Title: Interview with Willie Chavis (August 3, 1972)
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00006999/00001
 Material Information
Title: Interview with Willie Chavis (August 3, 1972)
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Publication Date: August 3, 1972
Spatial Coverage: Lumbee County (Fla.)
Funding: This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00006999
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
Holding Location: This interview is part of the 'Lumbee County' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: LUM 5A

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Full Text


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and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of

Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
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5A Lum

Tape 2 August 3, 1972

'v,/ p 0 'TO: Mrs. Willie Chavis

S o" INTERVIEWER: Lew Barton

1) L: This is Lew Barton for the Doris Duke Foundation under the auspices of the

University of Florida. I am conducting an interview on Route Three, Hembook,

North Carolina, at the home of Mrs. Willie Chavis and this is August 3, 1972.
I would like to talk wJth-you a little bit Mrs. Chavis about a good many things
as possible
and would like to talk just as informally4and we've got plenty of tape. This is

an oral history program. In other words we wan o know about things that

are happening now as well as things that have happened in the past1 the way

you feel about certain things, anything that you would like to tell us\cause

many people are interested in the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina. So I

am gonna ask you a few questions to get us started. Although I know you

personally, I want to ask those questions as though I don't because those
who wetld-be listening don't know don't know either one of us. Would you

tell us what your name is?

C) W: Mrs. Willie Chavis, better known as Rettie Chavis, before marriage Rettie

Lowry. / " -*/ -i.

L: I understand that, no-- I should ask you your age. AWould you mind telling r,

us your age?

W: Not at all.

L: How old are you?

W: I was sixty-five my last birthday, the 25th of this ast December. If If Imir

to see the 25th of this December, I'll be sixty-six years old.

L: Oh that's wonderful. I understand Mr. Emey Veell Lowry was a central

figure among the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina as they were officially


known,and he is the center of tar. history as a great folk hero. Are you

any relation to him?

W: Sure.

L: Would you mind telling us what relation you are to him?

W: 1 Lowry was my grandfather.

L: Then you are one of his very nearest living relatives, aren't you?

W: Right. My mother was m Lowry's youngest daughter.

L: And what was her name?

W: Holly Lowry.

L: Well now, I've known you for a long time, Mrs. Chavis, and you've always been

a very beautiful woman. I understand from the things I've read about Eamry/ AR

VerrL Lowry that his wife was a very beautiful woman. Do you think you're
a bit something like her? Do you think you've got any of her looks?

W: Well, I don't know, but I know that she did have the name of being one of
^iff ,,WI/F cIz &j{,Z ,4 f 77 C/wf k/Ctw.
the most beautiful woman in ths country date I might have picked up

a little something from her.

L: Well, could you tell us anything at all that you heard from your mother about

him, or that youjYeard in the community, or anything like that, in other words,
h row is 6 try Lowiy
how is MStaL. regarded by the Indians of this community although he disappeared

long ago, he's never been forgotten, has he? /

W: He sure hasn't. I am very proud to say that he was a great man and I think

that his life will live on and on in the history of the Indian race.

L: That's wonderful. I remember something that Dr. William MN=K14 has-wraitten

about him,and he described him as a guerilla Lumbee Indian fighting for his

people. Would you agree with that Mrs. Chavis?

W: Sigrt, 100 percent.

L: Did you hear any of the stories about how he came to be branded an outlaw

and have a price placed on his head?


W: Yes, I did, by my mother.

L: Would you tell us something about that as well as you remember it?

W: Well, I heard my mother tell it very often that the cause of him being

and outlaw was that at the time of the war that the North and the South -aS c.

lo a h3a=4- betwixt each other, and they wanted these boys to go in battle and

/he/said that they didn't start it and that they didn't feel like that they

had any right to help to end it,and ta=t they wouldn't have no part of it.

L: Uh, huh.

W: So they came to my great grandparents home and these boys was hiding out at

the time to shun these men that was wanting to put them into battle. They

came down and they found my great grandmother and the oldest son and my

great grandfather at home and the other boys was away. Because they wouldn't

tell where these boys were at, they took my great grandfather and the oldest

one of the boys,MXK my grandfather's brother, out and shot them and killed

them, and buried them like ty-Ivs dogs in an open hole,and they blindfolded

my gret grandmother, tied her up, and put her in the smokehouse, and that's

where they found her when they came home- still in the smokehouse, so that was

enough to make anyone turn out to be an outlaw.

