positions and new classroom materials, as well as a more comprehensive curriculum for its students. The community was as close as could be, but cash was short in every farming town across the nation in the early 1900s.
With a small population and little political power as a group of poor tenant farmers, the Sappony again went to the friends they’d made in Person County, hoping, for the sake of their children, that someone would listen to them.
In early 1937, O.C. and Nannie were both 10 years old and among the Sappony children attending the High Plains Indian School.
It’s possible that by then, O.C. knew schooling wasn’t going to be his forte—he was smart, mind you, but he was always good with his hands, be it on a car engine or a tobacco stalk, and to hear him talk about it now, there was something about the classroom setting that just didn’t do it for him. Nannie, meanwhile, was the opposite. As you’ll find out soon, she didn’t have much of a choice but to be among the most studious High Plains attendees; still, she loved every drop of education she could get her hands on.
This is a fine example of the appreciation-devastation complex. To even have the opportunity to attend a school that offered 11 grades was a sign of immense progress for the Sappony people. But the shine of educational advancement dims when considering the limited paths it provided in the actual world of the South. Prior to 1945 or so, it didn’t matter too much whether a 10-year-old Sappony child loved or hated their daily schooling, or if they were at the top of the class or the bottom or behind. It enhanced their personal lives and status among the High Plains community, but for the vast majority of the tribal members, their life path was paved and walled in by the North Carolina government and Southern culture. The fields, motherhood, or teaching at High Plains were about one’s only options.
I’m not saying growing up in High Plains or committing your life to any of these professions was a negative thing for the Sappony that pursued them, not in the slightest. Segregation extended far past Person and Halifax County, and scores of African American, Latinx, and Native children knew the same frustrations. And likewise, they learned how to grow and live and thrive within these restraints—a lifelong resistance of sorts, building toward the moment when change would actually arrive. But that doesn’t mean the restraints weren’t there.
I spoke to my grandad recently about being raised in the community during the 1920s and 1930s. O.C. told me stories of spending warm summer days down by a spot of land the Coleman family had on Bugg’s Island, also known as the Kerr Reservoir, located 30 minutes from their community. He recalled the occasional trip to the local Christie Store to hear the news and play with the other Sappony kids. Everything was right there at your fingertips—you didn’t know you were poor or that you were being segregated, because just about the only people you ever talked to were in the same boat.
Of course, that’s a simplification of what the times actually meant for the Sappony.
The North Carolina General Assembly officially updated its record to recognize the tribe as the “Indians of Person County” in 1913; the legislative body also carved out segregation measures for the counties surrounding the tribes, crafting legislation for separate cemetery plots in 1915 and separate wards in mental asylums in 1919.
The reinforcement of Jim Crow laws in the small towns surrounding the already insular tribe meant the Sappony would struggle to find a place in nearby towns and cities, thus confining them to the roles they already had and not much else. Lois Epps, a tribal member, described the isolation of the High Plains community of the 1920s and 1930s in an interview conducted by the Southern Oral History Project:
We Indians lived separate and apart. We were set aside because of the color of our skin. We could not go out and eat a meal in public. We could not go in the restaurants because they only had white and colored sections. We weren’t colored. We weren’t white. We were neither. Blacks had least had a section at the theater - there was no place for us. If we needed to go to the bathroom, right up on the door: white, colored, but no Indian. And for me, as an Indian, to speak to you! Not on your life! We had our own church, our own school. We’d go to Roxboro maybe once a year if we were going in after a pair of shoes. We never had any use for the law. We weren’t calling the police, and the police wasn’t coming.
These two sentiments leave a noticeable gap to bridge. There absolutely existed a kind of peaceful beauty in the insularity of family farming communities. But the insularity of the Sappony was not a self-selected trait of their community. It was a trait forced upon them in the mid-1800s by their neighbors and the North Carolina government, one that would be subsequently impressed onto the minds of following generations. This reinforcement of isolationism in the grouping by race in America has historically meant that change, in terms of your societal status, comes slow, piece by piece, until you’ve got your foot on the next rung and it seems to have come all at once.
This then begs the question, at least for me: How did the Sappony go from a poor, insular, multi-generational farming community to a modern, successful middle-class bunch of non-farmers in a single generation? What exactly did they do in the 1930s and 1940s that enable such a leap?
Before the winter of 2017, I thought certain answers about the specifics of my tribe’s history before World War II would simply have to go unanswered—O.C. is among the last remaining living members of his generation, and while, remarkably, at 93, he’s sharper than most people at 61, asking him about the financial situation of 360-plus tribal members when he was 10 years old is not the most reasonable request.
Then I found the work of Louise Nunn.
When Louise Nunn boarded a train from New York City headed for the Virgilina stop in 1937, the one that would drop her smack in the middle of the tiny High Plains settlement, I doubt she knew that she’d be helping a Sappony member two generations later plug the gaps into his tribal history.
Nunn, a master’s student at Columbia University, made the trip because she was working on a sociological report detailing the Sappony, along with a tribe in Rockingham County, known only as the Goinstown Indians (thought to possibly be an offshoot of the Lumbee.) A product of interviews with the tribes and their neighbors along with a review of tax documents, state legislation, census data, and anything else she could get her hands on, the Nunn Report is a stunningly detailed portrait of the Sappony. It gives the reader both cut-and-dry financial data and an intimate peek into just what kind of segregated community the tribe established for itself when it was legally separated from the surrounding white and black populations of Roxboro.
While it’s difficult to rule on which part of the report is the most illuminating, Nunn’s work on detailing the rise of the segregated High Plains Indian School stands out for showing just how divisive the education of Native Americans was to the white folks of the time.
Nunn reported that Rev. P.H. Fontaine and Rev. J.L. Bean, a pair of white ministers who lived nearby, helped the Sappony by bringing several of the tribe’s men before the state congressional body and laid out their case for legislation that would provide funding for the High Plains Indian School. Once the legislation was signed into law, the tribe was provided funding for its own school with full operation of the school board, and segregated areas in hospitals, jails, and other “state institutions.”
In 1921, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Department of Negro Education. It was from that already small stack of cash that the Sappony would pull their funding for the High Plains Indian School, per Hugh Victor Brown’s wonderful 1964 book, E-qual—ity Education Among Negroes In North Carolina.
It’s a bit complicated, but the reason that the Sappony needed to go before the state government is because the federal government did not recognize them as a tribe. What this means, more plainly, is that the federal government has long not wanted to recognize the full number of tribes located in the nation for funding reasons; because of this, tribes like the Sappony have instead been forced to seek far smaller pockets of funding and support from their state governments. And to get that pocket change, they needed the state legislature to simply acknowledge a fact on paper—that the Sappony tribe was Native American.
In a clear attempt to dodge these duties and obligations, Virginia reported, in a 1924 state investigation, that its portion of the Sappony “probably had an origin of white men father children born to Negro servants” and did not recognize them as Natives. (The local government workers listed them as “Indians” on their tax documents anyways.)
To appease its counterpart in North Carolina, the Virginia legislature agreed to provide funds to pay for those living in its Halifax County, on the other side of the border, to attend High Plains, making it the only non-reservation school supported by the Virginia government as of the 1930s. The Virginians only conceded because they didn’t want to have to fund a separate school for their Sappony citizens.
