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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Henry Berry Lowry--A Lumbee Outlaw Who Became A Legend

When I first wrote about Henry Berry Lowry in my August  post, "An Afro-Native Robin Hood", I said that I was certain that I'd be writing about him again.  I can now post about To Die Game, a book about the Lowry Band by historian William McKee Evans.  If you've been reading this blog, you've probably noticed that for me history isn't about the winners.  I'm interested in minorities, sub-cultures on the margins of society and outlaws.


 How did Henry Berry Lowry and the men in his band become outlaws?   During the Civil War, the multi-racial Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina were being kidnapped by Confederates into forced labor under terrible conditions that killed many of them.   So any able bodied Lumbee men hid in the swamp to avoid conscript labor.  This means that they couldn't plow their fields.  The Lumbee were starving.  The Lowry Band emerged out of desperation.  They began stealing food from plantations and distributing it to their people.  To Die Game is their story.

William McKee Evans is a very eloquent writer.  He points out that "men who control food are the taskmasters of those who do not, no matter what words to the contrary are intoned from the courthouse door."

So the story of  the Lowry Band is essentially about conflict between the haves and have nots in  late 19th century Southern society. In  the Ante-Bellum South the wealthy planters were usually Democrats.  This was the party of Thomas Jefferson who was also a wealthy planter.  Jefferson was for states' rights.  This was the ideological basis for the transformation of the Democrats into the party of succession in the Confederate South. When the Republican party was founded, many of its strongest supporters were abolitionists.  The Radical Republicans were advocates of the rights of African-Americans and the dispossessed. Yet in the aftermath of the Civil War these radicals ended up compromising or even discarding their principles.

Evans devotes a chapter to James Sinclair, who illustrates what happened to radicals during this period.  Evans tells us that James Sinclair, a Scotsman who spoke English with a Gaelic accent, began as an activist for better pay and conditions for African American workers.  He founded a newspaper called The Southern Freedman.  The newspaper didn't last because there weren't enough African Americans who could read and also had enough discretionary income to purchase a newspaper on a regular basis.   He was regarded as a rabblerouser, but rabblerousers need money to promote their causes.  Sinclair married into a wealthy Confederate family.  With their help and support, he got elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives. He managed this in a political climate where the Klan had become increasingly prominent.  Sinclair was sympathetic to the Lowry Band.  He knew that Henry Berry Lowry had been originally outlawed for killing a man who'd been helping the Confederate Home Guard hunt Lumbee Indians, but Sinclair became afraid that he would be lynched.  So he signed a petition for the suppression of the Lowry Band.The North Carolina legislature and Robeson County offered bounty money for their apprehension. The radical perspective had disappeared from politics. 

African American men in Robeson County were being beaten and killed by bounty hunters who claimed it was because they wouldn't reveal the location of Lowry Band members. Evans doesn't say this, but I think it very likely that many of these were Klan members who were using hunting the Lowry Band as an excuse to harass, maim and kill African Americans. 

The Lowry Band was so notorious at the time that on April 20, 1872 , the James Gang (Jesse James, Frank James. Bob Cole Younger and Jim Cummings) claimed that they were the Lowry Band of North Carolina when they robbed a bank in Columbia, Kentucky.  I was amused by the historical irony of this incident.  Of course nowadays Jesse James is well known, but few remember Henry Berry Lowry. 

Henry Berry Lowry survived as an outlaw because he was a very clever man.  In a 1967 interview his nephew D. F. Lowry revealed that his uncle once got hold of a uniform for the local militia and joined a hunt for himself. This sounds like one of the traditional Robin Hood stories. There are other stories in this book about Henry Berry Lowry's  brilliant marksmanship and mastery of tactics. 

After trying to gain a pardon in 1871, the Lowry Band stole $20,000 from a store for luxury goods. No one ever saw Henry Berry Lowry again.  It's generally believed that he used this money to start a new life for himself elsewhere.  His brother Steve Lowry was not so fortunate.  He was killed by bounty hunters while playing a banjo.

I think that what happened when the Klan held a rally in Robeson County in 1958 shows the power of Henry Berry Lowry's legacy.  Klan members in robes and hoods had come to terrorize the Lumbees, but a thousand Lumbees surrounded them and battled the Klan until they fled in defeat.  The Klan never again held a rally in Robeson County. For more information see Lumbees vs Klan .  This web page doesn't mention Henry Berry Lowry, but the Lumbees honor him.  Maybe that's why they, his people, weren't afraid of the Klan in 1958.




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