RED SPRINGS, N.C. — A little red wagon was little Dorothy Locklear’s most prized possession.
Once every week, the feisty little farm girl lugged the tiny wagon along a dirt road that is now N.C. 72 in the Mt. Airy community near Pembroke. The mile-long journey to and from the store near the present-day Alvin Road intersection was her escape from the harsh realities of her tough life on the farm.
Little Dorothy Locklear is all grown up now. She turned 106 years old on Jan. 19 and is the oldest-known living Lumbee Indian.
And, she is now a Clark. She met Cyrus Clark in 1943 while working as a housekeeper in Laurinburg. They married during World War II and she moved to Nebraska with him after he came home from the war.
She has seen a lot in the past century. But, nothing has left a more endearing memory for the 106-year-old Red Springs woman than the little red wagon.
With nearly a century’s worth of memories, it was hard to pinpoint one other than the wagon.
“Mama would send me to the store with my little red wagon,” Clark said. “She gave me the money and then she’d say, ‘Don’t lose this.’”
As she took the few pennies her mother gave her to buy groceries, she was careful to never lose any as she pulled the little wagon to the store. There, she remembered everything her mother would ask her to pick up like coffee, sugar and other food items to feed the family.
The food was laid out on shelves. She quickly gathered what “Mama had sent me for” and headed home. Once there, she would be greeted by her little brother Lonnie Locklear, who was not even old enough to go to the store with her at the time.
The family raised a garden of turnips, collards, peas, corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. And, they raised hogs for meat. Neighbors helped out during annual “hog killings” where the meat would be butchered and stored in the smokehouse.
It was a fun but different time and she had little idea what was going on in the world around her.
Indian families in Robeson County and other areas of Southeastern North Carolina like the Locklears faced a tough existence. Most were sharecroppers living in tiny shacks with leaky rooftops and floors and walls full of holes.
For little Dorothy Locklear, the times were a little different from many children of her era. She is one of the few to be born on a family-owned farm.
Things were looking good for Lunnie Locklear when his wife Matilda Locklear bore him a daughter on Jan. 19, 1914. He had a successful family farm in the Union Chapel community.
Little Dorothy started working on the farm at an early age, joining older siblings. With powerful worldly events impacting the lives of millions worldwide, the Locklear family struggled to stay afloat in the South’s ever-changing farm economy.
For most of America, news spread quickly as World War I raged on in Europe in the summer of 1918. It was difficult for Indians like Clark sweating it out in the hot heat of a tobacco barn to get much news from the front lines.
As millions in Europe fought to survive bloody trench warfare, Clark focused on a different type of survival — her family’s. She said they toiled long hours in the tobacco and cotton fields.
Just as she started school at the old Union Chapel School, things had never seemed any better for the seven-year-old little Indian girl. She was impressed with her teacher, James Lowery.
He was a strict disciplinarian who read his student's short stories, some that she still remembers. And, she hasn’t forgotten the time he stopped her as she was running up the steps of the school in first grade.
“I liked him alright,” Clark said. “He’d spank you if he had to get after you. He stopped me and told me I was not supposed to run up the steps.”
She was excited to finally be in school, another break from life on the farm. However, everything was not well on the home front.
Clark said her father got in debt with Lumberton businessman K.M. Biggs and lost his farm. The family was forced to move into a sharecropper home in the Saddletree community near Bethel Hill church.
Clark finished up the first half of the first grade at Union Chapel before transferring to the Indian school at Bethel Hill. There were few Indian schools in the 1920s and none had buses.
Clark said her family moved about a mile from the school so they had no problems walking to and from school every day. At Bethel Hill, her new teacher was Angus Archie Maynor.
Though not her favorite teacher of all-time, it was Maynor who introduced her to the world of reading, spelling and mathematics.
“We had a reader, Blue Back speller and an arithmetic book,” Clark said. “[Arithmetic] was the only thing I didn’t like. I loved to read and write. You were expected to do your work.”
There was also fun to be had in between lessons as she often brought a lunch of sausage, biscuits and lima beans packed away in a metal lard pail. Clark said the students often traded lunches and preferred to dine outside the tiny, wooden school when weather permitted.
They also played baseball, oftentimes cutting a tree limb or something to use as a bat against a ball made of a rock covered with tobacco twine.