According to Nunn, Virginia paid one-third of the annual costs for the High Plains Indian School and supplies—the school’s operating budget was $2,000 at the time—and also provided one of its three teachers, all of them white. Keeping the full-time teachers strictly white was a strategic move by the school board. The board was an all-Sappony one, as dictated by state law, and it didn’t want teachers of color putting the school’s status and funding at risk. (This led to a brief rift with the Lumbee tribe, as one of its members had his application for a teacher opening rejected by the Sappony school board.)
Citing a school census completed in November 1936, Nunn reported that 116 of the Sappony youth attended the High Plains school—among them, Nannie and O.C.
A New Deal for the Sappony
Every time we thought we had it bad growing up, my dad told me and my brother the same thing: Whatever it is you think is hard, it ain’t growing tobaccuh.
Before the 1990s, when technology started reducing the number of farmhands needed to run the operation, the process of planting and harvesting flue-cured tobacco—the kind used in cigarettes—was tedious, laborious work that required a veteran presence. As my dad, O.C., and my uncles Leon and Charlie tell it, it went a little something like this:
First, you head down to the farmer’s exchange or straight from the seed company in town. In the winter, you prepare the seed bed, sowing the seeds you lay down intermittently through March. (Some folks would cover the field, so as to prevent the daily frost from claiming the lives of any of their Coker 139 seeds.) After the plants have grown a bit and begun to sprout, you move them to the field, placing them about a foot-and-a-half apart. It’s important, now, that you routinely plow the fields, either by tractor or mule, to keep the soil around the tops of the plants loose.
Then, once the plants have begun to bloom, you and your kids go around to every single plant in the field and lop off the top blooms to give the leaves more room to grow. Remember, this isn’t some backyard garden we’re talking about. You’re doing this for acres upon acres of crops.
After you’ve chopped the tops, it’s time for the sucking. Suckers are growths on tobacco leaves that sap the plant of their precious nutrients, denying the leaves the full-body growth and dusty golden appearance that makes them profitable come auction time. To quash the suckers, you do one of two things. If you were born before the ‘60s, you apply the chemical agent Sucker-Plucker by hand, which, if we’re going this far back, means you’ll be mixing the concoction in a barrel before you go out to apply it. If you’re lucky and were born in the ‘60s or later, you get to drive through the fields on a tractor and spray the full plants down with MH-30.
As the leaves reach their peak, you and your gaggle of kids, mostly the boys, go through the fields harvesting the plants and hauling them off to the curing barn. There, the kids string the leaves up and the adults usually take care of setting the heat in the barn to the proper temperature, helping the leaves reach the desired golden brown color and dryness. The finished leaves are then moved to the pack house, a storage facility you likely built yourself, to make room in the curing barn for remaining crop. Once you have a full pack house come October, it’s time to load the bed of family truck with kids and the trailer with tobacco and make for the auction house, which means a trip into town.
If you’re a kid, the annual auction house trip is one of the highlights of your year. After living out most every day of your childhood within a tightly circumscribed community of family and a handful neighbors, you, you, get to go into town, where you’ll head straight to the corner store to grab a pack of Nabs and a Sun-Drop, if you’re lucky, and play with the other farming progeny. Back inside the auction house, the grown-ups are doing ... something.
That “something” is making good on the year’s worth of work you’ve nearly completed. Inside the walls of the auction house, dozens of farmers lay out their stacks of tobacco leaves, waiting to have them judged by state Agriculture Department officials. (The whole reason the process is so meticulous is because grading determines how much the Big Boys are going to pay you.) It’s then that an auctioneer, reeling off prices and grades as fast as his tongue will let him, leads all the Big Tobacco fellas—Winston, American Tobacco, Liggett, Reynolds—and auctions off the farmer’s haul. After the auctioneer’s sold your crop, you head to his office, collect your earnings, and head home. Don’t clap your hands just yet, though; as you grew multiple fields worth of tobacco, you have a few other warehouses to visit across the county to sell off your remaining leaves.
After you’ve rinsed and repeated and it’s all gone, you can take a breath, but make it quick. It’s getting chilly outside, and that means it’s almost time to plant next year’s crop. Now, imagine doing all that and still going broke.
To put it plainly, the Sappony were not doing too hot as a collective when Nunn came through town. But then again, neither were most tobacco farmers at the time.
The Great Depression clamped itself around the heart of North Carolina, annihilating the farming markets for the farmers and field workers. The previous 30 years had already seen nothing but swift price swings year-to-year. According to a personal review of tobacco prices from 1919 to 1950 found in “The Bulletin of North Carolina Department of Agriculture” from 1951, the average price of tobacco dropped from $0.49 per pound in 1919 to $0.08 by 1931.
The losses were naturally passed along to small-farm owners, tenant farmers, and field workers. The instability is what drove scores of folks to leave the field and work in the industrial mills that came to define the central part of the state—another space for the heads of industry to profit off underpaid working people, but one that at least delivered a check every two weeks.
According to 1936 tax documents reviewed by Nunn, 24 of 75 Sappony families owned at least some land, with holdings ranging from three acres to 223, though the majority didn’t own enough land to profitably farm tobacco, and none of them received assistance from local farm agents. Few of the tribal members owned their own farm equipment at the time, as it was provided by the land-owners as a part of tenancy, and as of 1937, only three Sappony had savings accounts. According to Nunn, nobody had applied for a bank loan in at least three years.
The Sappony were mainly tenant farmers operating single-year leases for the entirety of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. Like most eastern North Carolina tenant farmers, they mainly grew tobacco, though corn, string beans, potatoes, and soybeans were also mainstays; most families owned chickens and a few even owned cows.
As a tenant farmer, your relationship with local farmers and storeowners was crucial—if nobody thinks you’ll work the land well, nobody will hire you. In interviews with Nunn, the white farmers of Person County, especially those who lived near the tribe, granted them a status above black citizens but below whites—they fell, like so many Natives across the state would, somewhere in between.
Meanwhile, the black community considered them “Free Issue,” meaning the black citizens believed the Sappony were simply passing as Indians and saw them as a competitive minority group attempting to gain solid footing in a Southern state that gave little space or serious funding to non-white entities.
The Nunn report lays out the dynamics with interviews like the following:
Mr. Galloway, white storekeeper at Christie, Virginia where the Indians trade, considers them an admirable and reliable people, not socially equal to whites, but considerably above the Negroes.
Mrs. Bruce Woody, prosperous white farmer and filling station operator on the main road near the settlement, says the she likes them as tenants and that they make the best neighbors in the area, exchanging work fairly and being polite and accommodating. She rates them socially inferior to the white group.
Mr. Jackson, a Negro teacher in a Negro school in Roxboro, considers the Indians “no account and not worth educating.” He denies any Indian brain in the group.
“The Person County Indians,” Nunn wrote as something of a final assessment, “seem likely to continue in their present situation for an indefinite period unless some major upheaval forces them to a greater consciousness of their limited opportunities and inferior status in relation to white groups.”
Fair is fair; Nunn correctly predicted that there would be a “major upheaval.” It’s just not clear which upheaval affected my family the most: the New Deal, the Second World War, integration, or Nannie Martin.
