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James Locklear
Special to Indian Country Today

SHANNON, North Carolina — Charlie and Allie Oxendine grew up within shouting distance of one another in the Mount Airy community near Pembroke, North Carolina, home of the Lumbee tribe.

They bonded as friends during long walks to Burnt Swamp Church Indian school through rain, cold and heat during the 1920s. They married years later, a union that would span nearly 75 years.

A photo of Lumbee elder Allie Oxendine and her husband Charlie hangs above the sofa in her home in North Carolina. Oxendine, who turns 102 on Aug. 23, 2022, was married nearly 75 years to Charlie, who died in 2014. (Photo by James Locklear for Indian Country Today)

They endured the Great Depression, World War II, segregation and Jim Crow-era discrimination. And though Charlie died on Feb. 26, 2014, just short of his 97th birthday and just a few months before the couple would have celebrated their 75th anniversary, Allie Oxendine still laughs at recalling the years they spent together.

Laughter has proven to be medicine for the Lumbee elder, who will turn 102 on Aug 23. She thinks the calming effects of enjoying the moment have prolonged her life.

“I don’t like sitting around mad,” she said in a recent interview. “You’re supposed to smile and not sit around mad. If anybody makes me mad, I just walk away and do something.”

She continues to be in remarkably good health despite her advanced years, and she still lives near Red Springs in the home she shared with Charlie. Her daughter, Patricia, lives next door.

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And she continues to be a guiding light for a family that has now reached five generations. The Oxendines had 10 children, and now have dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Early years 

Allie and Charlie Oxendine each grew up in a poor farming family, scraping to make a living during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Toiling all day in sweltering tobacco or cotton fields was the norm.

“I didn’t like it, but we had to do it,” said Allie, who was raised by her grandparents, the late Hayes and Dorie Locklear. “We didn’t know any other life.”

Charlie was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1917, one of seven boys. He arrived during one of America’s toughest times, as the United States was entering World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic was about to kill millions worldwide.

Charlie talked about those hard times during an October 2009 interview with Native Visions Magazine. His most vivid memories came from his own experiences on the family farm. He particularly remembered one cold October morning picking cotton in a frost-covered field.

“It was terrible but my dad made us pick it anyway because it had to be done,” he said. “I thought my fingers were going to freeze off.”

Being out in the elements was common for Indigenous people in that era. Most of the Lumbees walked to school. Charlie’s and Allie’s friendship began on those arduous treks along dusty dirt paths, often times in bitter cold or stifling heat. They walked four to five miles to school from their homes on Chicken Road in the Mount Airy community.

But, as Charlie explained in the 2009 interview, some of the other children faced far more difficulties.

“Some of the kids, that’s all they did, was walked,” he said. “Sometimes they wouldn’t get to school until mid-day and then had to turn right back around and try to make it home before dark. We had it rough.”

School was important to both of them.

The typical school year for the majority of Indigenous children in Robeson County back then was about four months. Most did not start school until November, when the cotton was out of the fields. They then left school to work on the farm again when planting season arrived in the spring.

Charlie completed the fourth grade, which was about average for Lumbees back then.

Love of reading

Allie completed her final year in the seventh grade at Union Chapel School – the equivalent of a high-school diploma in the Indian school system. Graduates often taught school with a seventh-grade education.

Born on Aug. 23, 1920, Allie was three years younger than Charlie.

Reading was her favorite subject in school, and she still enjoys reading today at age 101. It helps her deal with life’s day-to-day events, she said, and the loss of her beloved husband.

Her grandmother always fixed her a nice lunch for school, she said. She mostly packed fried egg sandwiches with sausage and sometimes leftovers from the day before. A lard bucket served as her lunch box.

“We’d mostly eat outside under the trees, but we’d eat inside if it rained,” she said.

She remembers well her fourth-grade teacher – Ethel Maynor – at the Burnt Swamp Church Indian school.

“She was a nice lady,” she said. “I remember the girls would play with dolls and the boys would play ball. Lunchtime was fun. We always carried a bite with us.”

Change was already on the way, however, and she got to see significant change before she finished school – a change that made her last three years of school easier than the first.

The Burnt Swamp Church Indian school got its first bus the year Charlie finished school in the fourth grade. Allie, who was three years younger, remembers riding on the bus, a respite for children faced with those long cold or hot walks each day.

