Sunday, June 19, 2022

Celebrating Freedom in Indian Territory


For many years in the late 1800s Freed people from the Five Tribes celebrated freedom throughout the summer months. Many Indian tribal Freedmen, in the eastern most part of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, started celebrating Freedom the same time their neighbors did in nearby Arkansas. Some in the southern part of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations started celebrating Freedom the same time their neighbors did in nearby north Texas.  

However, the most interesting part of the Freedom story is reflected in the fact that throughout many parts of Indian Territory, a celebration of Freedom actually occurred for many years on August 4th. Several references to the August 4th celebrations were mentioned by former slaves when interviewed in the1930s and their intervviews were captured in the Indian Pioneer Papers. The day was celebrated for many years and believed by many to be the day that Freedmen came to their families, but so far, the actual choice of August 4th still is unexplained. Nevertheless, Freedom was embraced and honored and celebrated by those once enslaved and freed from bondage. 

In the 1930s Elizabeth Ross, a field worker for the Indian Pioneer project, spoke with several former slaves about the celebrations they frequented during their lifetime. She spoke with two individuals who provided her with rich information, E. P. Harris and Dennis Hendricks. Here are some excerpts from her article about Freedom celebrations. (1)

 Cherokee Nation

"During a number of years when Cherokee government was in existence, it was a custom of the Freedmen or former slaves of Cherokees and their descendants to observe August 4th as the anniversary of their emancipation. As a matter of historical fact, the Cherokee emancipation was issued in the month of February 1863. Just why the August date was selected is not clear, but no doubt many were of the belief that the fourth day of that month was the date up which freedom became their possession."

In the Cherokee Nation, large outdoor picnics unfolded in Talequah, Fort Gibson and other large Freedmen settlements, consisting of speakers, singing events, and of course large amounts of food for the celebrations. Many of the invited speakers were local leaders, of all background, whites, tribal leaders, and well known preachers.

One of the larger events was observed in Tahlequah in the late 1870s where a long line of horsemen formed part of an impressive parade. Ross describes the event:

"A long line of horsemen formed on the banks of a small stream nearly a mile south of the town, and then a procession headed by a man with drawn sword, beside whom rode another man carrying a United States flag, rode back and through the main street of Tahlequah." 

Years later celebrations were occurred on the "May Party Grounds" the same spot where the 7th of May anniversaty celebrations occurred. Years later, large events were also noted in communities like Four Mile Branch in Fort Gibson.

Creek Nation:
Aaron Grayson was interviewed in the 1930s and described the celebrations that he recalled from the 1870s till the early 20th century. (2)

"There was an annual celebration held each year from the period from 1870 on up until the early part of 1900, which was held by negroes and freedmen. The white people observed Independence day on July 4th, while the colored people observed the Emancipation Day on August 4th. The observance of this Emancipation proclamation was mainly for and by negroes and freedmen, yet the Indians and whites were welcome to attend the celebrations.

There were always good times, because no one became drunk, quarrelsome or tried to pick a fight, but only a feeling of good comradeship was felt by all who participated in the events. Of course the Lighthorsemen and the United States marshals were present to check any trouble and to keep peace and order. Many new acquaintances and lasting friendships were often made at these gatherings.

..."When the day of the big celebration arrived, the people did not come poking around one by one but they came in groups or by bands, such as the Bruner band, the Topkafka band, etc. These people had assembled at one of the tribal towns from where they had come to the celebration as early as they could. They came on horses at a gallop, laughing joking and  yelling and were heard miles away before they finally came to the chosen place of the event."

Aaron Grayson goes on to describe how the various bands arrived and the cannons would be fired as they arrived and marched in circles around the flag pole signaling their arrival. The food was prepared by the women which was a massive barbecue feast. All in attendance, native Creeks, whites as well as Freedmen and state negroes who all shared in the massive amounts of food. Grayson also described events such as selection of the day's queen, and his descriptions of the clothing worn by many of the horsemen was quite colorful. Many of these events were held at Wetumka and Wewoka, and the last major event occurring in Tuskegee town.

Choctaw Nation

In August of 1938. Sallie Henderson Moss was interviewed by James Russell Gray of the Pioneer project. She desribed her life in the Skullyville district near Brazil Station, in the Choctaw Nation. In her interview, she recalled the celebrations of emancipation in August. (3)

"The colored people used to have picnics on the 4th of August. They would have big barbecues with lemondade, stick candy and everything. They were celebrating the freeing of the slaves. The Choctaws freed their slaves, you know on August 4th. They would kill hogs and beeves, and have dances and general good times"

Sometimes the colored people would take sacks full of herbs called "devil's shoestring" and put the stuff in the creek the way the Indians taught them to. This devil's shoestring made the fish drunk and the fish floated to the top of the water and could be caught. We would have fish fries for our picnics."