Before America joined World War II, James Coleman—the late Granddaddy Coleman, as he’s known still among the Sappony and Coleman extended family—owned his own land. This was no small matter.
As the Nunn Report stated, the majority of the Sappony were tenant farmers up to that point, but James and his wife Nettie Talley, my great-grandparents and Nannie’s parents, had done well enough to a purchase a plot near their home, now known among the family as the Big House.
It was in those fields that O.C. Martin and Stanton Coleman, James’s son and my late great uncle, worked the land James owned. The pair also worked the land that my great-grandpa, Otha Charles Sr., rented from John Merritt, who, like his father, was the Roxboro town doctor. (The Merritt’s original one-story office, built in 1860, is still maintained for display by the Person County Museum of History.)
Remember how I was saying tobacco farming used to be even harder back in the day? Well, O.C. grew up back in the day. This was a time far from any sort of glamorous images you can conjure up of being on the family farm. It was during a time when the field work was done with your own two hands and one good mule, and come the end of the year, you still might not be paid.
That was the reality of tobacco farming for the first three decades of the 20th century. But in a nation where widespread family farming was not a distant memory but a very real thing, the Great Depression left the state and federal governments little choice but to help the laborers they’d ignored for the previous 30 years.
President Franklin Roosevelt rolled out the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. The government, with the support of North Carolina, set the ceiling on the amount of tobacco a farmer could grow—initially measured by acreage, and later by poundage. In return, the government set price floors in the form of subsidy payments. In theory, this would ensure the market wasn’t flooded with too much crop while providing working families, like those in the Sappony tribe, the peace of mind that they wouldn’t have to worry about selling the family farm every December.
For the Sappony farmers, like the others who populated the state’s eastern counties, the problem of making too much money was hardly a concern at the time. That said, there was opposition from both the cigarette companies and large-scale farmers, who worried the regulations would affect their ability to grow domestically and internationally.
My grandfather O.C. told me the concern from the wealthy was because, “they were scared they weren’t going to be able to sell the tobacco they raised.”
“Say you had 10, 12, 15,000 pounds—if you raised 20,000, you wouldn’t be able to sell that extra, you’d have to keep it in a good place. You’d have to cut back and grow less next year because you had the amount,” O.C. said. “You were allotted a certain amount in pounds. If you went over, you could sell up to 10 percent of your next year’s poundage [to the government], but you’d take the poundage you had for next year off of this year’s [crop.] So you’d be [down] 10 percent.”
In 1934, tobacco growers agreed to reduce the state’s overall production by 15 percent in return for three payments from the federal government, according to Flue-Cured Tobacco Developments Under The AAA, by Duke University’s Joseph Knapp and L. R. Paramore. In a statement calling for Big Tobacco to come to the bargaining table, North Carolina’s then-governor, J. Ehringhaus, wrote the following:
You have made fine profits in the past and the Government is receiving out of this activity every year millions in the way of taxes. The growers at the other end of the line are not receiving anything but the wages of a peon and a slave. That condition cannot be permitted to go on indefinitely. It must stop.
Ultimately, the original Agricultural Adjustment Act was replaced by an updated version in 1938, which answered complaints about unfair taxing and cemented the subsidies for another 66 years. The large-farm owners still whined, complaining that the bill limited their growth, but their concerns were little when compared to the improvement of livelihood the payments brought scores of family across the eastern part of the state.
For O.C. and his people, the system created out of the AAA of 1938 was imperfect, but it was a system, where previously there had been abject uncertainty. The government was finally fighting for people like the Sappony, which is a good thing, because very soon after, the United States would call on those same people to return the favor.
Otha Charles, American
My grandfather, Otha Charles Martin, Jr. is a man at peace with the Lord—as a matter of fact, he might be one of the most joyous people I know, which is remarkable for a number of reasons.
After all, when your childhood was the Great Depression, your adolescence was nonstop tobacco field work, and your teenage years were spent going through boot camp and serving in the most devastating war the world had ever known, it would be difficult to criticize a person for acting overly independent, cynical, and hard-hearted. Alternatively, a person can experience all that, come back to work the fields for another four decades, raise a family of 11, and thank the Lord daily of the blessing of a love-filled life. Through his 91 (and counting!) years, O.C. has always gone with the latter, though he’s had some help getting on that path.
O.C. knew Nannie Martin almost all his life—she was my great-uncle Stanton’s sister and lived down the road. The two grew up in the same area and in similar families, but even past the gendered roles carved out for them by the rural culture, they were different. Nannie, who also went by Nancy, learned and loved to bake and cook, yes, but she also loved to read, and was a talented artist, drawing constantly. O.C. was a homebody who loved his sweets and a good conversation, but he was also a worker. If anything needed being done, he was there to help you do it, and if you were supposed to do it already, he’d surely let you know.
Up to 1941, O.C. and Stanton weren’t entirely sure just what they wanted to do with their lives. The tobacco industry in eastern North Carolina was slowly bouncing back with the subsidies in place, but the two kids were still too young to run their own operation—O.C. was just 16 at this point. Then, Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, the immediate future came into focus.
Like the Sappony and Martins that came before him, O.C. was a proud American, even if the surrounding Americans weren’t so proud of him just yet. With the war in Europe raging, O.C. knew the draft was going to sweep through the state’s rural counties, so he volunteered for the Army.
O.C. answered the call to arms on April 24, 1945, when he enlisted at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The Army personnel in charge of entering his information marked him down as “white” on his service record. After seven months in the reserves, he made the trip to New York, where he’d be trained and then boarded onto a ship that would take him as far away from High Plains as he’d ever go.
An infantryman in the Army, O.C. was placed in the European theater following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, by which time the American public was coming to full terms with the extent of the Holocaust. In a Southern Oral History Project interview series focused on North Carolina’s Native American veterans, he described the task he was given overseas, that of assisting the Allied Forces in the relocation of those liberated from the concentration camps Hitler had installed across the continent:
That was one of the hardest things I had to do is put them [concentration camp evacuees] back to their hometowns. Get them back and you didn’t have nothing. Nothing at all. They had to start off new. I wonder a lot of times. I wondered if they made it and how many made it because I know some of them didn’t make it.
It was in that strange land that O.C. decided to give up smoking the tobacco he’d come up around, instead selling his cigarette rations to fellow soldiers. After he’d saved up enough money from his side hustle, O.C. said he spent most of the money on two things: Jewelry to send home to Nannie, who was his wife by then, and a used motorcycle. Since the military wouldn’t let his hog on the return boat back to America, he sold it to one of the remaining soldiers, even making a nice little profit.
“You was allotted so many cigarettes per month, so I sold mine, bought me a Harley Davidson motorcycle,” O.C. told me. “You know how many cigarettes I paid for that motorcycle? I made about 10 times more, I got more than I paid for it.”
O.C. returned to Nannie and Person County in 1946. Come December 16, the pair married, entering a marriage that would last for nearly 63 years. Stanton, also back in North Carolina after serving in the Marines at Okinawa in the Pacific Theater, was reunited with both his sister and his new brother-in-law. The only question on all their minds was, What’s next?
The pair’s timing turned out to be perfect, their return from the war coinciding as it did with the rise of W. Kerr Scott—known as the Squire from Haw River—to North Carolina’s governorship.