L: When you say they, the ones who did this outrageous thing you are talking

about the 4we iuard'/ forSac t rI'

W: Right--%a sa County Home Guards.

L; How long have y O-bee -living he in this community, have you been living

here all your life?

W: Well, pretty much all my life. I was born in Mississippi, Meridian, and my

mother and I moved back to North Carolina when I was two years old.

L: She had moved away from--

W: Yes.


L: -'td what was her maiden name before her marriage--I mean-EVt.'s wife,

W: She was Reee-Scott.

L: yes. Do you think now that we've got the zIT. College going

in his honor, do you think that this is a step in the right direction.

W: I sure do. I am very proud of it Mr. Barton.
Ifewj /: -" i' eorial
L: I was awarded the Ea3T'./Award this year. Last year Mr.Fuller Lowry got

it. I told them that I'd rather have received that reward than the Congres-

sional Medal of Honor because this symbolized my people and as I see it, he

was at the center of the people, the center of all the Indians of this area,

R5sio County, North Carolina. 'Do you thinkif he hadn't done what he did,

that we would be as well off today as we are.

W: I don't think so.

L: Do you think he accomplished a lot by what he did?

W: I sure do,

L: I had always heard that there was a huge reward, some forty thousand dollars

on his head dead or alive. Did anybody every collect that?

W: No, it was never collected.

L: Was his body ever found?

W: Never found.

L: They don't know then to this date where his final resting place is?

W: No, they sure don't. Not even my mother 1tew it. His wife, didn't

know it.

L: Well that certainly is interesting. So many things have been written about

him. uy Owen compares him with Tom Dooley and Robin Hood and Daniel Boone

and other Iolk heroes. Do you think this is overrating him or underrating or

do you think this is about right?


W: I think this is about right, I sure do.

L: Well, he was certainly held in high esteem by many people. Do you think this

was just his own people or do you think other people in the county held him

in high esteem?

W: Yes, I think other folks also did.

L: Well, I would like to ask you about your own family. How many were in your

oSa family?

W:' Eleven children. Three girls and eight boys.
L: How many are alive today?

W: There's eight living today--six boys and two girls.

L: And five of those boys are fAvRus boys nationally as the famous Chavis Boys.

W: That's right.

L: Could you tell us something about the famouse'Chavis brothers? I know I have

heard them perform myself and I don't think I've ever heard a group who could

do better today. Could you tell us something about how they came to get started

in music?

W: Well, I think that's kinda a joke Mr. Barton -'ause I believe you were with them

about the time they started practicing.

L: Right.

W: They picked this up by themselves with the.help of you. You remember you

used to ceme-by homeland you played the piano and they tuned their viaians

and their guitars and their musical instruments by the piano and how you and

Don would play. Well they didn't have any schooling whatsoever for this talent

that they now have but not saying it because they's my boys, but I do think

that they have a great talent.

L: Do you think they are proud of being an Indian?
W: Yes ery round. They feel that the name of being an Indian in every lace
W: Yes. Very proud. They feel that the name of being an Indian in every place


they've been. They say they've been in some big arguments with folks over

being an Indian. They've disputed that they were Indians, but they carry

that name everywhere they go. And they are very proud of it.

L: They've been over most of the United States, if not all of it, haven't they?

W: Tey sure have, yes.

L: And I know about the long engagement at the Copcabana in New York. I think

if I remember correctly, they went there for a showing engagement and were

held over for how long? Do you remember? I may be wrong on this, didn't

they go for a week and the people liked them so much that they were held over

for about six months.

W: They went for a week's engagement and they stayed far eight months.

L: Eight months.

W: Eight months at the Cofpabana in New York.

L: It certainly is wonderful. Of course while they were there they very probably

met all the great stars because the CoaP is world famous. This is where the

great performers all over the world come. Have you heard them talk about

some of the people they met while they were there?

W: Oh yes, I've heard them mention quite a few that they met while they were

there, but I'm bad about remembering names, but I do know that they had a
piC- 4Arj rna c4G (Q'i/(
chanc -t met several famous stars while they were there, such as I think 3r aV,

ou oe there was Gabby Hayes, and they met a lot of the big stars while they were


L: I understand that they have an album thelateg album is goingcg sure.

