As a child in Robeson County in the 1940s, Ruth Revels experienced a unique form of segregation, which ignited a lifelong commitment to building unity and understanding among all ethnicities.
“I grew up in a community that had three-way segregation,” Revels said. “We had African Americans, whites and Indians. And our schools, restrooms and restaurants were all segregated.”
Like most of the students in her small country school, Revels was from a farm family with limited financial means. American Indians of the Lumbee tribe, neither of her parents had graduated from high school. While her teachers provided academic motivation, some went further to become role models – particularly Elizabeth Maynor in second grade.
“Mrs. Elizabeth came from Pembroke,” Revels said. “We kind of looked up to the Indians who lived in Pembroke and thought they were superior to us because they lived in town. But Mrs. Elizabeth was so kind and caring and never made us feel inferior.”
Maynor showed her students that each was special and that she believed in them.
“That was very important to us in our small world,” Revels said.
She took that philosophy, and the confidence it created, to Pembroke State University, now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. It was then a small college with all Native Americans when she entered 1954, which at the time, was the only state supported college Indians could attend in North Carolina.
Graduating in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in English, Revels began teaching at Pembroke High School, an all Indian school from which she had graduated. Three years later, she moved to Charlotte with her husband, Lonnie, and their young child, finding a teaching job in the schools there. It was an intimidating experience for someone who had never lived outside rural Robeson County.
“It was a culture shock,” she said.
After three years, she applied for another position at Ragsdale High School in Greensboro.
“It gave me a different perspective because I had ‘Indian’ on the application and I still got a job,” Revels said. “It made me feel different – like you could get something despite being Indian. I didn’t feel like I had to hide it or feel ashamed of it, as many of us who left the community did.”
Her early experiences in a segregated community shaped her view of her responsibilities as a teacher and motivated her to build an inclusive learning experience for her students. For example, realizing that African American and American Indian literature was seldom taught, she developed and taught a class for high school students.
“I was trying to make the point that we are teaching not only the black students about their culture, but that all of the students needed to learn this,” said Revels. “They’re learning about other writers and they need to know that we have outstanding African American and American Indian artists and literature. If we are going to have a well-rounded education, they need to learn about these things.”
The class was discontinued after Revels left teaching in 1977, illustrating the ongoing need for multi-cultural, diverse education nationwide. “When we’re talking about race relations, if we’re going to have people living together and respecting each other, we have to do it through literature and arts and culture as well as through politics and economics,” she said.
At the urging of her husband, she became the executive director of the Guilford Native American Association (GNAA), which he had helped to establish in 1975.
The pair had dated in high school and married after graduating from college. Lonnie Revels died in 2003 but his political activism throughout their marriage inspired his wife’s commitment to equality.
“I changed my mind about what I wanted to do and accomplish a lot because of Lonnie,” Ruth Revels said.
At the GNAA, she worked to empower and educate the American Indian community, as well as other minority communities. One project included American Indian and African American artists collaborating to educate children. Revels was appointed as chair of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs on September 2013, a position she held until the time of her death on March 14, 2016.
Creditline: Madeline Reich