The South, in the time after the end of the war and before the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, was a complicated place to be a Native American.
Following the war, O.C. and Stanton returned to the High Plains community for reasons past the fact that it was their home. High Plains was the only place they had known before they joined the military, and as men soon expected to provide and start families, it contained all the jobs they knew how to do best.
This was the dilemma: Change might be coming for their people eventually but O.C. and Stanton couldn’t wait on change—the bills had to be paid. But if one is so concerned about keeping their head above water in the present, planning for the next generation can seem a daunting if not impossible task, especially when the state government and its people cared little about advancing the lives of the working class, let alone the minorities in the bunch. Hence the repetitive cycles of Sappony tobacco farmers for the better part of the previous century.
Kerr Scott, cigar in hand, was looking to smash those cycles.
The conservative movement within the one-party Democratic South was coalescing, and it realized a push against Big Government wouldn’t be an easy thing to convince people of, not after their support for the Works Progress Administration and the AAA. At the time, the North Carolina state government was filled with industry leaders, lawyers, doctors—people to whom these programs personally meant little except higher federal taxes. So they did everything they could to keep the state taxes and regulations at a minimum and to criticize every federal increase, regardless of the end result.
Raising fears about communism was the easiest way to achieve this, but it wouldn’t be a sustainable fear tactic if politicians didn’t offer other reasons to join their ranks against a growing federal presence that provided options for the working class. So, the the ever-useful race card was played, ensuring African American and Native Americans remained in their place, in high-poverty areas with underfunded public resources.
As a white man growing up when he did, Kerr Scott was able to turn his successes into leadership positions; what set him apart as a politician was that once he attained real power, he never forgot who put him in the chair he sat in.
Kerr Scott was a farmer to his very core. He graduated from North Carolina State University, among the best in the nation in agricultural studies; he ran a large set of successful farms in Alamance County; and once he got a taste for public service, he ran for and won the title of Grange Master of the North Carolina chapter. (The Grange was a national organization with state chapters whose purpose were to organize and represent farmers, of all sizes, in lobbying their state legislatures.)
It was in this role that he first flexed both his leadership skills and his commitment to the rural people of the state.
In 1931, when O.C. and Nannie were just five years old, just 3.2 percent of North Carolinians lived with electricity. The same year, Kerr Scott, as Grange Master, called for the state to improve its rural electrification efforts, according to Stuart Noblin’s The Grange in North Carolina, 1929-1954. By 1935, North Carolina had set up a state Rural Electrification Authority, granting it $10,000 in funding for administration.
In 1932, the same year Kerr Scott led a march of 5,000 farmers on the state legislature, the North Carolina chapter of the Grange organized more farmers in a single year than had been done by any chapter since 1870. The following year, 1933, the General Assembly’s budget cut land taxes for farmers and shifted control of roads and schools over from the counties to the state.
Kerr Scott’s lifelong support of the working class of farming families, and not just the profit margins of Big Tobacco companies, earned him the adoration of the rural communities. According to Nunn, the Sappony were massive supporters of both FDR and Kerr Scott—she wrote that the Sappony were solidly Republican voters until 1932, at which time they all became “solidly Democrat.”
Fast forward one World War, and O.C.’s return from Europe in 1946 would be followed two years later by Kerr Scott’s election to the governorship—it marked just the second time in North Carolina history that a farmer was elected to the position. In 1954, he was elected to serve as one of the state’s two United States senators. There, he pushed to raise federal farm subsidies and fought for the parity payments made by the government to offset the costs for family farmers during down seasons.
It’s hard to understate the importance of Kerr Scott’s work as it relates to the Sappony. Moreover, you may be asking yourself, What does some one-term Senator have to do with a story of Native American integration? At face value, it doesn’t make a ton of sense that the two would be intertwined—though he was certainly more open to the idea of working alongside black citizens and an open opponent of the KKK, Kerr Scott was still a segregationist.
But if you pay attention to what he was doing, to the precedents he was trying to set, you slowly realize that Kerr Scott was a rare anomoly. He was a religious farmer who also accepted the uncomfortable truth that the South’s situation with Jim Crow was untenable. During his governorship, he appointed the most liberal Southern university president of his time in Frank Porter Graham to the U.S. Senate; he put the first-ever black man on the State Board of Education; and he used the law to strike back against a resurgent Klansman.
Most importantly for the Sappony people, Kerr Scott saw the role of his government not to be concerned about an overabundance of taxation, but an underusage of public support programs. He wanted to help the people, because he understood nobody else would, not the way they needed it.
This is why you have to know the history of W. Kerr Scott, because without his work, what comes next, for Nannie, for the kids, for me, never happens. Fighting for the family farmer meant fighting for the very progress of the Sappony, and it’s a battle that’s not yet been forgotten by those who watched him charge into Washington.
“[Kerr Scott’s work] was present in the community. Everyone gave him the credit for it and looked up to him for doing it,” O.C. said. “He really helped the rural country, the rural people. He owned farms and was interested in the farm programs, and he really helped out in the rural areas to get things done and get things passed through the government.... He was an outstanding guy, and I think everybody liked him because he was doing what should have been done.”
When Kerr Scott passed away in 1958, the state’s newspapers, large and small, wrote editorials and features lamenting his death, nearly all of them lamenting the loss of a politician that actually fought for economic policies to help the average citizen, not the wealthy. (You can check those out here.) At his funeral, Lyndon Johnson, then just a senator from Texas, spoke the following words during a lengthy, heartfelt statement; they seem to sum up how every farmer and factory worker in the state felt about the Squire from Haw River:
Kerr Scott loved people. Kerr Scott’s love was not an abstract, academic love. He wanted to do things for them because he was of them. And they responded in full measure to his devotion.
With someone sticking up for them in Raleigh and Washington, O.C. and Stanton saw the path forward.
In the first few years after their return, the duo almost immediately went back to their old trade of working Granddaddy Coleman’s land. On his land and the land rented out by the Merritt family, they’d go through the laborious planting, growing, and curing process. On Merritt’s land, they’d be paid by the farm owner a fourth of what they produced come the fall. When the tobacco system switched from an acreage allotment system to a poundage allotment system, the land owners would take a share of each pound, rather than the fixed 25 percent that used to be the deal.
(It’s worth noting here that the federal subsidies were often times not passed along to the tenant farmers and sharecroppers working the fields, thus squeezing non-landowners out of the new Southern rural economy, especially those of color. In their review of the AAA’s effect on rural farmers in the Southern States, Fred Frey and T. Lynn Smith cite an eight-county survey done by their team: From 1930-1935, the white tenant farmer population increased 13.5 percent while the black tenant population fell 15.5 percent.)
Both men knew they wanted to run their own operation. They just weren’t sure about the details yet. Then, Kerr Scott’s state programs started lighting up the countryside and laying down asphalt on what had forever been worn dirt roads. Around 1950, seeing local roads to the markets in Danville, Durham, and South Boston sparkling with a fresh coat of asphalt, O.C. said he and Stanton, after several conversations and nudges, decided it was time to carve out their own lots.
The pair pooled their money and purchased Grandaddy Coleman’s land, and the land my great-grandfather rented from John Merritt—Merritt died in 1944, so the pair picked up the land from his daughter, O.C. said. Several years later they bought the plot O.C.’s house currently rests on.
