Kelvin Sampson has been in the basketball business for some time, and if you pay attention to the game his name will ring some bells. Maybe you remember him coaching Washington State, or Oklahoma, or Indiana; maybe you saw him looming over a huddle as a NBA assistant. Given that he’s got the University of Houston looking like an honest-to-god college basketball program heading into the NCAA Tournament, Sampson’s name is bound to reenter the national consciousness. In the small town of Pembroke, North Carolina, though, it’s never been forgotten.
Just four years removed from the 13-19 campaign that opened his tenure at Houston, Sampson now has the Cougars in the NCAA Tournament and locked to post a single digit in the loss column for the first time since 1993. Sampson’s latest return to college basketball’s elite just adds more fodder to a career path almost perfectly crafted for the typical pre-March Madness profile—there’s the initial rise to stardom during his annual NCAA tournament runs at Oklahoma; then the inane NCAA violations and subsequent fall from grace; then his time coaching James Harden and the Houston Rockets while he served out his five-year show-cause penalty; and now his success with the Cougars.
You are familiar with this sort of story, because it gets written every year about a player or coach on a would-be Cinderella team that winds up bounced in the Round of 32. Sampson’s faced these questions all season, as Houston looked more and more like a legitimate threat to come out of the AAC. Answering those questions is part of Sampson’s job just as surely as drawing up plays and running practices are, but I didn’t want to ask him about that. I wanted to ask him about coming of age in the auction houses of eastern North Carolina, back when it was actually the tobacco capital of the world. I also wanted to ask about the history of Sampson’s tribe, the Lumbee, and his father’s role in fighting back the KKK, with a shotgun when necessary.
The town of Pembroke is located in North Carolina’s Robeson County and is home to the largest tribe of Native Americans in the state, the Lumbee. The Lumbee number roughly 55,000 today; they totaled 31,000 around the time Kelvin Sampson was born, to Eva and John Sampson, in 1958. Like my own North Carolina-based tribe, the Sappony, they are not recognized by the federal government (more on that later) but are recognized by the state of North Carolina and have been since 1885.
The Lumbee tribe is a decent sized town on its own; chances are, even today, if you were born in Robeson County, you’re not far from a relative, or at least someone named Locklear or Oxendine or Sampson. The insular, self-sufficient farming communities and strong family values that characterized and defined rural life in North Carolina during the last century extend to the state’s true first people, too.
“The one thing about Lumbee people is that, there’s so many stereotypes about Native Americans, especially reservation Native Americans, and we all tend to get lumped under that umbrella,” Sampson said. “But the Lumbee are non-reservation. I grew up no different than anybody would in normal American communities.”
This is a sticking point for any state-only tribal member—having experienced a similarly “normal American” upbringing myself, it’s one that hit particularly close to home for me. For years, all I ever saw in media or heard from community members in my homogeneously white area of North Carolina were images of Native Americans in traditional garb, residing in teepees, living off the land. That may represent a great many tribes, but for tens of thousands of Native kids across North Carolina and America, it wasn’t our childhood at all—I long tolerated the fairly problematic Dave Chappelle bit about doing peyote with an Indian man, if only because one of the punchlines comes when the fictional character gives Dave a teepee to sleep in and then goes to bed inside his normal suburban house. It’s honestly dispiriting how low the bar is that Native Americans set for white folks, even in 2018—a baseline acknowledgement that the majority of us live in houses and trailers and duplexes and condos would suffice.
So just know that neither the Sappony nor Lumbee claim a reservation, as they’re only state-recognized for the time being. Instead of receiving federal funds to form their own governments and economies on land the American government didn’t want, the Native Americans of the non-Cherokee tribes in North Carolina had to learn how to make a buck in the American system, with minimal assistance from the state government. For families like Sampson’s in eastern North Carolina, this meant understanding how to profit off the bright leaves of tobacco that came to dominate the region over the 19th and 20th centuries.
This was how I came to have the peculiar and pleasant experience of discussing the tobacco game with a veteran college head coach nearly 40 years older than me. My grandad was a tenant farmer until he and his brother-in-law bought their own plot of land in the 1940s; Sampson came of age in the tobacco auction houses of the state some decades after that. It was in that sweltering auction house that he first learned how to manage a team—a half-drunken team, but still, a team.
“Shoot, I worked in those tobacco markets for a long time,” Sampson said. “[My grandad] went into contract with some of the companies, then I started running this crew. I was about 16 years old. Every morning, I’d have to get up and go down to the unemployment office and see who I could get to supplement the crew I brought from Pembroke. I always had to hire 10-12, so I’d go down there and most of the time I’d have to smell their breath to see who had alcohol on their breath. Because, you know, those were guys who just lived day-to-day. I’d pick out the ones I thought could last ‘til noon.”