The stories about the celebration of emancipation is an interesting one, particularly because so many embraced August 4th as the day to commemorate freedom, although freedom was actually not uniformly in August. Each of the tribes eventually abolished slavery officially when the treaties of 1866 were signed. However, it should also be remembered that many found freedom much earlier than that time.

Many had become free during the Civil War when some had joined various regiments of the union army. And sadly, at the same time, in some parts of the Chickasaw Nation many did not enjoy freedom until at least two years after the war, as there was much resistance in parts of the Chickasaw Nation to allowing their enslaved people to taste freedom.

Nevertheless, now that there is a legal holiday where descendants of the enslaved perhaps some of the long forgotten traditions will emerge again. To think that there has never been before now, any effort to celebrate freedom from slavery is quite incredible. We must celebrate our freedom, like the people of Galveston. Freedom is a basic right of all people, and truly we must find ourselves among those celebrants. Our own ancestors truly knew the value of being free to make one's own choices in life. Whether it it June 19th or August 4th or all days in between---we must embrace the joy of Juneteenth and how at some point in the lives of our ancestors--the trajectory of their lives changed when Freedom came.

H a p p y  J u n e t e e n t h ! ! ! 


1 Digital Collections, University of Oklahoma, Western History Collections, Indian Pioneer Collections, Elizabeth Ross, Volume 109,  Interview ID 6764 Freedom Celebrations

2 Ibid  Volume 35, Interview ID 7458 Aaron Grayson

3 Ibid Volume 65 Interview ID 13620 Sallie Henderson Moss

Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Interesting Case of Moses Whitmire, Cherokee Freedman Trustee

When studying articles from the 19th century Indian Territory, anyone with an interest in Freedman history will note that numreous articles in the press appeared about the former slaves and the many struggles that they encountered. Some articles were about struggles for citizenship and equal rights and others made interesting references to schools and institutions established by and for Freedmen.
And one interesting case arose pertaining to funds set aside for Freedmen emerged in the Five Tribes, and one of them was the case of Moses Whitmire trustee for the Freedmen of the Cherokee Nation.

A special commission was appointed to represent the nation in a major suit known as Cherokee Nation v. Moses Whitmire, a case which began to cause much discussion in the late 1890s. The case involved not only specifically the rights of Cherokee Freedmen, but specifically the issue pertaining to funds that were to be set aside for Cherokee Freedmen.

The issue was that of $400,000 to be provided for freedmen, and from 4% to 10% to go to two attorneys from St. Louis---Robert H. Kern, and J. Milton Turner. Whitmire was an elderly man had been appointed as trustee for the freedmen, but soon charges were brought up against him about the funds and a mishandling of funds, and allegations that he had promised a larger amount of the money to the attorneys and allegations arose about mishandling of funds. Whitmire refuted this, and made his own statement. He pointed out that he was unable to read or write and that a document that he was said to have signed was not read or understood fully by him. An article from the St. Louis Globe Democrat carried his statement in a piece about the matter.

Ten years later the issue was still being discussed. by that time, Moses Whitmire had died but an interesting summary of the case appeared in a publication from Nowata, C.N.

Two years later the issue had reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and a brief article from the Chicago Tribune describes how the issue was handled.

The Moses Whitmire case is a rare instance of a case from Indian Territory pertaining to Freedmen, appearing in the US Supreme Court. A few years earlier Equity 7071 involving Chickasaw Freedmen was to have been argued in front of the Supreme Court, but the attorney never filed the brief and thus, it was never heard. The Whitmire case appears to be one of the few cases that appeared, even if only briefly in the nation's highest court.

The plight of Freedmen from all of the tribes was one that was disputed and argued repeatedly in the post Civil War years,  and it appears that the case of Moses Whitmire was no exception. It is also clear that victories were few if ever won during those trying years before statehood.

And for Moses Whitmore the man, very little is known. In his younger years he was enslaved by Cherokee George Whitmire. By the time of the Dawes Commission, he was 70 years old, and he was most likely one who also came to the Territory during the Removal period. His mother's name was Peggy, also enslaved by Whitmire, and his father's name is not known. He resided in Hayden, in the Cooweescoowee District of the Cherokee Nation. As an elder his being selected as a trustee it is clear that with his being given such a position, he may have demonstrated other aspects of being a leader or man of influence among Freedmen.