Once the duo started having children (farmhands, remember) they expanded their operation, renting six area fields owned by local professionals in both North Carolina and Virginia. (Among them were at least one doctor and one lawyer, says O.C.)
By the time Kerr Scott claimed his Senate seat in 1954, O.C. and Stanton were well into their first decade of being tobacco farmers, regularly rotating corn, soybeans, and wheat in their fields and perfecting the art of topping and sucking their cash crops. Soon after, Stanton would join the board of directors for the Person County Farm Bureau, stepping up to help lead the local faction of family farmers and provide some long-needed Native representation.
In addition to the farm work, both O.C. and Stanton continued working two days a week chopping down and hauling timber, which was actually just as lucrative as tobacco farming was, though it was about as close a definition to “hard work” as one can get. (Ask any old country boy about pulpwood and see if they don’t grab their lower back and shed a tear.) Simultaneously, the duo also worked second-shift jobs at the Eaton Corporation’s factory in Roxboro, making valves for cars two shifts a week. O.C. also served as a volunteer firefighter. They worked the various side jobs “up ’til we got ready to retire.”
“We just talked about it, figured out if we could make it,” O.C. told me, chuckling. “We had a busy time, but we kept things going.”
Keeping things going right alongside him for the next generation of Sappony was his beloved Nannie Martin.
The Nannie Letters
This may surprise some readers, but not everyone that grew up working on a farm dreamt of being a farmer forever.
There were scores that did, of course; for many others, it was simply one of the only available ways to pay the bills and supply food and shelter for their families. But for the folks that called the Jim Crow South home, up through at least the 1960s, the question of whether you would even be allowed to craft a new career path depended a great deal upon what color your skin was. And, luckily for the Colemans and Martins, who your mother was.
The very existence of the High Plains Indian School marked one feat for the Sappony, but producing literate children with a real shot at gaining admission into college wasn’t going to happen overnight, not with the loose change the North Carolina General Assembly called its budget, and certainly not when there was tobacco to be tended to.
The High Plains school struggled with consistent attendance throughout the 1930s due a litany of factors that ranged from the tobacco growing season to the children not having proper winter clothing to poorly maintained dirt roads and the absence of any busing. Some kids had to walk four miles one way to attend High Plains, according to the Nunn Report. Until the 1940s, college attendance for those in the Sappony was not so much a question as it was a thing you dreamt about on the nights you weren’t too worn out to dream.
And yet, attendance at the High Plains Indian School was never an option in Grandaddy Coleman’s house—or should I say, Nettie Coleman’s house.
Nettie was a teacher in Rockingham County before she married James; when she and Grandaddy Coleman started having children of their own, she knew in her bones that not a single one of them would ever be called ignorant. As the kids came of age, Nettie started substituting at High Plains. With the school just a short drive away for James, the kids and their cousins knew better than to cut up in class, especially on the days when one of their regular teachers would be absent. It was on those days that Grandaddy Coleman’s car would peel into the parking lot, and strangely, every student would sit up a little straighter when Nettie stepped through the door.
Her kids found themselves scrounging for every bit of academic material they could their hands on; for them, High Plains was their only outlet. The school helped the students that wanted it, like Nannie and her brother, Phil Coleman, and their eight other siblings. Both Nannie and Phil, my great uncle, got all their schooling from the folks at High Plains. The classes were limited and the materials outdated, Phil told me, but the teachers were good and the classes small.
“When we started, there were four classrooms,” Phil said. “They added two more classrooms and they housed the grammar school in three rooms. Then they had the other kids in the other three rooms. When I came along in the grammar school, each teacher taught two grades. Some of them had three. You’ve got a class of five, maybe six kids—at most 13, 14 in any one class. My graduating class had five people total.”
Luckily for Phil and his cousin, Etta Martin, few enough people were seeking secondary education in the Roxboro area that the town’s social workers had the time to assist them with college forms and the general catching-up they had in front of them.
“There was a social worker from Roxboro ... who would come out to school and try to find out who was interested and who would be academically eligible—because we didn’t have the basic subjects that we needed to get into school,” said Phil. “When I went to [college], I had to take some courses that were pretty much high school courses in order to keep myself qualified to stay in school.”
Phil was among the first from the tribe to leave the High Plains community and attend a public university. He spent two years at Warren Wilson Community College catching up on his credits before transferring to Appalachian State University, where he’d become a trained and certified math teacher and inspire the future generation of Sappony children.
Nannie’s future would take a different path, one no less inspiring and all the more crucial for her 11 children, and yours truly.
“The things that had happened to the generation of Mom and Dad, they did not allow to affect us.”
Sue Vernon, the second of Nannie’s 11 children (and thus my Aunt Sue), told me this when we spoke a couple months back. At the time, I had no clue what she was talking about.
Nannie Coleman, my MeMaw, was smart. Born in 1926, she skipped the second grade and completed the 11th grade, the highest level of education the High Plains school offered, during a time when school attendance was lagging. (Southern colleges required completion of 11 grades to be eligible for admission.) When World War II struck and women were suddenly no longer as restricted in the job market, Nannie had her eye on a degree.
In 1946, Nannie saw an opportunity to be among the first Sappony—and Sappony women—to venture outside of the High Plains community. She applied, and was accepted, to Phillips Secretarial College in Lynchburg, VA. The timing was perfect—while her beloved O.C. was overseas helping to clean up the mess in Europe and sending her jewelry, she would complete the necessary training and be able to provide additional income while leaving the door open for future career growth.
But in 1946, the racist tendency that had so long undercut the Native effort in both Virginia and North Carolina wasn’t quite ready to die. Roughly six weeks into Nannie’s time at PSC, the college’s front office received a letter. A woman who owned the Christie Store, a small country store where the Sappony regularly shopped, had written the note to the school, inquiring whether they knew they had accepted a Native American woman into their ranks.
Remember, this was Virginia, where, unlike North Carolina, state government did not legally recognize the Sappony as Native American. A student was either white or they were colored. Nannie, despite her writing skills and genetic thirst for knowledge, was retroactively rejected and kicked out of school. The college called and had James Coleman, her dad, to drive up to Lynchburg and bring her home.
Below are the 1946 letters social worker and minister James R. Coates wrote to the Office of Indian Affairs on Nannie’s behalf; you can also find the letter he wrote to her father, James, as well as another penned to noted Pennsylvania University anthropologist and Native American expert Frank Speck. You can find larger versions of the letters at the bottom of this post.
Thank goodness, Nannie’s story doesn’t stop there.
After O.C. returned home from the war, Nannie and her husband made their home on a plot of land just off what’s now High Plains Road, just a few hundred yards from her father, James, and her brother, Stanton. She completed her schooling at Durham Technical College, but when O.C. and Stanton made a run of it at farming, both of their families began to grow. Farming families are typically large—more hands means faster work, if they’re trained well.
O.C. and Nannie raised 11 children on that farm. My dad, born in 1963, was the ninth. You’re going to read how they managed it in a moment, but all 11 of Nannie’s kids received some form of secondary education, which would be an astonishing feat in 2018. That’s because, like Nettie, Nannie ran a tight ship when it came to school, monitoring her children’s homework every night. More than that, though, Nannie understood that education was the future for her children, and that with integration on the doorstep, the most important thing she could do was provide representation in the white school her children would be attending.