They certainly have come a long way. I think they are the most versatile

group in America because they can switch from one style to another.

W: Yes.

L: And do it instantly and on the spot. Watching those boys perform is

certainly an experience. If I had never seen them before in my life


I'd still would never forget it. This is something so unusual. Would you

mind telling us their names, and ages?

W: James is the oldest. James will be fifty his next birthday, the first day

of December.

L: Well, we've got plenty of tape and plenty of time. There isn't any hurry.

By the way, what she's doing now is getting down the family Bible to check

their names and dates.0! ('-/ '

W: Correct, Mr. Barton. James Chavis was born December 1, 1921. The second

oldest son, William Albert Chavis, is not in the band. He's in Marine, Ohio,

ah works in the shipyard there. He's shop welder at the shipyard there.

In fact, he works two jobs. He works at Truehold Trailer place where they

build those big trailers. He was born June 1, 1924. Ernce, the next one,

in the band, was born May 29, 1929. Danny, the famous one of the band, the

leader of the band, was born May 13, 1931. Earl Chavis was born August 29,

1935. Franklin Chavis, the youngest one in the band, was born July 25, 1939.

L: Could you tell us what instrument each one plays. Of course, I know Danny

plays a number of instrumentsand perhaps some of the others do too. But

our listeners don't know this. Cud you tell us what instruments each plays?

W: James plays bass guitar. I believe they said that Earl plays lead.

L: Right. Lead guitar.

W: Uh huh. Erniee plays drums and Frank~Er plays a guitar, I don't know what

it is though. Do you know?

L: Well they probably switch, you know. One play lead one time, and one play

second. I'm not sure.

W: Well, that could be. You know Danny's famous for the mandoline .

L: Right.

W: Right next to t /,'// /eoW rf?

L: Right. And for singing and for dancing.


W: All of it. Sure is. Yea--he really knows how to do the Indian dances, all

of them.

L: R*g n 1ha t about the other boys. I wonder why the other boys...course

that's a mighty high score--five out of the group musicians--and famous musicians

at that, very successful musicians. Could you tell me how long they've been

playing music professionally?

W: Well, they've been playing music professionally now for eighteen years.
[A3) rt,?.AW RRS. r-p s.
L: This is certainly wonderful and I hope that some of our listenersnave the

grand treat of hearing those boys...and for better still, seeing them perform,

cause I've never in my life seen anybody perform in the manner that they do.

They are so active and it's not just the static thing. They're constantly

on the move, and well it's great. Course, I may be prejudiced but I know

that there are thousands and thousands of people who agree with us. So we

are pretty safe in saying anything that is too complimentary of them.

W: Well, I certainly do thank you Mr. Barton. I think they are great. I really


L: Do you ever worry about them a lot when they have to travel all over the country?

W: Yes, I worry a lot about them, about the things that could happen to them.

I often think about what a tragedy, what a great tragedy, it would be if something

was to happen to them.

L: Well, you did lose one of your sons several years ago, didn't you?

W: Uh huh, I lost my youngest son, Robert Chavis, when he was twenty-six

years old. I lost him four years ago. The 28th of this past September.

He'll be gone the 28th of this coming September five years.

L: This was in an auto...

W: In an auto accident, right.

L: It certainly was sad and I am sure you haven't gotten over that yet.

W. )I sure haven't and since then I've lost my husband. I've had some great shocks

in life.


L: Where do you think...do you think they inherited their great talent? I know

that it takes a lot of work even with great talent. Were there others in

your family group who were good in music?

W: Yea, I had some uncles on my father's side that was musicians and also their

father was a musician.

L: Right, I remember him so well. He appreciated music. He loved music.

W: He certainly did.

L: Why is it that you have never moved away to some other place? Do you like

it here in Rebertson Count?

W: I really love it Mr. Barton. My children have tried so hard to get me to

go away since their father passed away, but I love it so much that I've

always told them that I'd rather live here in North Carolina here in old

Ro f County and to live here with the memories of my husband and my son

who was living here with me when he was killed.

L: Right. Don't a good many of our people who qc? away come back?

W: They sure do...back to the old home place.

L: This is a place that is hard to get me away from for very long I know.

And I believe a lot of other people feel the same way. You told me how many

of your children are still living? How many grandchildren of n L. and

his wife Rhoda are still living?

