(EDITOR’S NOTE: Adolph Dial was the author’s maternal uncle. Although she didn’t spend much time with him as a child, he later became a major influence in her life and helped send her on a career path that lasted more than 42 years.)
When Adolph L. Dial was sworn in as a member of the 1991 N.C. House of Representatives, Judge Dexter Brooks called him, “…a unique man, …a man for all seasons.” A brief review of Adolph’s life makes it easy to see how Judge Brooks came to that conclusion.
Adolph Dial was born in 1922 on a farm in the Lumbee community of Prospect in rural Robeson County, The son of Noah and Mary Ellen “Sugar” Dial, he learned the value of hard work at an early age.
His sisters, Rosa Woods and Grace Locklear, remember him as generous, obedient and smart. They say he particularly enjoyed sitting around the family table and talking. That gift of gab would stay with him all his life.
Adolph stayed on the farm, went to the local Indian schools and earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies from Pembroke State College for Indians (now The University of North Carolina at Pembroke),
At the age of 21, with only $18 in his pocket, he left to join the Army. This experience would prove life-changing for a young man who had spent only three nights away from home.
During his tour of duty in World War II he participated in the invasion of Europe, aiding in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. He was awarded six battle stars.
After returning home, Adolph was not satisfied with just a college degree and applied to the University of North Carolina’s graduate school to continue his studies. But he was denied admission because he was Indian, or non-white.
Not to be deterred, with the encouragement of his brother-in-law, Herbert Oxendine, Adolph was accepted at Boston University, where he received his master’s of education in social studies in 1953 and an advanced certification in 1958.
Indian Studies expert
He also began a long career as a faculty member in the History Department at Pembroke State College in 1958. But his major contribution was in the field of American Indian Studies. He later became nationally known as an expert in the field and was appointed to serve on the American Indian Policy Review Commission, a national committee to examine federal policies relating to American Indians.
Adolph capitalized on national interest from the federal government and the public at large in 1972 to establish the American Indian Studies Department at Pembroke State College. For many years it was the only degree-granting program in American Indian Studies in the Southeast. Today, the UNC-Pembroke department is recognized for its strong academics, research and community service.
As noted, Adolph spent much of his professional life in the field of American Indian Studies and,particularly, in the study of the Lumbee. Over the years he made countless presentations and gave interviews to local, state and national publications, including U.S.News and World Report in 1984.
The Ford Foundation, realizing the limited amount of information available on the Lumbee, in 1971 awarded Adolph a grant to continue research on the Lumbee. This research led to the publication of “The Only Land I Know,” a history of the Lumbee Indians co-authored with David Eliades, a history professor at UNCP. A few years later he authored the book, “The Lumbee,” published by Chelsea House as part of a 64-volume series on Indians of North America.
Adolph was known not only for his work in American Indian Studies at UNC-Pembroke but also for his financial generosity. In 1992 he endowed the Adolph L. Dial Faculty Award, which monetarily recognizes three faculty members in the areas of teaching excellence, scholarship/creative work and community service. He also established an endowment providing funds for students majoring in American Indian Studies.
In 1988, Adolph announced his retirement from UNCP to become more active in politics. A staunch Democrat, he was always interested in politics. He was actively involved on local, state and national levels. One of the highlights of his political career was attending the Democratic National Convention in 1972. He was proud of being the first American Indian delegate to a national political convention.
In 1991, after leaving his teaching responsibilities at UNCP, Adolph earned a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives. Although health issues prevented him from running for a second term, he stayed active in local and state politics.
There was no doubt that Adolph was proud of his Lumbee heritage and would take every opportunity to share information about Lumbees, whether in a formal setting or in general conversation. It is said that when traveling he would often go through a local phone book to see if there were any Locklears or Oxendines in the area. If there were, he would call and ask if they were from Robeson County and if they were related to the Lumbees. More often than not, they were.
Heather Locklear’s roots
An avid storyteller, he always liked telling about finding the roots of Hollywood star Heather Locklear. When she became a movie star, he was curious about her last name and decided to explore whether she had any connections to Robeson County and the Lumbees. After some digging, he finally located her father in California and learned that her family is distantly related to the Fuller Locklear family (of Fuller’s restaurant in Lumberton).
Adolph’s Lumbee ethnicity was more than just his identity. He saw it as the essence of who he was. He fully believed in the advancement of the Lumbee people and freely invested his time, energy and money in support of the Lumbee community.
As a businessman, he was a visionary. He created Adolph Dial Enterprises, which established two shopping centers, Village Center in downtown Pembroke and Colony Plaza on East Third Street in Pembroke.
When he bought the land for the first shopping center, his family members remember thinking he was making a foolish investment. He proved them wrong, as that purchase became one of his most lucrative business ventures, returning his investment many times over.
Seeing the need for a banking institution more locally focused on addressing the needs of the Indian community, Adolph helped start Lumbee Bank in 1971 and was on the first board of directors. Forty years later Lumbee Bank boasts 14 branches in three counties and serves all people.
He was one of the founders of the Robeson County Church and Community Center and for many years served on the board of directors of the Lumbee Regional Development Association. He was a lifetime board member of the Robeson Historical Drama Association and from 1976 to 1987 was chairman of the board for “Strike at the Wind,” the now-defunct outdoor drama depicting the life of Lumbee legend Henry Berry Lowry.
In his advocacy for the Lumbee community, perhaps Adolph will be most remembered for his tireless fight for federal recognition for the Lumbee people. He served on the Federal Recognition Committee and the Lumbee Constitution Committee. This struggle continues and, after 126 years, recognition still has not been realized.
Adolph was a spiritual man who loved his church. He was a lifelong member of Prospect United Methodist Church, founded by his grandfather, the Rev. W.L. Moore, where Adolph served on the administrative board and many other committees. In 1974, he was elected as a delegate to the United Methodist Church’s Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, which elects and assigns bishops for the southeastern United States.
To say the least, Adolph’s contributions have been acknowledged on many levels. In 1985 he received an honorary doctorate from Greensboro College. In 1988 he received an honorary doctorate from UNC-Pembroke and in 1997 UNCP honored him by naming a campus building the Dial Humanities Building.
On a statewide level, he has received the North Carolina Folk Life Award, the Jefferson Award and was named “Tar Heel of the Week.” In 1976, he was given the Henry Berry Lowry Award for his contributions to the Indian community. This is the highest recognition the Lumbee people bestow on an individual.
Adolph Dial passed away on Dec. 24,1995, 12 days past his 73rd birthday. In his later years he suffered with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Because of his diabetes, his vision was severely impaired to the extent that he identified people by their shapes and voices. And yet he remained in high spirits, never complaining and always welcoming those who came to visit.
He has been called a teacher, historian, businessman, politician, farmer, church leader and, encompassing all of this, a humanitarian. His slow southern drawl is still missed but his influence remains forever strong. He was indeed, as Judge Brooks said, “a man for all seasons.”