Nannie joined the local PTA and even ran it as the president; she helped secure Title XII funding, federal funds set aside for Native American children, when her kids and other Sappony kids applied for college. They spread across the state, graduating and moving into nearly every job field possible, working their way up to the management and white-collar jobs that had once been obscured from the dreams of the Sappony youth.
“By seeing what we had lost, by seeing Nancy, the way they treated her, we just said, ‘We’re going to send all ours.’ And we did,” O.C. told me. “All 11 of them went to college, some of them got their master’s degree, one got their doctorate. Done good. Done good for the privilege they had. It just happened to be at the right time. The Lord really blessed us.”
I had never heard of this story of the letters before this past winter, when my Aunt Sue told me about it during our interview. She also told me how MeMaw withheld the story from her kids so as not to color their view of what an education could bring them. Through conversation with both MeMaw and Aunt Sue and all of my other aunts and uncles, I can tell you that she was not sheltering her children—she and O.C. taught them to identify the sins of the earthly world. But she also wanted them to learn for themselves, and to learn to persist through those challenges while keeping true to themselves.
Nannie treated her life on the farm inspiring what would become the next generation of the Sappony as though it was as high a calling as what might have followed had she made it through secretarial school. She taught them to believe in their neighbors and themselves and the Lord above. Again, I know—everyone’s grandma is the best grandma; I’m just saying that mine was, too.
You can point to integration; I point to Nettie, to Phil, to O.C., and to Nannie.
The Martins were and are lucky Nannie was as aggressive as she was in her push to prepare her kids and their cousins for a life beyond High Plains, because her efforts came as two things—the end of Jim Crow and the decline of the tobacco farming that had sustained the Sappony for centuries—brought them further into the wider world than ever before.
The ‘Guinea Pigs’ of Integration
In 1962, the state government announced that the High Plains School would be closing. The community was conflicted, to say the least.
With the Sappony kids able to personify the new path to college paved by Phil and Etta Martin, who went to Montreat College in Asheville, High Plains’ student attendance saw an uptick as the new generation came of age, with a few tribal parents, especially Nannie, making a concerted effort to push the young people into the education system. But the constant underfunding by the state legislature and the creeping shadow of integration made clear by the mid-1950s that something had to give if the Sappony, as a collective and not just the few exceptions, wanted to make their move away from the fields.
The school was always far from providing necessary modern college prep. The highest math High Plains ever offered was Algebra 1, which is nowadays taught in the eighth grade. It was, at the very least, their school, run by a Sappony school board. The reality, though, was this: As was the case with the state’s black schools, government funding in relation to the surrounding white schools was abhorrent, and the Sappony were quickly realizing that it was incapable of meeting the needs of those who desired a life and job that wasn’t farming.
“They didn’t keep our school up to date,” O.C. said. “They didn’t give us what we were supposed to have. That’s what hurt us so bad. The school up in Bethel Hill got much more than our school did.”
The ambitious Sappony kids of the 1950s saw their opportunity not only in the military, but in the state’s recently revamped university system. As tribal member Jean Epps Williams said, per the 2012 book The Folly of Jim Crow, the unofficial slogan of High Plains had become “the three R’s—reading, ’riting, and the road to Richmond.” The issue had become that final R, as by the 1950s, the High Plains school was simply lagging too far behind its white counterparts for those seeking a higher education.
The opportunity for integration of the Native Americans arrived several years prior to the integration of black students in Person County, so the Sappony were given a simple choice: Their children could attend the white schools, or they could attend the black schools. The impending integration, combined with the fact the schools serving the county’s black population had funding issues similar to the ones they’d been facing for generations, led the Sappony to opt for the white schools in Bethel Hill and Allensville.
“It’s part of the times we were living in—the separation by race, and I’m sure the kids who grow up now could hardly understand that,” said Phil Coleman. “The conversations at that time were not that we wanted to go to another school. It was the fact that there was going to be no additional support [for High Plains]. We weren’t going to have that support that we needed to elevate ourselves to the same level that the other schools were.
“And really, about that time, the idea of integration was on its way in. It hadn’t really surfaced, but it was on its way in. And so it was a matter of, ‘Okay, if we’ve got to go somewhere, we don’t want to go to the black school.’ And we ended up going to Bethel Hill, which was the white school at that time.”
Relinquishing control over the school operations was a tough pill to swallow, but the potential upside of the trade-off was too great to ignore—the parents of the time, like Nannie and O.C., realized that the path to financial stability in the coming decades wouldn’t be on the farms, but in the classroom.
“We felt like there was going to be a better opportunity for the kids,” O.C. said. “They took our kids and split them up among the schools, and they were up to date. They got a better education than what we were running here. All my kids went to school were they could keep going, they didn’t have any limits like they did at High Plains.”
The prevailing opinion—Sue Vernon, Charlie Martin, Phil Coleman, and Leon Martin all concurred—is that the integration of the Sappony students by the Person County school system was a trial. The popular theory goes that, understanding that the community was split three ways, administrators sought a preview of what a mixing of the races would look like in one of the toughest places to do it in the state. Rather than integrate African-American students sooner, they turned to their Native population.
“I always kid and told people that they used us as guinea pigs [at Bethel Hill] because about four or five years later is when they integrated the black students,” Charlie said.
Phil was out in the world helping the next generation of students by the time integration actually took place, but he remembers the conversations that were being had among the community’s elders, and he seemed similarly convinced that the premature closure of the High Plains School was not merely a budget concern, but a strategic testing of a rural community’s school system.
“You’d probably never get anybody who’s responsible to admit it, but that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “It was, ‘Okay, this thing was coming. Here’s a chance for us to kind of feel it out and see what’s going to happen. Is it possible to get two different cultures without things exploding? And how we’re going to handle things and how we’re going to deal with it.’”
Regardless of political motive, the school closed, and an entire group of kids had their daily routines upended. For that first year, the children interested in following Phil’s footsteps saw their college plans made easier, but their social lives were thrown into chaos.
Even those that lived in the same house were forced to attend different schools, for reasons unbeknownst to them. Leon was shipped off to Bethel Hill along with younger brother Charlie and younger sister Judy; Sue, the second-oldest of the Martin clan, went to the Allensville school for the first year, before being transferred over to Bethel Hill.
“We were split North Carolina from Virginia students, families were divided and were inserted into these white schools,” Charlie said. “We didn’t know anybody. And that was pretty traumatic. And in fairness to the white schools, they didn’t know what to do either. This was a brand-new ballgame for them too. That first year was really kind of traumatic. Me and my cousin Russell were the only kids from our community that got stuck in the fifth grade up at Bethel Hill.”
The experiences varied class-to-class. The first year at Bethel Hill seems to have been a bit rougher than the initial integration session at Allensville. For the younger ones, the main issues they ran into were basic cultural misunderstandings that ultimately proved harmless after a year or two in class together.