The late Pete Brooks, who was also Lumbee, owned the bus, she said. He built it on the frame of a flatbed truck he had gotten in Detroit after trading his boarding house so he could move home at the start of the Depression in 1929.

“I loved riding that bus,” Allie said. “I didn’t have to walk to school anymore. I was so glad we got that bus. I don’t know what we would’ve done if we hadn’t gotten that bus.”

Far from the modern buses with air conditioning and heaters, Brooks’ bus nonetheless served its purpose.

“The bus was run down, but in running condition,” she said. “The whole bus would flood with smoke from the engine and we would ride with our heads out the window, but it surely beat walking.”

It was the first transportation for Indian children in Robeson County.

But times remained hard. Many Lumbee communities did not get high schools until the 1930s, long after the Oxendines had completed their schooling. The last two Lumbee Indian high schools to open were Hawk Eye in Hoke County in 1953 and Les Maxwell in Fayetteville in 1957. Both closed in the late 1960s when mandatory school integration came into effect.

A life together

Allie was 18 when she married Charlie on June 26, 1939, only four weeks before the invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia sparked World War II.

Charlie would soon find himself in the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He would serve four years, but did not see any combat duty.

He spent most of his service in McCall, Idaho, supervising captured German prisoners working on a potato farm.

Allie describes him as a kind man.

“He never was a mean person or a sassy person,” she said. “He always tried to be good. We’d talk and laugh and joke all the time.”

Not everyone in the family was pleased with the union, however, particularly Allie’s grandmother, Dorie Locklear.

“Grandma didn’t like my husband,” Allie said, laughing aloud. “She’d see him coming and she’d say, ‘Yonder comes that rascal.’ I’d just laugh.”

She stays full of laughter these days despite the hardships life has thrown her way. One particularly fond memory is the mule-and-wagon accident she and Charlie endured one day heading to Pembroke.

A passing freight train spooked the mule near town and the frightened animal’s flight set off a chain of events she still vividly remembers.

“The mule saw the train and ran off,” she said. “He threw us into the ditch. We never got hurt. I was always ready to go to town, but after that I didn’t want to go anymore. Some men saw us and got us out.”

As she sits in the recent interview, Oxendine constantly laughs and jokes, and she continues to be the life of the party, the glue that keeps the close-knit family close.

Her family flocks to her house to get her home-cooked meals. The elderly great-great-grandmother can often be found in the kitchen rolling out dough.

“She still makes biscuits,” her daughter, Patricia, said.

Her cooking habits haven’t changed much since the “old days,” she said. But other facets of her life have.

She and Charlie owned a radio – a “talking machine,” she called it – but would go to a neighbor’s house to watch television. Now, she has dozens of cable channels to choose from on a 45-inch, flat-screen television that is the focal point of her spacious living room.

She still prefers the “old days,” though.

“A lot of things back then were better,” she said. “We could go to the movies. My husband lived close by and we’d date and he’d carry me to the movies, mostly in Red Springs. It was fun to me back then.”

Not all of their experiences in the town of Red Springs were pleasant, though. The mostly White town in western Robeson County followed a set of staunchly anti-Black and anti-Indian laws during the Jim Crow era. Segregation was rampant there and through the rest of Robeson County and the Deep South.

Indians and Blacks were forced to sit upstairs in the balcony at the town’s Main Street theater downtown. People of color were not allowed to sit for a meal inside local eateries, and were forced to use only the back doors to enter a store.

Bringing smiles

Despite the obstacles they faced in their lifetime together, however, they were content to have one another. They could often be found reminiscing on the front porch of their home on Shannon Road near Red Springs.

Rarely did negative thoughts cross their minds; their love for one another emanated through the smiles and laughter in their conversations.

It’s something Allie greatly misses since her husband’s death. When she gets particularly lonely, she steps outside for a stroll, evoking memories of those peaceful walks to school with the man she would spend most of her life with.

A chance to hark back to those days along those dusty trails is priceless for her and always triggers a grin, the precious smiles that keep her alive.

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Editor’s note: Allie Oxendine’s grandparents, the late Hayes and Dorie Locklear, are not related to James Locklear, the author of this story.

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