The job, like any of those related to tobacco farming, was hell on both the mind and body—on a given day, Sampson and his team were responsible for bagging and tagging between 800-1,200 sheets of golden-brown tobacco that came through the doors, in a warehouse where temperatures regularly topped 100 degrees.
“Whichever company put their tag on it, my job was to get it off the floor, put it on these jacks that had rollers on all four corners—imagine a rectangle skateboard—we’d stack some too high, go by and just make sure. RJ Reynolds, I remember, was a white-blue tag, so we’d match the tag up, stack ‘em too high, and then have to roll it to the door,” Sampson said. “I had a system—there were women tying the sheets up and the men lifting it up. There’d be eight or nine different companies, and I’d have to make sure they matched tags, so you couldn’t put Ligget-Meyers with RJ Reynolds, Interstate with Piedmont. If you messed it up, I’d get screamed at. It was hot, hot, dusty, lung-filling work. It was hard. And I’d have to make sure those guys stayed on their jobs.”
It didn’t take Sampson long to judge whether it was more difficult to get a team to the NCAA tournament or working the tobacco market, but he was quick to point out the parallels between these two otherwise very-different management tasks.
“Well, this is fun. I enjoy doing this,” Sampson said, laughing. “But those formative years, you’re 16, and people were working for me were anywhere from 25 to 50 years old, and I had to coach those guys up, motivate them, make sure they didn’t quit on me, and make sure they got those piles of tobacco pushed to the door, because [the cigarette companies] had their trucks up to the door. So we had to make sure each company, whatever they bought, had to be rolled up to that door, and there are nine or 10 different doors, and everyone had a different job. You’d figure out the ones you could depend on, the ones that were smarter that could help me navigate getting that stuff in the right doors. And when we finished one house, we’d have to go to another.”
To understand life as a Native American in the South during the twentieth century is to understand segregation. More to the point, it’s about a type of segregation that—like most of the state’s atrocities against tribal peoples through the country’s history—isn’t reviewed in history class.
Native Americans in North Carolina, long deemed “persons of color” by the North Carolina government, began organizing campaigns for state recognition in the latter half of the 19th century, with varying degrees of success. By the 1920s, both the Sappony and Lumbee had secured funding for their own schools and were recognized as tribes under state law; this went hand-in-hand with segregation, as they were also assigned separate jail quarters, hospital wings, water fountains, movie theater sections, and bathrooms than both the state’s black and white citizens.
Now known as UNC-Pembroke, the school was then called the Indian Normal School of Robeson County and became a full-fledged member of the state-run UNC system in 1913. The General Assembly changed the name to Pembroke State College in 1949, four years prior to integration.
Both currently and during Sampson’s childhood, Pembroke was a predominantly Lumbee community—the community interacted with surrounding towns and communities made up of black and white citizens, but they largely kept to themselves, out of self-preservation. Sampson attended a Lumbee-only school through elementary school; in junior high, which covered sixth and seventh grade at the time, he estimated his classes were “90 percent Native American, 10 percent black and white.” In high school at Pembroke High School, he guessed that number was somewhere around 75 percent Lumbee.
By remaining and building out their tribal infrastructure in Robeson County early on, the Lumbee were able to ensure their children would at least be educated and pushed by their cousins and family members. But outside of the school halls, Sampson’s family and tribe were subject to the harsh reality of life in the 20th century South.
“Racism was a big part of our community. I’m not going to revisit history and I’m not going to call out those communities, but the communities we grew up around, we were treated like second- or third-class citizens,” Sampson said. “The tobacco markets I worked in were segregated. If you went to the bathroom, there was ‘White,’ there was ‘Colored,’ and there was ‘Other.’ I grew up in that. You go to the water fountain, there was a white water fountain, a colored water fountain, and an ‘Other.’ I didn’t understand why we were ‘Other.’ I always made sure I went to the white bathroom, because that was the closest one to that end of the tobacco market. If I wanted to go to the ‘Other,’ the one we were supposed to be in, I had probably to walk maybe 1,000 feet, that’s how long those markets were. So you grew up in that stuff, and you knew about it.”
