Historian Arwin Smallwood Dedicated His Life To Studying His Triracial Roots In NC

Jun 22, 2020

Arwin Smallwood as a young boy and a high school graduate.
Credit Courtesy of Arwin Smallwood

Arwin Smallwood grew up in the rural town of Indian Woods, in the northeastern part of North Carolina. The ten-square-mile community is the home to descendants of the Native American, African and European people who lived there over hundreds of years. Smallwood came of age there in the 60s and 70s. 

At that time, many residents had military careers, and Smallwood imagined a similar trajectory for himself. But a military recruiter encouraged him to apply to college and become an officer after he scored well on an aptitude test. His Air Force dreams were dashed because of his poor vision and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Smallwood pursued history instead after a chance encounter with that department head.

When it came time to write a master’s thesis, he decided to go back to his roots in Indian Woods. He started writing about his father’s community activism there and discovered a much deeper history to highlight in a doctoral dissertation. He has spent his entire career working to better understand the unique, triracial heritage of his home.

Today Smallwood is a professor and chair of the department of history and political science at North Carolina A&T State University. Host Frank Stasio talks to the historian about his upbringing in Bertie County, the ways studying Indian Woods made him fall in love with history and how he encourages that passion in his students today.

Interview Highlights

On living in a place with hundreds of years of family history in the soil:

Smallwood's grandfather on his father's side, Alexander 'S. T.' Smallwood.
Credit Courtesy of Arwin Smallwood

My grandfather would tell me stories. And since he farmed and had farmed all his life — and of course inherited that from his father and grandfather — he made a point of showing us the farms. We worked the land with him. And he made a point of showing us where our grandparents, great grandparents were buried, and then telling us stories about his grandfather and the people who lived in the community. But for the most part, I think most of the people in the community took their existence for granted. We were family, and all of the families had been there and been from there for hundreds of years. They all knew each other well.

On the work he did on his grandfather’s farm:

Having that opportunity to walk those fields and knowing that your ancestors have walked those fields … I won't say it did not motivate me and my siblings to go on to do other things. But again, with that being said, being able to walk in the sand, feel the dirt in the sand — it was sandy farmland that my grandfather farmed — and smell the dirt and the crops. I mean, it's a feeling that has been with me my entire life. And it's been hard to shake that feeling and that desire to get back to North Carolina and to go back as often as I can to just walk the fields.

Why he decided to write about his community’s history:

It struck me that if my little hometown — my little community where we were just poor farming folk — was significant enough to be in this history textbook, by these two great scholars at UNC Chapel Hill, then it must be significant.

I really hadn't thought about history. I told you we took our family history and community history for granted. And so even at that point, when I started my master's, I had not really thought about my community beyond just being a safe, warm, unique place that I enjoy. But while I was in graduate school, I took a North Carolina history course. And at the time, the book that we used was by Lefler and Newsome, [“North Carolina: The History of a Southern State”] … But in the first chapter, they talked about the Tuscarora and they talked about the Tuscarora War. And then they mentioned Indian Woods by name, as a reservation that was given to the Tuscarora Indians at the close of the Tuscarora War. And it struck me that if my little hometown — my little community where we were just poor farming folk — was significant enough to be in this history textbook, by these two great scholars at UNC Chapel Hill, then it must be significant.

What it was like doing research on Indian Woods:

Smallwood's maternal grandfather, Lord Cornwallis Cherry, who was very interested in family history.
Credit Courtesy of Arwin Smallwood

The research, part of it, was guided by the professor and by the committee. And then the personal discovery was now looking at the people who I’d known all my life. And my grandfather, he was very excited about the fact that now someone in the family cared about family history, and someone in the family wanted to write family history. So it wasn't hard getting community people, particularly my grandfather, to guide and to assist me and taking me to places that I had passed all my life but never really thought about because I wasn't writing the history. So there were people who knew the history and were glad to know that somebody cared enough to try to write it down and try to preserve it.

Why he takes his students to visit Eastern North Carolina:

One of the things that I think informs me, as a professor and as a teacher of history, is to have actually walked the fields that my ancestors walked — walked the fields that the sharecroppers and tenant farmers walked, walked the fields of slaves walk. So actually seeing the landscape. And when I've taken students down ... they see the vastness of the landscape and the waterways and the massive bodies of water. And it really helps them understand slavery in a different way, in terms of [what] escape and trying to escape slavery can mean just by looking at the swamps and the nature of the landscape — but also just understanding what the slaves endured, in everything from mosquitoes and biting flies to snakes and to just a landscape that can be both beautiful and then at the same time inhospitable. And so I think it's important that people go. And if you're writing about something, you need to go and see that area, see those people, talk to those people to get a real understanding of that experience.
 

If you're writing about something, you need to go and see that area, see those people, talk to those people.