revisiting lumbarton | illustrations by sidney teles

“Compassion is dangerous.”

Ben’s electric blue eyes spark and he leans across the red tabletop in the Waffle House booth. “And your religion is compassion. My religion is capitalism.”

I cringe and inch toward the back of the booth, sitting tall. I’m here to listen, not debate.

“The first settlers in Jamestown tried to treat everybody equally, and they starved,” Ben continues. “Then they got involved with Indians, and Indians were capitalists. Those who hunt, eat. Those who don’t hunt, don’t eat.” He leans back and nods his head, proud of this example of capitalism saving the day as well as the earliest settlers. If I press him, I’m sure he’ll tell me without the Indian’s capitalism Europeans never would have succeeded in the New World.

Had I foreseen this, I could tell Ben that to the contrary, capitalist greed caused the near starvation of the Jamestown colony. The Virginia Company of London, which bankrolled Jamestown, expected their investment to reap tremendous profits, without which their support for the colonists would cease. So the colonists spent their days searching for gold instead of farming, and many succumbed to illness and starvation.

But I don’t know this until months later, when I fact check Ben’s often outrageous statements.  Ben seems smart, and he impresses me with his description of his background: a scholarship to the University of Arizona, membership on the Board of Johns Hopkins University, and a faculty position at San Francisco State. Still, I have my doubts about his account of Jamestown.

“I’ll have to research that,” I tell him.

Ben, eager to enlighten me, shares another story. “When I was a kid, they had these restaurants on Main Street. Indians couldn’t go into those restaurants; blacks couldn’t go into them.” He pours more sugar in his coffee and takes a long swig.  “Three Greek brothers owned one of those restaurants, and they went out of business because in 1968 a Hardee’s opened here.” Before I can ask about the significance of the brothers’ nationality, Ben rushes to his point. “First time I ever saw a black, an Indian and a white in a restaurant together was in a Hardees. Hardees didn’t care what race you were; they just wanted your money.”

I nod uncomfortably, not thinking quickly enough to clarify that as a major corporation with highly paid lawyers Hardee’s knew it had to serve customers of all races or get sued for violating the Civil Rights Act.

My interview of Ben continues like this for an hour and a half. He tells me that Walmart has excellent employee benefits, and I say, “I’ll have to research that.” (Walmart is almost universally criticized for its low-wages and punitive sick and family leave practices.) He explains that “Blacks are more educated and have the lowest mortality rate in the South,” and I say, “I’ll have to research that.” (True or not, Ben’s statement ignores that African Americans throughout the U.S. have less access to education and health care than whites and as a result are less educated and have higher mortality rates than whites even in the South.) He points out that “President Trump was the only president to meet with the presidents of the black universities,” and I say, “I’ll have to research that.” (In fact, President Obama not only hosted a reception for the HBCU’s in September of 2013, he also gave three of the eleven presidential addresses at HBCU’s and invested over $4 billion in HBCU’s during his time in office.)

I leave the Waffle House nearly spent.

I came to Lumberton, North Carolina not only because it had been an annual overnight stop on family trips to our Florida vacation, but because I thought I would meet unsung heroes of the civil rights movement or at least locals who had frequented the speakeasy Ben’s father had taken him to during Prohibition. Instead I’d spent a tortuous ninety minutes struggling to hold my tongue while Ben belittled my beliefs in a dirty Waffle House booth. I am ready to take my leave of this aging town. Its half-deserted downtown and hotels full of I-95 travelers coming and going every day are beginning to depress me.

This morning I checked out of the Country Suites, deciding to head to Myrtle Beach as soon as I finished interviewing Ben. As Ben lectured me on the merits of capitalism, I snuck glances at the clock, hoping to leave in time to reach the ocean before sunset. But now, instead of driving east to watch the waves, I drive west in search of Reville’s Used Car Dealership. Ben promised Mr. Reville would have authentic stories of minority voter registration drives I’d want to hear.

revisiting lumbarton, illustrations by sidney teles | “Ben, eager to enlighten me, shares another story. “When I was a kid, they had these restaurants on Main Street. Indians couldn’t go into those restaurants; blacks couldn’t go into them.” He pours more sugar in his coffee and takes a long swig.”

Reville’s Used Car Dealership is a small, beige one-story house that sits beside a collection of vehicles in various states of repair. I walk into the tiny front room of the house where a man with light brown skin waits. “Is Mr. Reville here?” The man nods and points to the doorway into the next room, where a large man with a mop of grey hair sits behind a desk, ruffling through paperwork and puffing on a cigar.

“I’m Christie. I’m…a writer looking to talk to people who lived here in the 1970s.” I feel like an imposter every time I say I’m a writer. Mr. Reville keeps puffing his cigar and stares at me. “Ben-“ What the hell was his last name? “Ben told me you had worked voter registration drives in the seventies and that’s one of the things I’m here to write about,” I explain as confidently as I can.

“You don’t wanna talk to me,” Mr. Reville mutters from behind his cigar. “You want my wife.” He lifts the receiver of his desk phone, which I half-expect to be a rotary, and in less than a minute he says, “Pearline, there’s a writer here wants to talk to you about voter registration.” He hands the receiver to me.

Pearline Reville and I try to talk about the trials and victories of the past, but reception isn’t great, and we have a hard time hearing one another. After a few “What’s?” and “I’m sorry’s?” Pearline, who insists that I use her given name, convinces me to meet her in person.