For the Lumbee and other minority groups fighting for a spot in the North Carolina of the 1950s, this meant directly opposing a resurgent KKK, which routinely held cross-burnings throughout the eastern part of the state during the latter half of that decade
“I distinctly remember the KKK,” Sampson said. “My parents took us Christmas shopping to Fayetteville one time. My dad had an old Buick Electra 225—this was way before seat belts. My sisters and I, the four of us, were squeezed in that back seat. On the way back—I thought it was a wreck. I remember it distinctly. There was a big traffic jam and you could see something burning way up above. And as you got closer, you realized it was this big cross that was burning and you could see people running around with hoods on. I didn’t know what the KKK was at the time, but my mother got real nervous, talking about taking us out of the car and putting us all in the trunk, because they were going car-to-car checking for minorities. So that was a scary time. That would’ve been around 1964, ’65, something like that.”
The most notable clash between the two groups came a few years earlier at the Battle of Hayes Pond—if you’re a member of the Lumbee tribe, you’ve heard this one at least a dozen times by now. Here’s how Sampson, who was three years old at the time, remembers it:
“The thing I remember about Hayes Pond was my father, Mr. Deldon—these were all his friends—they just jumped in a truck and went down to Hayes Pond,” Sampson said. “And they were bound and determined to break up that KKK rally. [A KKK member] had put a lightbulb out there in the shed, they were having that rally, pumping their KKK rhetoric. [A member of the Lumbee tribe] shot the light out, shots were being fired. And the first thing [the Klan] did, because they didn’t have guns, was they jumped under a truck. Just jumped under it... The next thing you know was the rally was broken up and it was gone, and that was considered a victory. They ran the KKK out of town.”
That’s the brief version of the extraordinary incident. As told in the book Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations and the Lumbee history book Implosion, Hayes Pond traces its origins to 1957, when the local chapter of the KKK got grumpy after a Lumbee woman moved in with a white man in a white neighborhood in Robeson county. They took that complaint to Grand Wizard James “Catfish” Cole.
Cole operated in North and South Carolina, giving rallies that would draw crowds of up to 15,000. After suffering a humiliating defeat in Monroe to the local NAACP chapter in October 1957, Cole was looking to expand the Klan’s reach in North Carolina. He felt that kicking around the Natives would be an easy way to stimulate support in the eastern part of the state, and announced a rally to be held in Maxton in January. Per Rob Christensen’s book, Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, Cole proclaimed he had scores of men ready to march and told the local newspapers, “There are about 30,000 half-breeds in Robeson County and we are going to have a cross burning and scare them up.” Cole repeatedly referred to the Lumbee as “mongrels” in his speeches, and claimed their women had “loose morals.”
As reported in the Fayetteville Observer’s 50-year anniversary article, Cole led a group of Klansmen on a cross-burning on Jan. 14 in St Johns, then burned another one a couple days later in East Lumberton. At the burnings, Cole boasted that 5,000 men would gather for his Maxton rally. Despite Sherriff Malcolm McLeod warning him in-person that he would be risking his life if he came to Maxton to give the speech, Cole moved forward with the planned rally, setting a date of Jan. 18, 1958. The day following the Lumberton cross-burning, pro-KKK fliers advertising the rally appeared in towns around the county.
That rally didn’t pan out quite the way Cole planned. Not only did just a handful of local white men show up in support of Cole and the KKK—Implosion has the number around 50—but the handful that shuffled out to the frigid field in Maxton found a battalion of Lumbee waiting for them.
Led by Simeon Oxendine, the head of the local Veterans of Foreign War branch and a man who flew 30-plus missions over Germany in World War II, the Lumbee were more than ready for the rally. Determined not to let the KKK march into their territory, around 350 Lumbee men and boys, armed with rifles and shotguns, drove over to the rally’s site and shut the whole thing down in a matter of minutes. After a heated verbal confrontation, a Lumbee man shot out the lightbulb that the KKK had strung up to illuminate the field; the remaining armed Lumbee fired their guns into the air simultaneously, sending the Klan scattering. Cole streaked toward the cover of the nearby woods for safety; his wife, meanwhile, tried to peel out in their Cadillac but ran into a ditch in her hurry; the Lumbee men helped push her car back on the road and sent her on her way. After the excitement from the moment died down, the Lumbee confiscated the KKK’s unburnt cross, burned Cole in effigy, and posed for pictures with the paraphernalia left behind by the frightened racists. Police on the scene arrested the one lone Klansmen who didn’t immediately scurry away.
A Fayetteville Observer reporter who’d made the hour-long drive to Maxton to report on the evening’s events was one of only four people to sustain injury, taking four buckshot pellets to the face; his injuries were later used as evidence in the legal case against two KKK members. Cole was charged and convicted with inciting a riot. The incident landed the Lumbee on the cover of Life magazine; the article was entitled “The Natives Are Restless.”