 Not much is known about the descendants of Moses Whitmire and after over a century is it not known if they are aware of their ancestor's quest and position as a trustee for Cherokee Freedmen. Hopefully more will be known about Mr. Whitmire, the man, and of his quest to represent his community.

Cherokee Freedman Card #972 Oklahoma and Indian Territory, U.S., Dawes Census Cards for Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914 [database on-line]. 
Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.

Original data: Enrollment Cards for the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1186, 93 rolls); Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75; National Archives, Washington, D.C

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Oklahoma Freedmen History Month 2022 Unfolds


February has arrived and there are numerous expressions and celebrations of "Black History Month" that are unfolding throughout the nation.  For genealogists of African descent of course every month is a celebration of "black history."

However, from the perspective of Oklahoma history, and "Black history" the story of Freedmen---those once enslaved on Oklahoma soil, and their descendants---the story is missing. Yet, before the Civil Rights era in Oklahoma, before the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, and before the emerging of the "black towns of the early 20th century, people of African descent were well documented and present on the soil of Indian Territory. Brought first as enslaved people, then later classified as "Freedmen" these survivors created communities, built schools, established churches and contributed to the history and culture of their time. 

Therefore it is time to honor our Freedmen ancestors and to celebrate Freedmen History Month. This can be done in multiple ways. Here are a few methods of celebrating Freedman History Month.

Methods of Celebrating Freedman History
-Share photos of your Okla. Freedman Ancestor in your social media groups.
-Write an article about your favorite Freedman Ancestor
-Share images of you Freedman Ancestral town or community.
-Take photos of important landmarks in your Freedman town
-Start a weekly blog about your Freedman community.
-Document on film your visit to the Freedman family burial ground.
-Interview a Freedman elder descendant about their life and share that interview.
-Explore some newspapers sites to find stories of the Freedman community.
-Tell a story that you have heard about your Freedman family.
-Take pictures of the old homestead where your family once lived.

Create Your Own Celebration Schedule
You can honor your history any way you wish.

Daily Option:

-You may wish to post a photo every day of your freedman family.
-If you are a writer or blogger, commit to writing a piece every day--short or long--about your history, or family or community
-If your Freedman ancestor was a crafter, share an image each day of their work---quilts, clothing, woodworking masonry work, art.

Weekly Option:
-Select one Freedman ancestor each week and devote the week about him/her. 
-Interview one elder each week to collect some additional information about the family.
-Speak to anyone in the community who can talk about the old school where Freedmen attended.
-Share one family artifact each week.

Step Outside the Box---Get Creative
-Musical Talent? Write a song about the Freedman History (Ode to an Ancestor)
-Write a story featuring the Freedman ancestor as central character.
-Draw or paint rendering a Freedman ancestor or the whole family, at their work (farming, teaching, preaching, building, etc.)
-Broadcast your passion for Freedman history: Create or host a blog radio show, or create a Freedman Youtube channel.
-Create a journal! Historical Journals can be once a year, or quarterly, or monthly! Create one. -Collaborate with others and become proactive with a unique project! (A mural, or an anthology of stories about the community, or assemble a team to create a montly or yearly journal about the Freedmen ancestors.

You are only limited by your own imagination!

Honor the ancestors during Freedman History Month! It could lead to new ventures in new arenas! Such an undertaking could bring about changes in your own life.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

New Book Discusses the AME Church Among Oklahoma Freedmen


"By the time of emancipation, the enslaved population among the Five Civilized Tribes had become a hybrid people with both African/African American and Indigenous language culture and ancestry. After emancipation these Black Indians attempted to build lives for themselves in Indian Territory. They also sought to validate their Indigenous heritage by gaining formal citizenship within the Five Civilized Tribes. The tribes sometimes resisted such inclusion and denied that they had any cultural or blood ties to those they had formally enslaved."
                                                                                         -Christine Dickerson-Cousin, author
* * * * *

A fascinating new book by Christine Dickerson-Cousin has recently been published. Entitled "Black Indians & Freedmen. The African Methodist Episcopal Church & Indigenous Americans, 1816-1916.

By the title one might think the book has an exclusive focus on the Freedmen from Indian Territory. By the sub-title one might think that the book is mostly a book about AME Church history. However, both assumptions are correct and there are some fascinating surprises with interesting data found in this 2021 published work.

Author Christina Dickerson-Cousin has examined the role of the AME Church and the influence that the church had on both Freedmen and native communities throughout the Territory. The book eloquently presents fascinating pieces of data about people from all of the Five Tribes, and she has crafted a story opening a new chapter in the story of Freedmen.