W: There's three girls and two boys of us. Myself and Leola Lowry. I have
pr"" C /_ 0oc 4 it IR
a sister who lives in Pembrock-, Willie Loughtler. I have a brother Lawrence

Lowry and a brother Calvin Lowry. My oldest brother, Danny Lowry, passed

away in December, he was eighty-six years old. He had a great record I think

that have never been known amongst no race of people that I've ever heard of.

He had never been to a doctor and had never taken a dose of doctor's medicine

till he was took sick with this cancer that took his life. That was three


months before he passed away.

L; I declare. That certainly is unusual. sSy-of the people in the community

have long lives. It seems that the Lowry's have a tendency to live longer,

it seems to me. Now this is just a random autthoin m, but does it seem

that way to you?

W: It sure do. My mother was ninety-two years old when she passed away. She

was just as active as a real young person. She was more active than I a.

She didn't have to wear glasses and she didn't even have to have glasses to

thread a needle at her age. She could thread a needle without glasses at

the age of ninety-two.

L: Oh my, that certainly is marvelous. How do you feel about the condition of

the Indian people now and say when you were a girl? Do you think we've improved

and- do you think our conditions are better now than they were then, I mean

here in the Indian community of Roboe County, North Carolina?

W: Yes, I think they have improved very much.
L: A good many of our people have gone away to Baltimore, Maryland, and their

industrial cities throughout the nation. Do you think the reason they went

away is that they wanted other opportunities to earn a livelihood?

W: Sure.

L: Do you think there were other reasons besides this?

W: No other reason rather than they had a better opportunity away than they

had here among the white eole. You know the Indians have always been looked

on in this part of the country. I don't know why. I've often wondered if

it was because, and I've heard my mother say many times that she felt like

her father was blamed for lots of things. The Indians had to suffer for lots

of things that they accused him of doing that he was not guilty of. And it


lived among the white race.

L: Can you remember in your lifetime if some of the Indians lost their lands?

W: Many of them lost their lands.

L: Do you think the attitude toward the American Indian, especially here in

Rabert-en County and adjoining counties, has been bad down through the years

from the very beginning?

W: Yes, I do. I really do.

L: Do you think there's any improvement there?

W: Yes, I think there is some improvement.

L: That's good. There was a time when we were segregated from both other

races. Is that right?

W: Correct.

L: Foi example at the courthouse, they had six restrooms. They had two for

Indians, two for black, and two for white people. We don't have this any

more...this kind of segregation. Do you think the laws that have been passed

have helped in this respect and in other rff.'). /

W: Well, I think it has helped considerable.

L: Can/you tell us something about your school days and how schools were when

you were coming up?

W: Well, when I was coming up Mr. Barton, our school was ten miles from home.

We had to walk. I never did have to go to school with no other race except

Indians. We had it hard when we was going to school. Regardless to how far

it was and the condition of the weather we had to get out and walk there and

back. We didn't have much time to go to school' ,'ead to work. About all

of the time that we should have been putting into school we had to work in

the fields.

L: Trying to earn a living.


W: Trying to earn a living. d/7i5S f

L: Do you think we were treated fairly by local merchants? Do you think some-

times that the Indian might have been taken advantage of?

W: I sure do, back in those days, yes.
O g b 1'iO -7AMer 2?
L: When our people went to the theatre, where did they have to sit?

W: Well, the best that I can remember about it, they had to sit in the balcony.

The whites had the first floor. I think, the best that I can remember, that

they had one side for colored and the other for Indian.

L: Do you remember partitions between the Negro and Indian?

W: Sure. 1 ,ro

L: Do you think bte relations were better between the blacks and the whites

or the blacks and the Indians?

W: It was better betwAn the whites and the blacks.

L: Do you think some reason for that might have been some kind of prejudice

against some of the things that happened back there in those days when

our great leader, E=.L., was alive? He didn't take it sitting down, but

do you think anybody has resented that all of these years.

W: Yes, I sure do. u

L: Do you have any ideas that we might use today to try to improve conditions

for the Indians and the blacks and the whites in Robason County so that

they could live together or in harmony, at least work together in political

things and in other areas? Do you think there's any hope of that?

W: Yea, I do. At the present I think that the whites are more favorable

towards the Indians now than they have ever been before in this part of

the country. I think that the blacks and the Indians and the whites all

get along together very well.


L: That's very encouraging. How about the land in this county...would you

say that the Indians own about one-third of the land in e so County?

