CHAPEL HILL — As a youth, Malinda Lowery considered history’s three most important figures to be Moses, Harriet Tubman and Henry Berry Lowrie – leader of a band of outlaw Lumbee Indians and African-Americans who fought Confederate soldiers seeking to enlist them and, later, the Ku Klux Klan.
As a historian, her intellectual journeys have also led her from more commonly tread historical territory to the arena of her own heritage – and away from the two-dimensional representation of the written word into film and audio recordings.
Lowery has studied the Lumbee tribe, of which she is a member, for much of her career as a professor and documentary filmmaker. Her recent book on the tribe during the Jim Crow era won several awards from Native American organizations.
Earlier this month, Lowery took over as director of the Southern Oral History Program at UNC, a collection of more than 5,000 recorded interviews that celebrates its 40th birthday this year.
Those who know Lowery and are familiar with the archive say her personal and scholarly background will help usher in a new era of exploring missing segments of Southern history – starting with its native people.
“I see her coming as a sea change for oral history and our relationship to American Indian history in the Southeast,” said William Ferris, a UNC folklorist and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. “And oral history is key to the South. We are a region of talkers and storytellers.”
Lowery, 40, says she hopes to boost the collection of recordings centered on the Lumbee, Cherokee and other tribes of the American South. But she notes other priorities, such as documenting the influence of the media and lifting the collection’s profile.
“In the short term, my interest is less in creating new knowledge and more in making people aware of the knowledge that already exists here and how it might be used,” she said. “I’ll be working hard to make sure the university and the state understand the value that oral history can have.”
The collection is one of the largest of its kind and is poised to be the first that is entirely digitized, allowing researchers to search transcripts of the interviews for key words.
The interviews illuminate a wide variety of historical and contemporary topics: Southern politics, the creation of Research Triangle Park, notable North Carolinians such as Jesse Helms and William Friday, industrialization and Latino immigration.
Lowery says the interviews could be used not only by students of history, but by students and others interested in public policy, family histories and more.
A number of the projects focus on social movement such as the civil rights era, and Lowery would like to see that the Native American roles in these events are also documented – a task she has begun with her study of the Lumbee tribe.
The Lumbee connection
North Carolina’s Lumbees, centered in Robeson County, make up the largest American Indian tribe east of the Mississippi, with nearly 70,000 members, according to census estimates. But the tribe has not been recognized by the federal government, despite efforts to do so spanning more than a century.
A bill to recognize the tribe has been filed in Congress again this year.
Lowery grew up in Durham, where her parents were both professors at N.C. Central University. But her parents took pains to expose her and her siblings to Lumbee culture.
They felt strongly enough about the connection to have each of their children at a Lumberton hospital; Lowery did the same with her daughter.
While Lowery says she learned the specifics of the Lumbees’ struggles as a scholar, she grew up learning it from her parents, fervent Episcopalians who often drew parallels with Scripture.
“My father emphasized how much the Lumbee had in common with the Jews, an oppressed but chosen people,” she said. “And they would point out to us when we visited Robeson County, which was often, how blessed we were to have this land and family relationships.”
Her parents also stressed education; she and most of her seven siblings, four from her father’s previous marriage, earned advanced degrees.
Lowery always loved writing and stories, and initially thought she would study English literature. But as a Harvard undergraduate she chanced upon a job helping to make documentary films.
“That introduced me to the idea of film as a storytelling medium that can have an incredible impact in changing people’s minds, raising awareness, and just being beautiful and engaging,” she said.
She earned her degree in history and literature, and went on to film school at Stanford University. Her first research on the Lumbee was for student film projects during that time.
She went on to work in filmmaking, co-producing several documentaries for PBS and other outlets. Two of those films, one on Native American sacred places in the Western United States, went to the Sundance Film Festival.
But the work was grueling, and the need to render her topics in a way simple enough for television was frustrating.
So she came back home to North Carolina, where her intention to study the culture and identity of her ancestors found a ready audience. There were fewer recent works on Lumbee history, and none had examined the Lumbee in the Jim Crow South, which became Lowery’s focus.
“They were under-appreciated in terms of their presence and role,” she says. “Their history speaks to how we think about race in the segregated South.”
Not a beautiful story
In describing her work, Lowery alternates between using “they” and “we” to describe the Lumbee.
As a Ph.D. student at UNC, she worked as a research assistant on a project chronicling school desegregation in Robeson County. It’s an interesting case because desegregation there involved both African-American and American Indian schools.
And Lowery says the Lumbee were fearful of losing their cultural identity through integration.
She taught at Harvard and other places, but she came back to Chapel Hill for post-doctorate work and ended up joining the history faculty. She was there until July 1, when she took over the oral history program.
Lowery also met her late husband, Willie French Lowery, at UNC. He a Lumbee musician well known in his community and beyond who wrote popular music focused on the Lumbee. He died last year.
She later expanded her research to encompass the entire era from Reconstruction through the beginnings of the civil rights movement, using oral histories, written account and photographs.
At times, her work has hit too close to home, particularly when her research has revealed divisions among a group that has tried to keep a unified front in its fight for federal recognition.
“History is not beautiful,” she said. “People are not nice to one another.”