When discussion usually emerge about the impact that various church missionaries had in Indian Territory the story is one usually of the influence of Presbyterian Church, or the Baptist Church. Institutions such as Oak Hill Academy established by Presbyterians, or Evangel Mission established as a Baptist school are well known.

But one will learn about two more institutions seldom mentioned in Oklahoma history, nor in Freedmen history specifically. The mention of two AME church institutions are found among the many gems in this book. There is the final-chapter story of of the old Tullahassee Manual Labor School, which is found in the story of Sisson Industrial Institute  and the story of Flipper-Key-Davis University.

Some have asked questions about what eventually happened when the Tullahassee School ceased to be a school for Freedmen. The answers are found in this book, when the author points out that the school later became Flipper-Key-Davis University operated by the AME Church.

Some smaller gems appear when names of some additional Freedmen groups are mentioned in passing, such as the CCCA--the Choctaw Colored Citizen's Association and the Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedman's Grievance Association. The mere mention of these little known groups in this book, provides opportunity for researchers to go and find information about the group, the members and some of their activities. Such an article was found in a newspaper from Broken Arrow, in 1905. 

The Choctaw Colored Citizens Association also advocated for the rights of Freedmen and an account of some of their efforts are found in a publication out of Atoka in 1905.

The book is quite useful to have in one's library, because it reveals the rolls that many other people took in their church, but also the greater community. Persons such as Emma Thompson Hampton, (daughter of Freedmen Pink and Lucy Thompson), and also Annie Keels, and both were mentioned reflecting other dimensions of their lives. The immersions of both into their communities and not only the involvement in church affairs but their status as people living within thow distinct cultural groups---their tribal community and also an African community.

The most distinct aspect of this book as been the rare analysis of the Freedmen as a whole. It is appreciated that she clearly defines the Freedmen who they were coming from the worlds into which they were born. In the beginning of her she defines the Freedmen from the Territory in a seldom described and truly accurate way.

"By the time of emancipation, the enslaved population of the Five Civilized Tribes had become a hybrid people with both African/African American, and Indigenous language, culture and ancestry."

She goes on to describe how Freedmen attempted to build lives for themselves, in the Territory where they were born. At the same time the author points out how the Freedmen sought to "validate their Indigenous heritage" by seeking citizenship in the nations of their birth. It was pointed out that the tribe sometimes resisted the inclusion of the Freedmen, and occasionally denied that there was any  cultural or blood ties to the people that they had once enslaved. Because of this complex immersion into the two worlds, many Freedmen welcomed the presence of the AME Church and many found not only a church home, but also found a method of negotiating life in an occasionally hostile territory.

AME Church and Black Towns
One portion of the book also focuses on the role that the AMEChurch had in the development of Freedmen communities--the historic black town.. In one chapter the author goes into depth about how the AME Church helped established some of the Black Towns, and contributed to the success of those towns. She specifically mentions AME church members who were town residents of Red Bird, Clearview, Tatums, and Grayson.

Black Indians & Freedmen offers numerous gems that family historians, genealogists as well as church historians can all appreciate. Numerous scholars have bypassed the community

It is a welcomed piece of scholarship that belongs in the personal libraries of many with ties to the Territory. The book is available on Amazon, and also directrly from the University of Illinois Press.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Seminole Freedmen Win Rights for Health Services

 Earlier this year many were shocked when one of the members of the two Freedman Bands in the Seminole Nation showed up to receive a Covid Shot. She was refused service, then the Lighthorse police were called to escort her out of the building.

The Freedman was a member of the tribe, and even serves on the tribal council as Chief of the Bruner band. Many were shocked how a person who serves her tribe, was turned away from a life saving vaccine, during a worldwide health epidemic. 

Well, today an interesting ruling has come down from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, declarining that Seminole Freedmen are eligible for Health Services of Indian Health Services--IHS.

As enrolled members of a Federally recognized tribe they are eligible to receive these benefits. For many years health services have been denied to Freedmen. 

Seminole Freedmen are generations long members of the Seminole Community having arrived in Indian Territory in the 1840s many as free people. They lived among Seminoles  for generations, and have been a part of the political structure of the tribe continaually. They are also people of African descent.

However, the past 3 decades have brought many challenges to Seminole Freedmen with their status being challenged. In the 1980s a strong anti-black sentiment arose, and even to the point of disenrolling the Freedmen from the tribe. They filed suit and won their case, and were re-admitted. However, their admission came with a price. They were to receive no benefits as citizens. The only thing that they could do was vote for people running for office, but nothing more. No health services, no educatonal benefits, no assistance with housing issues, etc.