“I think the white students were apprehensive about being outnumbered especially,” Charlie added. “Still, they were a little uncertain about these Indians coming, because you know they had stereotypes of Indians. I remember my classmates all cornered me and Russell and saying, ‘Where are your horses? Where are your tomahawks? Don’t you have bow and arrows?’ Of course, we’d lie like bandits, ‘Oh, oh yea. We scalp ‘em, we just don’t do it at school.’”
Leon, the oldest of O.C.’s children, wanted to follow in Phil’s footsteps. He noted that there were a few Sappony that “did well academically” after they integrated, downplaying his performance. When I ran this past Sue, who was also in school during integration, she informed me that, actually, Leon did a bit better than just “well”—he was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Bethel Hill.
At first, though, rather than award him the honor, the school’s administration instead decided it would be best if a white student took home the honor, as had been the case for decades. It was only until my grandmother drove up to the school and demanded to see the grades that the school conceded Leon was the valedictorian.
Sue, a year younger and similarly gifted, earned the coveted chief marshal slot. (She recalled sitting in chemistry class toward the end of the semester when the teacher randomly exclaimed in front of her, “Isn’t a shame that our chief marshal only had an average of a 93 or 94?”) Thankfully, when she earned salutatorian honors the following year, the school wised up and let her have it without a fight, saving Nannie a trip she would’ve made again in a heartbeat.
When it came time for him to give his valedictorian speech at the graduation ceremony, as Leon recalls, the principal placed his retirement honor on top of Leon’s notecards that were resting inside the podium.
Not missing a beat, Leon recited Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” by memory, completed his speech, and calmly took his seat.
The Family Farm’s Final Hour
The Sappony haven’t farmed tobacco in over a decade.
That is, if nothing else, a remarkable mass career turn for a tribe that has a tobacco leaf printed on its insignia. The Martins, the Colemans—all seven of the families, really—could trace their lineage back to the beginning of the 1800s and still find bright leaves being clutched in the hands of all their ancestors. Yet, nowadays, the majority of tribal members simply know about tobacco rather than live it.
It’s hard to put into words how consuming tobacco was for the Sappony, let alone North Carolina. At its height, both culturally and politically, it could not be touched—a third rail of Tar Heel politics, if you will. Hell, Jesse Helms, a man who railed against the concept of a minimum wage and was willing to hold up votes on so many bills that he earned the nickname Senator No, always voted in favor of the federal price supports for tobacco when he was in office.
Tobacco was North Carolina, and, for a long while, tobacco was the Sappony. But everything changed for tobacco farming, and, by no coincidence, it changed almost as quickly as the fortunes of the tribe that left it. And so, if you must know the story of the tribe’s rise, you must know the tale of tobacco’s fall.
The Martins of the mid-20th century serve as an example of a community that recognized the path that extended from education, not farming, held a more promising future. Nannie and O.C. grew up through the Great Depression, so advising their children against staying in farming was the logical, and courageous, thing to do. To manage not only to raise 11 kids and send them off to college, but also plan well enough to secure comfortable days of retirement in the house they raised all those kids in, it’s as impressive an American success story as I’ve heard, full bias noted. Because they absolutely called it.
The cause of death in the case of the family tobacco farm isn’t a mystery; all the usual players showed their face at some point: race-baiters, slimy politicians, greedy industrialists, all snarling with a growing disdain for safety nets.
By the time Kerr Scott’s son, Bob, held the North Carolina governorship in 1968, the people of North Carolina had forgotten the federal and state governments that came to their aid just 20 years before. The Civil Rights legislation enforced at a federal level—the work that brought the end of the High Plains school and pushed the rising Sappony bunch toward college—caused a rejection of future federal initiatives, all in the name of a new, coded form of conservatism. Being reinforced by the distrust brought on by the Vietnam War and Watergate, the rising generation of American people no longer wanted the government in their affairs, and the decision couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Like everything else, tobacco farming was consolidated purposefully. Along with the new age and the smaller world, tobacco profits among the cigarette companies were still soaring in the 1980s, though their political influence in Washington was waning. The studies were pouring in, the number of smoke-related deaths was climbing, and the cigarette packets were slapped with a warning from the Surgeon General.
For the Sappony, the 1970s and the 1980s were a time in which the world seemed a bit more connected and all the more interesting. My aunts and uncles and parents, armed with their college degrees and the support of O.C. and Nannie, spread themselves out across the state of North Carolina, most of them moving away from the High Plains area. They picked up entry-level jobs across different industries and worked through promotions and raises, taking a solid step into the middle class. They spread themselves out physically and economically faster than any group of Sappony since America’s birth, which is a story worth telling on its own.
All the while, the family tobacco farm’s death rattle grew louder and louder. During the 1990s, state attorney general and the Clinton Administration engaged in a full-throated attack on Big Tobacco, suing the top-four companies and revealing what everyone already knew: that the cigarette companies had long been aware of the addictive nature of nicotine and their product’s effects on the body. Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Brown & Williamson all signed the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, settling lawsuits with 46 states.
The public anti-tobacco campaigns left farmers like the Sappony in a peculiar spot. For them, tobacco farming was a trade passed down for three or more generations. To turn on the news and hear the president and other people in suits rail against the crop that helped put their kids through college left a sour taste in their mouth, though plenty of national writers scored intriguing profiles. They were just the growers, and they had little to do with what the cigarette companies did with the plants they sold them—at least, this story floated when it was a small family farmer.
But there was also a steady pattern of farmers passing down the allotment deals brokered with the federal government, leading them to potentially buy out other small farmers and their allotments. The shrinking number of farms meant the final resting place of the tobacco profits were dictated by a shrinking number of farm owners and cigarette company owners. Large-scale farms were on the rise.
The final generation of Sappony tobacco farmers, understanding that with the last of their kids off to school they had done their part, got out of the tobacco game by the end of the ‘90s. It was another instance of uncanny foresight on their end.
At the turn of the 21st century, the federal government—neoliberal Democrats holding the hands of conservative Republicans, all sensing an opportunity to get out of the family farm support game for good—made its move. This is where the paths of tobacco and the Sappony part.
In 2004, a year after the World Health Organization passed a treaty on limiting the spread of tobacco use with the signature of the United States, Congress voted on legislation to cease the setting of a price floor for American tobacco growers. Instead, Congress would allot just under $10 billion to farmers for the next 10 years. A major prong of George W. Bush’s Jobs Creation Act, the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004, put an end to that once-untouchable New Deal legislation, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938.
The federal subsidies FDR and W. Kerr Scott had fought for 70 years before were officially dead. The small farmer was out, and they had 10 years to realize it.
Shockingly, the pullout didn’t work. (Or, depending on your perspective and investment portfolio, perhaps it did.) The Bush payouts stopped back in 2014; along with them, so did many small farmers, as the number of tobacco farmers nationwide and in North Carolina took a massive dip after that final check came in September.
“It ain’t but just a few big farmers around here now,” O.C. said. “The government used to buy the pounds [allotment] from you. We sold our pounds to the government and I believe it was seven years that they sent us a check for the tobacco pounds. Big farmers are coming in and taking over now. You can raise however much you want. We used to have a bunch of farmers in our community, but everyone went to something else when tobacco went out.”
To put numbers behind what O.C. is talking about: The size of the average tobacco farm quadrupled from 2004 to 2012 and the number of tobacco farms in the state dropped from 8,000 to 1,682, per the Charlotte Observer.
