Thomas Lewis, chief of the Meherrin Tribe and U.S. Army veteran

Cuban Missile Crisis Vet: We Were in Imminent Danger

Vincent Schilling

American Indian U.S. Army veteran Thomas Lewis is the Chief of the Meherrin Tribe; a state recognized tribe located in Hertford County, North Carolina. Drafted into the U.S. Army in December of 1961 at the highpoint of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lewis was a Radio Teletype Team Chief for the Old Ironsides 13th Striped Armor Division, HQ 2nd Battalion.

Born in Princess Ann County Virginia in 1942, Thomas Lewis lived on a dairy farm with his Mother, Father and two brothers until he was six years old. Lewis’ father served as a guard of the German prisoners of war held in Virginia in U.S. encampments at the height of World War II.

In 1948, Lewis and his family moved to a small American Indian community in North Carolina called Pleasant Plains and Lewis began attending the community Pleasant Plains Indian School. Because the school was community owned and finances were slim, the school fell into disrepair. “I attended the Indian School until the floor collapsed. They didn’t have the money to repair it and were forced to close the school. I then attended CS Brown in Winton, North Carolina.”

Though Lewis was ridiculed by students as an American Indian, his mother ensured Lewis and his brothers had a freshly ironed shirt. Lewis lived his adolescence on a 60-acre family farm that grew tobacco, corn and cotton and was plowed and harvested with two mules. He graduated high school in 1961.

Soon after high school, after attempting to join the Army but his friends didn’t pass the test, Lewis was later drafted into the U.S. Army to become a Radio Teletype Team Chief, learning Morse code, message coding and decoding.

After training, Lewis found himself on his way to the Cuban coastline along with the Old Ironsides. In 1962, as a newly recruited young soldier, armed and ready off the coast of Cuba, Lewis remembers being put on alert several times and the threat of nuclear war as a genuine consideration.

“I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our country was at a critical juncture and that we really were in imminent danger,” he said. “Having been on the front lines, I have never been able to forget that. After the crisis passed we came back to Georgia. President Kennedy came and personally reviewed our unit.”

After Lewis served his time with the U.S. Army, he went through the normal channels to be discharged. When arriving in Fort Bragg, Lewis received shocking news. “When we got off the plane, we were told that the President had been shot. Later and after we signed in we found out that he had just died. It was a very sad time for all of us.”

When Lewis returned to Pleasant Plains, he met a Meherrin woman and they later married. Because she had a fair complexion, some members of the community were hostile. As a man of color living in the south, not all neighbors were gracious. “The KKK burned a cross in front of my house because they thought I had married a white girl.”

In 1985 Lewis became actively involved with the tribe, and played a key role in achieving state recognition for the tribe. He served on the council for 10 years, as chairman and then acting chief for four years. In 2004 he was elected chief and has served in that capacity ever since.

“I served as a delegate for the tribe four times in Washington and met with President Clinton,” he said.

In addition to his involvement with the Meherrin tribe, Lewis served two years on the Indian Cultural Board of North Carolina, has worked as Arena Director and Head Dancer for Pow Wows and is a member of the Red Crooked Sky Dance Troupe that has traveled in the U.S. and Canada on behalf of the Virginia Tourism Board and the Governor of Virginia. “We performed at the Bicentennial Celebration of Hampton Virginia for President Bush.” He was also the first non-white in the Ahoskie National Guard and the first American Indian Police Officer.

Today he looks to the future. “As chief of the Meherrin Tribe I hope to have the honor of seeing our tribe achieve Federal Recognition,” he says. “I hope to see the day when all Indian people are recognized for who we are and honored for all we have done and worked so hard for.”

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dbender's picture
Submitted by dbender on
Oh, the irony.

hyeagle's picture
Submitted by hyeagle on
This article contains considerable inaccurate information. Apparently, Thomas Lewis has misinformed the writer of the article. Most of the facts stated are not true. THomas Lewis is well known for stretching the truth. I am not sure what his motive is this time. He is not legally the Chief of the Meherrin Indian tribe,nor does he look forward to federal recognition of the tribe. Infact,he contributed nothing to the state recognition of the tribe and is best known for impeding the progress of the tribe. The writer should have confirmed the statements from Mr. Lewis before submitting the article for print.

hyeagle's picture
Submitted by hyeagle on

hyeagle's picture
Submitted by hyeagle on

hyeagle's picture
Submitted by hyeagle on
You may standby the article and its content if you wish, however, proper investigation will reveal the errors therein. You may not know that the web site to which you refer is operated and controlled by Thomas Lewis and a few of his close supporters. The web site does not represent the whole tribe. It only services Thomas and his very close friends. Be advised that Thomas Lewis was removed from the office of Chief on November 10, 2007 in accordance with the Constitution and Bylaws of the Meherrin Indian tribe at a General Body Meeting of the tribe. He was cited for poor leadership and mismanagement of funds among other charges. He chose not to take his case to the tribal Grievance committee as provided by the tribal bylaws, but instead refused to give up the office of Chief. A court case is now pending in the North Carolina Judicial system to resolve this issue. Under the Bylaws of the Meherrin tribe, he is not its Chief. Mr. Vincent Shilling, the writer of the article, should be asked if he attempted to confirm the accuracy of the facts stated in the article. THIS IS A REPLY TO THE EDITOR'S REPLY, WHICH SO FAR HAS NOT BEEN APPROVED BY THE EDITOR FOR DISPLAY.

1whospeaksdtruth's picture
Submitted by 1whospeaksdtruth on
So lewis was ridiculed for being native, such hogwash. He had never acknowledged being native. HE WAS NOT AROUND WHEN THE TRIBE WAS REORGANIZED. everyone jumps on the bandwagon when they think their is money involved for saying they are native. Lewis is no longer chief of the meherrin indians. he refuses to accept the fact that he was legally removed. he is living out a fantasy in his own mind.. end of story...... lewis refuses to honor the by-laws that govern our people.