The letter of October 5th from the Department of Human Services signals a change of direction. Those in the Freedmen community applaud this new development and many are hopeful that more changes will be seen coming from the other tribes of eastern Oklahoma.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Remarkable Freedwomen of Indian Territory

Left to Right:
Top Left-Sallie Walton, Top Center-Bettie Ligon, Right Center-Hagar Meyers
Bottom Left-Malinda Hall, Bottom Right-Lucinda Davis

Since March is Women's History Month, I thought that I would honor some often overlooked Freedwomen from Indian Territory. 

There are some women whose name should be said aloud. They are seldom mentioned in annals of Oklahoma history and even less so in the texts of tribal history. However, freedwomen from the Five former slaveholding tribe were not passive pawns in a system that worked against them. They lent their bodies and minds and spirit to cause to uplift those of their community. Some spoke up and showed courage during times of conflict. Others dared to resist and insist that they be acknowledged for who they were. Others simply told their story with all of the cultural nuances that they embraced. And others nurtured children who lived to tell their stories.

These were patient souls from whom we descend.  Some were well known, and others were simply quiet steadfast warrior women, worked tirelessly in their own domain. It is from such women who were the matriarchs of the families, and we must speak their names. These daughters of Oklahoma soil should no longer be bypassed in the annals of history. We honor them.

So weekly I shall profile at least one Freedwoman from Indian Territory, whose life was an inspiration and whose story deserves to be told.

To be honored this month: 

Sallie Walton, Choctaw Freedwoman, Matriarch of the Walton family of Skullyville
Bettie Ligon, Choctaw & Chickasaw Freedwoman - Head Litigant in Equity 7071
Hagar Meyers, Creek Freedwoman - Peacemaker woman of courage of the Green Peach War
Malinda Hall, Choctaw Freedwoman - Instructor and Educator of Choctaw Freedmen
Lucinda Davis - Creek Freedwoman - Survivor of Slavery, cultural storyteller of life in Creek culture

May they  never be forgotten.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Honoring Black Soldiers of the Indian Home Guards in the CivilWar

There are many men from Indian Territory who were enslaved in the Civil War. They escaped with Opotholeyahola into Kansas. Some joined the Kansas Colored Regiments, and they later became part of the US Colored Troops.  But there were many who also remained with the Creeks and they too enlisted in the Union Army. The would participate in every major battle of the Civil War. From Cabin Creek, to Honey Springs, and points in between.

It is important to know that the Home Guards (1st, 2nd and 3rd) were the only Indian Union Regiments.
The remaining 20+ Native American regiments from the Five Tribes, were Confederates. 

The following is a partial list of soldiers who were of African descent. who served with the Indian Home Guards.  May their legacy as freedom fighters in the Civil war be added to those of the Kansas Colored infantries and the regiments of the US Colored Troops.  May they always be remembered.

Index to Pension File of Sugar George, Company H, 1st Indian Home Guards

Black Soldiers of the Indian Home Guards 

Sugar T. George 
Wheat Baldridge
Adam Dyle
Samuel Barnett
Dennis Harrod
George Marshall
Green McGilvray
Saucer Bradley
Robert Benjamin
Abram Colonel
Harry Stedham
Jacob Bernard
Snow Sells
Simon Brown
George Monday
Abe Prince
Billy Caesar
William Hawkins
John Cooks
Jacob Perryman
Dennis Marshall
Manam Marshall
Troy Stedham
Sage Barnwell
Toby Drew
Thomas Marshall
James Quabner
William Peter
Love Jimboy
Tally Lewis
Thomas Al 
Gabriel Jimison
Solomon Renty
Jacob McGilvray
Pickett Renty
Charles Renty
August Deer
George McGilvray
Thomas Bruner (Identified as a free man of color)
August Deer
Abraham Caesar
Latah Harjo
Benjamin Ab
Scipio Sancho
Morris Kernell
James Kernell
Ben Sancho
Redman Kernell
Peter Stedham
Joseph Sambo (Sango)
Billy Hawkins (Identified as free man of color)
John Kernell
Jim Barnett (Identified as free man of color)
Aaron Sancho
Samuel Wade 
Joe McGilvray
William Grayson
Isaac Smith
Tucker (This was Silas Jefferson)
Adam (Identified as free man of color)
Alex Hawkins
York McGilbra

(courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society)
Silas Jefferson (enlisted as Tucker) was also a leader within the Creek Nation