W: 'Yes, I think they do, if not more than one-third.

L: Do you think that this has been resented down through the years? Do you

think that maybe there has been some jealousy because of this?

W: Yes, I do. I really do.

L: Our people were here when the first white colonists came. They had their

land thenand they held there land in common...a streak of about twenty miles

or more along the Lumbee River. Have youAever heard it this way?

W: Yea, sureT/avE,

L: I want to ask you another thing. Do you think the real name of the river

as far as the Indians are concerned...they called it the Lumbee River...and

there's been many traditions among our people and interestingly enough the

traditions of our people coincide with those of the Tuskalore- Indians who

used to live in dis state but now live in Niagara Falls, New York. Do you

think we are losing our traditions and our customs...do you think we are

losing our Indian ways?

W: I don't think so Mr. Barton. I know I'm not. I don't belive you a e. And
I know of lots of others who I don't think
L: Do you think we should hold on to some of the past, to some of the things

that have made us great, because we are a great people? Do you think that

the togetherness bur people could be described as clannishness? It's

plain old stick-togetherness. Do you think .ft this has helped us through

the years?

W: I sure do.

L: There is the tradition that has always been among our people that the white

blood that is among our people is tte cause of the A ?) colony of 1587


popularly known as the"lost colony". This is the colony, of course, led

by John White and Virginia Dare was born in thescolony, the first English

child born in America. Do you personally believe in this tradition?

W: What do you mean?

L: Do you believe tat this is true that some of our people were the first

people to meet the first white people that came over here?

W: I do, I certainly do. I think that when they came they found Indians here.

They've been here all the while.

L: Well, I certainly have enjoyed talking with you. Do you think the Indian

people have a tendency to live longer than other people, or do you think

that the death rate is pretty high among our people?

W: Well, I tell you Mr. Barton, some of them that lived to see a pretty ripe

old age I remember my stepfather, the last man that my mother was married

to was old man Sandy bee44ear. When he passed away, they said that he

was 108 years old. There aren't many of them that has that record.

L: How about the average Indian? Do you think that---it's very difficult to

know cause we've got so many people. How many people would you guess

that we have in R-.iertsan County? '7M pO '

W: I haven't the slightest idea, but we have a very large number.

L: Do you think we have as many as thirty thousand?

W: I believe for sure we do, if not more.

L: Do you think the census takers countyour people accurately when they

come to the county?

W: No, I don't.

L: Do you have any reason for believing this? Do you know why?

W: g.ey haven't been to my house in years and years to even take census. So for


that reason I know that there are some that don't even get counted.

L: Those that they do count, can they look at them and tell whether they

are white, oleurd, or Indian?

W: No, cause a majority of them they can't.

L: Do you think that this can complicate the whole thing?

W: Yea, I sure do.
C: CorrCtc ',
L: Our people know each other and the white people seem to know them too, in
this county. Is that true?

W: Yea, that's true.

L: I've often wondered if they could tell if it's not because of the difference

in our speech, I don't know what it could be in many cases. Do you think

we talk just a little bit different from the average white person?(

W: I'm sure we do.

L: How about the average black person? Their accent is different from ours?

W: Oh yea. Very different. I think the white man and the colored comes Ua e

tdCtalking alike than the Indian and the white.

L: That is certainly an interesting observation. Do you have high hopes for

the future?

W: I certainly do.

L: What do you think has helped our people to better themselves?

W: Well, I think for one thing, Mr. Barton, is the few of them that has

stood together. You know there's a saying that together we stand and

divided we fall. I believe in that. I think that the few that have stood

together is what has helped us the most in our race. /ake yourself--you

work very hard at this here, the problems with the Indians. You know a

lot about it, a lot more than I do. You are much younger than I am, but you


know much more about it than I do. You studied the history of it.

L: Well, I have learned what I learned largely from people like you and

other people because I've always respected our Indian people, especially

our elders, and I like to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I suppose

they think I'm asking too many questions. OA/S /5 O 0 I'/

W: Yea, I've always enjoyed talking with you.

L: Well, I've always enjoyed talking with you and my wife informs me that this

tape is about used up on this side. This is side one. Maybe we had better
-wu.V 116610?/ (JU
wind it up here and talk some more on the other side. How about that?

W: Alright.

L: You are not tired are you?

W: No, not at all.

.) Qow.,i/

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