Sampson was just three years old when his dad ran the Klan out of Hayes Pond, but it’s a story he knows well. “It’s a big source of pride for the Lumbee people,” he said, because it was a moment in which they actively stood against discrimination and intimidation. It has not been the last time the Lumbee have had to defend themselves, but the Battle of Hayes Pond stands out as a defining moment for the Lumbee, and a warning for any and all opportunistic bigots that thought about waltzing into Robeson County and pushing the tribe around.
Sampson has not had to take up arms for the Lumbee in his lifetime, but he has reliably lent his hand to help the tribe whenever they’ve called on him.
The Lumbee have been fighting for federal recognition since 1888, when they first petitioned Congress requesting recognition as a Native American tribe. As has been the case in every single fight for federal recognition and assistance the Lumbee have mounted over the past 140 years, money is the only reason the United States government has not yet done what it should.
The Lumbee’s peculiar legal position ties back to the size and location of the tribe. As the U.S. government drove other tribes like the Eastern Band of Cherokee from their land in the early 19th century, they tried to patch over the raw deals by offering them federal recognition, which came with a relatively small amount of federal funding. The native communities in Robeson County were overlooked due to accessibility issues at the time—the swamp land in the surrounding area made a full sweep near-impossible—and so when the tribe of thirty-plus thousand went to ask Congress in 1956 seeking recognition and he same funding afforded to other federal tribes, Congress saw only dollar signs. In response, Congress passed the Lumbee Act—this provided the tribe the long-sought federal recognition it sought, but with a key and unique stipulation: The Lumbee would not receive the same federal funding as other federally recognized tribes.
For the past 62 years, multiple groups of Lumbee have foisted efforts to right this wrong; in 2007, Sampson used his voice and platform to push the movement forward.
Speaking in front of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources and a trio of North Carolina representatives (Senator Elizabeth Dole and Congressmen Mike McIntyre and Robin Hayes) on Wednesday, April 18, 2007, Sampson read a statement in favor of the McIntyre-drafted H.R. 65, which would provide the tribe the federal funding it had then been denied for 51 years. Pointing out that the full recognition would provide the Lumbee with much-needed funding for health services and education—Robeson County ranked dead last in North Carolina’s 2017 county-by-county health rankings—Sampson recalled his time of legally being an “Other” and pleaded with the committee to fix the federal government’s initial mistake. You can read his full statement in favor of the updated Lumbee Act here. Sampson concluded his testimony with this:
You see, gentlemen, you not only have an opportunity to right a wrong, you more importantly have the power to create a legacy. I do not need your permission to call myself Native American, but unfortunately in today’s world I need your validation.
This is what we Lumbee Indians can accomplish. With federal recognition, the Lumbee Tribe would become a full player in Indian country, no longer second class Indians in the eyes of the federal government. As such, we would employ our substantial skills and abilities to help correct problems faced by Indian country and make significant contributions.
We ask for that opportunity.
The efforts of Sampson and tribal chairman Jimmy Goins in Washington were not successful in securing federal funding—H.R. 65 cleared the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs with no further amendments, but was then allowed to waste away in the Senate legislative calendar throughout the 2008 session. In the 10 years since, similar efforts have met similar results. Currently, Republican Senator Richard Burr and Republican House Rep. Robert Pittenger have taken up the task of introducing legislation in their respective bodies of Congress—both submitted drafts of a revised Lumbee Recognition Act to the floor in 2017, though neither has made it to a vote. Like McIntyre’s 2007 version, Burr’s bill is currently languishing in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning at this point that Sampson has a legacy other than that of Lumbee activist and legend.
Sampson is now, and has always been, a highly successful basketball coach. He gets it from his dad, he says. “Had he been a carpenter, I would’ve probably walked around with a hammer and a saw,” Sampson told me. Ned Sampson, who once bested Duke god Dick Groat as a player, coached some of the best teams in Robeson County history at Pembroke High School and Magnolia High School, and was inducted into the UNC-P Athletic Hall of Fame for basketball, football, and baseball in 1980; he made the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2005, becoming only the second Lumbee Indian to receive that honor, and was a charter member of the 2009 class of Robeson County Sports Hall of Fame. Ned and Eva passed away within five weeks of one another at the beginning of 2014.
Growing up, Sampson thought he’d be a high school coach, but that was before he landed a gig as a grad assistant with Jud Heathcoate at Michigan State during the Magic Johnson years. Since then, Sampson has rocketed through the ranks, taking every Division I team he’s coached—Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana, and now Houston—to the NCAA tournament. He’s the first Lumbee ever to win the National Coach of the Year award and the first Native American to coach in the Final Four.
Sampson’s NCAA troubles are well-documented, and not worth dwelling on at this point. As a coach at Oklahoma and Indiana, he made too many phone calls to recruits outside of the designated months in which he was permitted to make such calls. As with 99 percent of NCAA violations, this seems downright quaint relative to the more common workaday corruption in the sport, but it was enough to get Sampson a five-year show-cause penalty, the harshest the NCAA could hand down. Because the national media of the time didn’t know how to discern between serious and silly NCAA violations, Sampson wound up in items like Bleacher Report’s “Scummiest Coaches” clickbait. He spent his NCAA-mandated years away from the college game consulting and coaching alongside the San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks, and Houston Rockets before returning to the college game in 2014 with Houston.
The Cougars signed him almost the moment his show-cause expired, and did so for obvious reasons. At Oklahoma, Sampson took 11 of his 12 teams to the NCAA tournament, won three conference championships, and led the Sooners to the 2002 Final Four. In the four years since taking over Houston, Sampson has utterly transformed a once-powerful program—the Phi Slama Jama teams are the stuff of college basketball legend—that had sagged into irrelevance. The Cougars were godawful when Sampson found them and had been since Guy Lewis’s depressing final season in 1986. In the 32 seasons since, Houston’s made exactly four NCAA tournament, cycling through head coaches every four years or so. When Sampson took over Houston in 2014, the Cougars were coming off a listless 17-16 season. It wasn’t just that the program didn’t have any momentum—they barely had enough players to even take the court. Now, behind senior standout guard Rob Gray, Houston is 26-7, came within a point of knocking off Cincinnati in the AAC title game, and is poised for a solid NCAA tournament run. Unsurprisingly, now that Sampson’s back atop a top-25 program and earning conference coach of the year awards, national pundits love him again.
“We started rock-bottom here. I had I think five kids on scholarship,” Sampson said. “That’s where we started, just trying to fill out a roster. Now, three years after that, we’re 26-7, just got beat at the buzzer by Cincinnati or else we’d be conference champions, then we get a six seed and are playing San Diego State in the first round of the tournament. So from where we started to where we are now, it’s been a little miraculous in some ways. But it shows you our ability to build a program, and that’s what we’ve hung our hat on all these years—build programs and be consistent in winning every year. This is my 14th NCAA tournament, and it never gets old.”
Sampson has been as devoted and generous where his new home is concerned as he has been for his old one—his Hurricane Harvey relief effort, calling upon fellow basketball teams to donate team shirts and shoes, was among the most successful public campaigns waged in the aftermath of the storm.
Your mileage may vary, but I do not have it in me to dislike Sampson. Call it a blind spot or flag any of the obvious biases, but a Native American trailblazer and world-class basketball mind who also happens to be well-versed in the old world of North Carolina tobacco farming is someone I’m going to want to talk to.
But more than his gravy-thick drawl or the soft-hearted side that creeps up when the topic of Senior Day is raised, there is a particular and familiar form of aspiration that I recognize in Sampson. He is someone who never grew above their raisin’, as my parents constantly warned; it’s hard to forget those days boiling under the tin roof of the tobacco auction house, I suppose. Sampson is a good coach from a good people, with a work ethic forged in bright-leaves and family responsibility. He doesn’t pretend to be anything else, or anything he isn’t.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the Lumbee people—that’s a source of pride for me,” Sampson said. “After we play games—like, we beat Wichita State and I get back to my phone later, I’ll have somewhere between 150-250 texts, and so many of those are texts from people in high school, people in Lumbee [nation.] I represent them. I’m a source of pride for them, and I take that very serious.”
At the end of our conversation, both Sampson and I acknowledged the unusual thing that had happened over the previous 30 minutes—for half an hour, a young Native reporter at a national outlet interviewed a veteran Native head coach of a major college program. It’s something that doesn’t happen often. As a member of a tribe that’s dwarfed several times over by the Lumbee, it’s hard not to take some pride in the staunch solidarity they’ve exhibited over the years. It’s not my tribe, but the internal communication and organization that the Lumbee have displayed in their quest for recognition is what will push tribes across the nation forward. Whether it’s a sprawling tribe of thousands or one consisting of just seven families like mine, whenever North Carolina Natives have been called “Cuban,” “mongrel,” “half-breed,” “other,” or some other signifier written up by a white guy there has always been a deafening response. No, the Lumbee don’t have the tens of millions in federal funding they deserve, yet, but that nearly every citizen in North Carolina knows to respect the name of the Lumbee (or face the ass-kicking of a lifetime) is a small victory worth cherishing. However long Sampson’s team lasts this March, he’s already won a lot.