The 1992 version of the U.S. tobacco industry provided jobs for 80,762 people; by 2012, that number was 42,531, according to the Duke Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness. And even then, North Carolina ranked 12th in average tobacco worker wages, with yearly wage increases lagging 13 percentage points behind the national average.
For small family farmers without the funds to acquire more land (or credit to acquire a loan for more land), this meant the Bush payments were to be used as an exit strategy to avoid being forced to sell to one of the big guys within the next few years. As large-scale farms became the norm, the buying process naturally became more direct; now, instead of auctions, large-scale tobacco farmers wait until they’ve secured a contract with one of the few major cigarette companies to tend to the land.
Unfortunately, this has left the hundreds of farming communities across the state with little time to plan a massive economic overhaul, thus leaving the rising generation with few incentives to return to their roots. The number of temporary workers in the state grew 52 percent from 2009-2014, according to a June 2018 PolicyLink study, while the UNC Carolina Population Center reports that as of 2016, towns with fewer than 2,500 residents grew by just 1.4 percent since 2010.
Unlike the time of the Great Depression, there is no W. Kerr Scott in Congress or FDR in the White House. There is instead a half-hearted farm payout and a president more interested in stoking the fires of a tariff war with thumbs that will never know the feel of a bright leaf or pulpwood. Congress, meanwhile, is doing all it can to renege on the promises it made the farming towns when it stopped supporting them.
In 2000, the American legislators passed a series of tax breaks, known as New Market Tax Credits. They were meant to encourage private investment specifically in rural regions. As they’ve been pushing for since 2014, when Rep. Dave Camp first introduced legislation stripping the tax code of these actually useful incentives, House Republicans have led the charge against the credits, with the fight being carried on this past fall by the party’s Congressional leadership. Donald Trump joined them in March, initially pushing to repeal new market tax credits before the entire front relented at the last moment, with the Senate plan keeping them in the fold for at least two more years.
Again, by the time any of this happened, the Sappony were clear out of dodge. It’s hard, though, not to hypothesize about what could have been had the tribe waited another generation to push its kids to job training and education. Likewise, it’s hard not to be frustrated with our society’s short memory when it comes to what these communities provided past their crops.
The state doesn’t need a revival of small tobacco farmers, just like the government doesn’t need another W. Kerr Scott. The CDC shows that smoking is at an all-time low, which is a good thing for our society. Solutions are relative to the issue, and unlike with Native Americans, the past two generations of rural Americans are relatively new to being ignored and left behind. They don’t need or want a caretaker, but they also cannot afford to fight the battle on their own. Healthcare coverage for all citizens, secure, non-parasitic jobs, and equally funded public schools shouldn’t be a tall order for communities that put food on the table for Americans and dutifully served in their wars for two centuries.
What Scott brought to the tobacco farmers, what Nannie and Phil and Leon brought to the Sappony, was a genuine path of hope, hope you could see and touch and drive on without slinging rocks at the people behind you. It wasn’t pure but it was a path where there had not been one previously. This is what rural communities deserve today, because the folks there, after what they’ve been through and done for the state, deserve it just as much as the folks in Chapel Hill or Raleigh or New York or San Francisco; they just need to be convinced that path is more than a history lesson.
A Blessed People
The Sappony have made an impressive effort since the turn of the century to bring both their own youth and their fellow Person County residents up to speed on the tribe that lived quietly off Highway 49.
In 1997, the Sappony finally earned a seat on the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. The same year, they changed their official name from Indians of Person County to Sappony to include those family members that lived on the Virginia side of the border. This change was recognized by the General Assembly in 2003, when North Carolina House Rep. Gordon Allen sponsored House Bill 355 to make official the tribe’s desire to change its name and update all prior records. According to a Courier-Times piece covering the change, the legislation resulted from a tribal research project, which was undertaken after the tribal council decided to get serious about organizing the tribe.
Making sure the Sappony youth are well-read on their tribal history as well, the tribe runs an annual youth camp over the summer, hosting the Sappony kids in a collection of camp cabins resting less than 100 yards from Mayo Lake. It’s here that the newest generation of Sappony are taught the histories and traditions of their ancestors. They also go canoeing on the lake. I attended the camp in its initial years; it’s since grown, both in size and popularity. The Sappony also started an annual 5k run a couple years ago, having competitors run along a trail partially built by campers (including yours truly) that winds throughout the campgrounds’s wooded park area, as part of a wider initiative to encourage healthy lifestyles.
And, of course, the fire for secondary education remains lit among the youth. Multi-family email listservs pass around high school summer programs and college scholarships for the rising generation of students. Throughout my childhood, before our family was as tech-savvy, the encouragement came in the form of phone calls from my aunts and my grandma. Even when Nannie lost her voice due to ALS, a vile disease that claimed her earthly body in 2009, she constantly wrote me and her other grandchildren handwritten letters. Her stunning cursive would stretch from edge to edge, taking up every inch of blank space on the inside of the letter with a message instructing me to keep up my studies and keep my heart at home.
I’ve been trying to tell this very story since 2013, when I first completed some of these interviews with members of my tribe and family.
Nannie and O.C. are two of the reasons I feel confident when writing about the history of my home state. In them, I always had the starkest rejection of the race-based conservatism that’s come to dominate the culture. In them, I always had two Southern role models, two people who you actually felt like embodied the Christian way of life so many others have cheaply imitated to buy up private jets or get elected to office. I was and am lucky, for them and all my grandparents, Louise, Randy, Herbert, and Liz, for having Southern, honest role models that experienced life in a way I couldn’t begin to imagine.
And like every living member of the Sappony tribe, I am extremely blessed to even be in the position to tell this story to anyone else, a story that minus any one of about five major “upheavals,” would have never been a reality.
To be a small family farmer, to be Sappony, to be a Southern Baptist is, by tradition, to own a long history of strong, tight-knit communities, ones that would band together come highs and lows.
When funerals were held at Calvary Baptist on weekday afternoons, the High Plains school bus just dropped all the kids off there, knowing that’s where everyone’s parents would be. When Nannie had fellow Sappony parents and kids come to her looking for help with financial aid forms, she filled them out, glad to send another family member on their way to the education she was denied. When my dad moved away from Roxboro after graduating community college, Aunt Sue let him stay at her place, after having already doing the same for my Aunt Angie. And when two of my cousins completed school and internships around Kannapolis, they stayed with my family.
Life is not about what’s owed, but about realizing the commonality in the struggles we all share. It’s about recognizing what a little bit of assistance can do for someone else, whether it comes from a neighbor, a state government, a church, a non-profit, or a family member. The Sappony aren’t perfect; neither are Southern family farmers. But it’s undeniable that the foundational tenets my family fostered and leaned on when the worst of times came were the same tenets that bound them together and allowed them to bat 1.000 when it came to obtaining secondary education at that crucial mid-century juncture.
I’ll never be able to put into words just how lucky I am to follow people like my parents, my MeMaw and Papa, Grandaddy Coleman and Grandma Nettie. The best I can do is just keep telling their stories.
Below, you can review the four Nannie Letters as well as both parts of the 1937 Nunn Report.
1937 Nunn Report Part 1:
1937 Nunn Report Part II: