Bound to Give: A Tribute to Agnes Mae Hunt Chavis
The weekend of July 4 is known as “Lumbee Homecoming” – it’s a time of celebrating Native American pride, culture, family and community. I was not able to return home to North Carolina this year, but was definitely there in heart and spirit. As I reflected this weekend on what it means to be a Lumbee, I was reminded of the many people of color, including Indigenous people, who contribute to their communities in ways large and small in ways that are leading to our collective liberation. If we are wise, we will celebrate their contributions and the work they have done to advance the culture and our communities. If we are wise, we will honor them while they live.
When I was writing Decolonizing Wealth, I had the chance to speak with an honor a celebrated Native American educator and leader who recently passed away. Mrs. Agnes Mae Hunt Chavis was 92 years old when she died on Sunday, May 12, 2019. Classified as Eastern Cherokee at birth, Mrs. Chavis was later declared a member of my tribe, the Lumbee tribe, in 1956 when the United States Congress recognized the tribe as Indian.
Recognized multiple times for her work as an educator, Mrs. Chavis was a champion not just to the Robeson, North Carolina community where she was born and raised, or the Lumbee tribe to which she belonged, but to generations upon generations. An advocate for Indigenous education, her life was dedicated to ensuring Native American students had access to equal education opportunities and services. She taught in the Robeson public school system for 47 years, and for 23 years in adult higher education.
Mrs. Chavis was raised on a farm. Her father was a tenant farmer, working to feed animals and care for its owner’s land. Most landlords didn’t allow their farmhands to attend school, preferring they stick to their job and tend to the land, not get an education. Her landlord was an exception.
Given that her mother, Mrs. Flowers Hunt, had a seventh-grade education and her father, Mr. Guss Hunt, had a fourth-grade education; Mrs. Chavis was fortunate enough to have gone to school at all. Yet her parents instilled both wisdom in their kids and a passion for education. So much so that Mrs. Chavis once shared with me in an interview that she was first educated at home by her older siblings and by the time she entered school, she was able to skip kindergarten and first grade. She went on to graduate high school as valedictorian.
Systemic segregation in North Carolina was heavy during the 1930s and ‘40s when Mrs. Chavis was getting her education. There were several schools in her community, with at least one being strictly for Native Americans. Many students were barred from leaving the state to go to colleges of their choice due to a lack of resources and racist policies. She once confided, “We weren't able to get an education that the whites got, we weren't even able to get the education the Blacks got, because the Blacks had Black colleges.”
Settling on Pembroke State College for American Indians (now known as The University of North Carolina at Pembroke), Mrs. Chavis began in 1944 and graduated in 1950. While she pursued a B.S. in Education, she also got married and birthed two of her four children.
Mrs. Chavis was strong-willed and determined to be of service to her community. The Robesonian stated that she began her teaching career in a small school that served 324 of Robeson County’s poor and predominantly tenant farmer children. With work ethic and character that was based in service and taking care of one’s own, she worked tirelessly to not only educate students, but to provide them with essentials such as clothes and food when necessary.
She was rightfully outspoken on a local and national level about funding, access, recognition and respect for Indigenous culture. Honored in 2005 by the National Education Association and awarded the Leo Reano Memorial Award for her leadership and social justice work, Mrs. Chavis was an inspiration to many.
“I feel like if we give, it's gonna come back to us, or something. I feel like, we feel like…it's the Christian way, but we feel like we'll be honored somehow or something. I don't know exactly. It's something that I've been trained to do, I guess. …It's been handed down to us that that's part of our culture, I guess.”
I hope in some small way through my work at the Schott Foundation and through my writing, I can carry on part of Mrs. Chavis’ vision - a world where all children have access and a right to high quality public education. During my interview with Mrs. Chavis we talked about truth and healing in our communities. Mrs. Chavis, during her board service with the National Advisory Council of Indian Education, visited Indian board schools in Oklahoma and Arizona. She shared that she was a current donor to two boarding schools – one in Montana and one in South Dakota (wow – still a philanthropist!).
May Mrs. Agnes Mae Hunt Chavis be an example for all of us. Like many who came before her, and some who live after her, she was bound to give.
Happy Lumbee Homecoming to everyone!