“I was pretty good at baseball,” Clark said.
She remembers families of children at the school with last names like Hammonds, McNeill, Brewington and Lowry.
“There was a McNeill boy and we would fight every day,” Clark says. “I’d whip him at school and then on the way one of the Hammonds boys would get into it with me and I’d have to whip him.”
Don’t let Clark’s age give you the wrong impression. She’s tough and she’ll put her knuckles up now at age 106.
Clark celebrated her 106th birthday on Jan. 19 with family and friends. She has mellowed somewhat, especially after she got saved in 1988, but she still won’t back down.
“I just learned how to fight when I was little,” Clark said. “I’d put it to somebody now if I had to. I don’t let nobody run over me.”
Tough is what she knew from an early age. After fighting boys at school in her childhood, she later battled through alcohol abuse before she says she accepted Christ.
She said she worried she would be an alcoholic. She said she started drinking as a young girl, but never caused any trouble. She almost always went straight to bed if she came home drinking.
She continued to quench her thirst for beer and whiskey long after moving to Nebraska with her new husband. She loved her new home, “cows and cornfields,” as far as the eye could see, she said.
Clark worked as a cook and waitress at a local restaurant. The local taste from her new home in the Midwest was a bit of a culture shock for the Lumbee girl from rural Robeson County.
“They didn’t eat like us,” Clark said. “They had never seen fried cabbage or collards. I could grow some cabbage, but the frost would get my collards. I still loved it out there.”
Clark loved her new home and quickly adapted. She had never been on a horse until she moved to Nebraska. She soon became a skilled rider.
“I could go anywhere over the land to look at the cows,” Clark said.
She often thought of home. She remembered her principal at Bethel Hill, the Rev. Steve Ander “S.A.” Hammonds, one of the education pioneers among the Lumbees who started the Bethel Hill school.
She remembers how the powerful Lumbee preacher opened the school day up with a prayer before assuming his duties as a teacher as well as principal. Clark said she had heard stories about Hammonds disciplining students, but she never got in trouble.
If she got a spanking at school, she got one when she got home. She never got many spankings but heard stories from her older sister Winnie Mariah.
Winnie’s father was a turpentine worker who was killed down in Bulloch County, Georgia. Clark said she isn’t sure if he was shot or what happened.
Lunnie Locklear raised her with his other children; his daughter Debra, who was older than Clark, and little Lonnie.
The children stuck together. Each morning, they got up and washed their faces first thing. Then, it was off to breakfast. Clark was about 10 when she started making biscuits. She would also cook eggs and bacon, “if there was any heat to fry it.”
A fresh pot of coffee was also put in motion as the family approached another day of farm life. After breakfast, various chores lay ahead as they headed out to the cotton field with hoes or burlap sacks.
“I hated it, but had to do it,” she said. “Picking cotton is one thing I despised.”
Clark held out until she was 15. She had quit school in the seventh grade and was ready to quit farming. One day, she did something she very seldom ever did -- defied her mother by refusing to pick cotton.
“The last time I picked any cotton I looked at my mama and I said, ‘Mama I ‘ll never pick another hill of cotton.”
As she got older, things improved for the family. They eventually moved back to Union Chapel on her mother’s family farm. Clark went to work as a housekeeper for a Laurinburg businessman named Mr. Penny. She worked there until her husband came back from the war.
Then it was off to Nebraska and those thousands of acres of cows and corn she grew to love. And, she did love it and stayed there even after her husband’s death in 1975.
Clark has been a widow for nearly 45 years. As she looks back over her life, she often ponders the question people ask her, 'why do you think you lived so long?'
“I get that question all the time,” Clark said. “I tell them I never sassied my mama and daddy.”
Though her parents knew she drank, Clark was always respectful. And, one day in 1988, she took her last sip. She asked God to deliver her from the addiction.
“I walked out in the yard one day and it hit me,” Clark said. “I asked Him to take the taste of alcohol from me and come into my house. I never put another drop of alcohol in me.”
Now, as she has passed the century mark by six years, the little girl who was born the year World War I started comes out every once in a while hoping to pull that beloved red wagon one more time. It was her most prized possession in a tough world.
James Locklear, Lumbee, is a correspondent for Indian Country Today and editor of Native Visions Magazine, he may be reached at email@example.com or (910) 536-3918