Lynette Jeffries is best characterized by a radiant smile, her long dress rippling through the wind as she danced.
She was known as “Mama Jeffries,” the matriarch at pow wows throughout Tennessee, Virginia, both Carolinas and Florida. With poise and elegance, Lynette perfectly embodied her native name, which means “Flower of the wind” – a butterfly.
On Thursday, September 13, Lynette died at the age of 76 at Adorable Senior Care Facility, formerly Villines Rest Home. She was born to the late James M. and Marie T. Coles in Charleston, South Carolina on June 14, 1942. She was the wife of John “Blackfeather” Jeffries, former tribal chief of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, and the mother of Vivette Jeffries Logan and Sharn Jeffries.
John and Lynette
On a recent afternoon, John sipped an iced coffee at Cup-A-Joe.
“Whenever I see a butterfly, I think of Lynette. I saw one this morning,” he said, remembering her dancing. “So, that’s her – not was her, that is her. I don’t speak in Lynette’s past tense, because she’s in my heart.”
John and Lynette, who shared 57 years together – 54 in marriage – were destined to be, John said. He makes sure people know that though she is his wife, more importantly, she is his "lady."
“That’s the smile I saw,” John said, pointing at a picture of Lynette laughing. “When I saw that smile ... you can’t get over that smile.”
John, who grew up a boy scout, entered the Marine Corps after college in the early 1960s. He had just completed his airborne training course and water survival school when his commanding officer pulled him aside.
A girl scout camp, one that John worked at as a lifeguard for two years in college, specifically sought John to work at their summer camp again as waterfront director, because they couldn’t find a lifeguard from any university from Winston to Raleigh. Rarely does the Marine Corps allow people to leave training, but his commanding officer’s son was an eagle scout and he made an exception. He allowed a 60 day leave for this work, in which John would continue his training at the camp and then resume training again once he returned. John arrived at the camp in 1961. That is when he first saw Lynette.
“When I saw her, I went stupid gaga over her,” John laughed.
After a bout on the lake in which John splashed water on Lynette and tipped her canoe, Lynette’s sisters, who were also counselors at the camp, disputed Lynette’s true feelings about John.
“She hates him,” one said. “She’s crazy about him,” the other responded.
That Christmas, Lynette and her sister traveled from Charleston to visit John and his parents in Greensboro, as he had a three-day leave from Camp Lejeune.
It was a White Christmas, with snow up to their knees. It was first time Lynette ever saw more than a few flurries.
Three years later, they married. John was 24 years old and Lynette was 21.
Education and service
Lynette attended Wallace High School in Charleston, graduating in 1960. She enrolled at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, graduating with a degree in business administration in 1964.
After moving to North Carolina, Lynette worked for Orange County Schools for 32 years, primarily working for the Orange County Board of Education, but spending a number of her later years as a computer and technology teacher at Orange High School. She retired on June 1, 1996.
Her love of learning and fostering knowledge was not contained to the classroom.
Comments on a Facebook post from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, Inc., display her deep impact on those she met.
With over 380 comments, 354 shares, and over 1,000 likes on this post alone, her influence in the classroom and the community was remembered by all.
To John, she was an brilliant educator. To her friends, she was always pushing them toward their goals. To her students, she was regarded with the utmost respect, as she treated them as adults rather than just high school kids, one community member noted.
Her service extended through a multitude of educational facets: She was a member of the AKA Sorority of North Carolina and South Carolina, she served as the North Carolina Association of Education Office Personnel and Secretary for the late Tarlton Davis Principal at Cameron Park Elementary School, received recognition for service from the Orange County Chapter of the A&T State University Alumni Association and Friends, and was a founding member of the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.
She remained involved in both Boy and Girl Scouts in Hillsborough, and was a Girl Scout Leader with Troop 635 and an Advisory Counselor of Boy Scout Troop 822.
Lynette worked toward the betterment of others, and in the 1980s, urged John to begin researching his family’s lineage, so he might better understand his family’s culture.
“Lynette was behind me all the time,” John said, “and behind Lynette was God, pushing both of us.”
History of the Occaneechi Tribe
In his research, John discovered thousands of years ago, that his people, the Occaneechi Indian Tribe, migrated from the Ohio River Valley, across the Blue Ridge Mountains, settling in what is now Clarksville, Virginia. In 1676, during Bacon’s Rebellion, the tribe was forced out and retreated to the Ohio River Valley, settling in what is now Hillsborough.
Though they found refuge for a short time living in the rich lands along the Eno and Haw Rivers, their oasis was quickly quashed. Word spread about this village located where the Great Indian Trading path crossed the Eno River. European settlers made contact when John Lawson, an English explorer, arrived in 1701.
Jeffries ancestors started moving back towards Virginia, trying to receive protection from the Virginia government in 1712.
Receiving denials, in the late 1770s, the tribe left Virginia and returned, settling in Alamance County in a place Jeffries referred to as “Little Texas.” Recently, the tribe has been able to regain portions of their ancestral lands, 25 acres, which now hold a ceremonial ground, trails, administrative space, and a tribal museum.
There, John and Lynette and their families danced at pow wows. As the unearthing of culture continued, so did their journey into this world together. They both knew they had native blood, but now, they could celebrate it.
In Little Texas, their culture is preserved. In addition, Jeffries’ traditional regalia is now on display in a glass case at a museum in Clarksville.
After the better part of two decades, Jeffries and a few others were finally successful in obtaining state recognition for the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in 2002.
In 1999, a full-fledged village with handmade huts and a wall of cedar poles, a palisade, that functioned as both a visual and living replica, was built in Hillsborough in 1999. Through weathering and lack of volunteer maintenance, the site fell into disrepair. Now, the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, Town staff, and community members are working to recreate this village, to be completed and regularly maintained in 2019.
Life and death
On September 13, after Lynette died, John was called to come visit.
“I walk in and she was laying there,” John said. “I walked over and said, ‘Hey babes, how’s it going?’ I kissed her on the cheek, I kissed her on the forehead, I kissed her on the nose, I kissed her on the lips. That’s what I always do.”
Those in the room were unsure of his actions.
“They said, Mr. Jeffries?” John said. “I said, ‘Yeah, what’s up? She ain’t dead, she just transitioned. If you all would have called me before she died, before she transitioned, I would’ve have grabbed her by the coattail and slid on in there with her,’” John laughed.
Though this transition warrants a time for grieving, John is adamant to celebrate her life.
“How can I cry for her? Crying is for me. That’s a gift to me,” John said. “I don’t wish nothing, I wish her well. That woman is fine, we should be so lucky to be where she’s going.”
The love Lynette had for God was evident in her love for others, he said. She was a faithful member of Calvary Episcopal Church, in Charleston, and after marriage, she joined St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham in 1968. She also attended St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and was a member of the Altar Guild in Hillsborough.
Her Celebration of Life service will be held on Saturday, October 6, at the Orange High School auditorium at 1 p.m.. A large crowd is expected. Following the ceremony, a reception catered by Kelsey’s Cafe will take place at the Whitted Building located at 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough.
“It’s amazing grace. How can I feel sad when a multitude of people are coming to honor her? That’s love,” John said. “I’m so full of life, I have to talk about it.”