“Just come on across the street to the brick house,” she says, and I envision a one story rancher, wall to wall carpet and a wood paneled den.  But the Reville homestead is far grander, an imposing brick colonial set back from the main road in the middle of a circular drive. I ring the bell and step back. The door opens and a sixty-something woman with short red-brown hair, dust cloth in hand, greets me.

“I’m just tidying up a bit,” she says unnecessarily, ushering me into the cavernous living room.  We sit in matching plush armchairs, facing one another. I feel far more awkward than I had with Ben, probably because Pearline’s story is exactly what I’d hoped to hear when I planned this road trip through the South.

She starts by telling me about her first days of work at the Robeson County Board of Elections in 1972. “All of the ladies in the office at that time . . . were white. I asked them, what’s the procedure to register someone to vote? (One lady) looked at me and said, ‘The first procedure is to read the Chinese newspaper upside down.’ And she laughed.” Pearline pauses, and I whisper my first “wow.”  I say “wow” and “really” in a hushed, awestruck voice far too often as Pearline talks.

“When I first got (to the Board of Elections), voter registration was low, especially of Indians and African Americans.” Pearline is a member of the Lumbee Indian tribe, as is Ben. “By 1978, we had put quite a few on the books, and minorities started running for office. The first African American candidate ran for office in 1990. He didn’t win the first election, but the second time he ran he won.” Robeson County’s first African American sheriff left office in disgrace.

“He got caught with his hand in the cookie jar,” Pearline says, explaining that he was ousted from office after it was discovered he had his deputies’ clear trees off his land while they were on the county clock. “What they really wanted him for was taking money from drug dealers,” she adds.

“Really?” I start to see the plot of my first screenplay in Pearline’s story.

Pearline moves into the story of Julian Pierce, which my late-night internet surfing in Myrtle Beach reveals was, and to a degree remains, a national mystery. Julian Pierce, an attorney, ran the Pembroke, North Carolina Legal Services office in the 1980s.

“Really? He was one of my people!” I exclaim when Pearline mentions Julian Pierce’s legal services affiliation, proving again that I lack the detached demeanor of a true reporter.

Pearline continues, graciously ignoring my outburst. “Julian decided he would run for municipal judge. (When) he put his name on the ballot, things really got rocky in Robeson County.” Julian Pierce ran against Joe Freeman Britt, the long-time District Attorney of Robeson who’d been dubbed America’s Deadliest D.A. for his success in getting over forty death sentences during his career as a prosecutor. The photo of Britt in the NY Times after his death at age eighty shows him cross-legged behind a desk, every inch of it covered with legal documents piled as high as the grey pompadour on Britt’s head.

“It got rough,” Pearline tells me. “It was a Friday night and we were doing voter registration at one of the clubs in Lumberton (with Julian Pierce.) Three young people walked in and Julian went and talked to them. He came back and said, ‘Pearline, something’s come up. I have to go.”

It was the last time Pearline saw Julian Pierce. The following morning, he was discovered murdered in his home.

“We were in turmoil. He was killed three or four weeks before the election. Britt wanted Julian Pierce’s name off the ballot, but I had already made up the ballots and they’d been approved. Oh, he threatened, but they wouldn’t take Julian’s name off. And after the election when I recorded the votes, Julian Pierce had beat Joe Freeman Britt.”

“Wow!”

Pearline adds details to her tale, describing the high-speed police chase that ended with the suicide of one of the suspects in his home and how all the Lumbees felt the sheriff’s department turned a blind eye to the possibility that someone in law enforcement had murdered Julian Pierce because he knew too much about their involvement in the drug trade. “There are still people looking into Julian Pierce’s murder,” Pearline tells me. She’s right. My hasty internet search reveals that Julian Pierce’s daughter, Jillian Pierce, continues to push to have the investigation into his murder reopened, and an unknown documentary film maker has spent the past thirty years interviewing anyone who had any connection to Julian Pierce, no matter how remote. It’s too late for me to make a name for myself with my interview of Pearline.

When I arrive in Myrtle Beach I decide to walk on the beach. The starless sky is black, but the moon illuminates the ebb and flow of the gentle waves. It’s not yet summer, but the air is warm and only slightly stirring, nudged by the pull and push of the ocean. Alone without the distractions of driving or surfing the web for confirmation of the tales told by my new Lumbertonian acquaintances, my final talk with Bob fills my head and I can’t make it leave.

“I’m just not in love you. You’re not my soul mate.”

I’ve spent over a decade in counseling trying to convince myself that I am indeed lovable. My recent participation in the wedding of my ex-husband to his husband raised the question again – had anyone ever been in love with me? I’d thought Bob was my best hope, the aging hippy I’d always told myself would come along just when I needed him most.

I take off my sandals, toss them far enough to keep the tide from stealing them, and walk into the water. The coldness shoots into my ankles but I keep walking until it covers my shins. Watching the waves break quietly before me, I whisper the word “soulmate.” What does it mean? I have a friend who thinks her deceased dog was her soulmate. This makes me feel a bit better about not being Bob’s. My legs are going numb in the chilly surf. I wonder how long I can stand here before the cold water makes them buckle. An hour? All night? A day, week, month? I wonder how long I can continue to wonder whether anyone will ever fall in love with me. A year? A decade? A lifetime?

A rogue wave gets excited and splashes high against me, spraying me with sea water from head to toe, and I laugh. Laughter feels strange but delightful, freeing, as if it’s opened the hatch of some spaceship I’d been on and let me out onto the familiar Earth. Is there something chemical about laughter, I wonder, something that the body releases when it laughs that neutralizes the nagging doubts our brains love to pull out and polish off every now and then?

I’ll have to research that.