Friday, June 4, 2010

When Freedom Indian Country

Lucinda Davis - Former Slave in Creek Nation
Photo  Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society

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"...But one day old Master stay after he eat breakfast and when us negroes come in to eat he say" After today I ain't your master any more. You all as free as I am." We just stand and look and don't know what to say about it. ......." Phyliss Pettit, Cherokee Freedwoman

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Every family that descends from enslaved people, has a story---a story that is probably lost.  This is the story of how they learned that bondage was over. This is the story of what happened to them, when freedom came.

For some word came to them as they worked the fields. We all know that when Gen. Granger sailed into Galvestor Harbor, in 1865,he told the enslaved that they were forever free, and the celebrations were immediate! But for others, Freedom was not immediate and it was not easy. 

In Indian Territory many slaves had been taken south into Texas to hide from Federal soldiers, and to prevent the slaves from running to Freedom. And it is clear by reading some of the narratives of the former slaves that Freedom came differently. 

No celebrations, took place---some were told directly and others heard from soldiers that they were Free, and some stole their own freedom fleeing in the dead of night--risking their own lives just to breathe one sweet breath free from bondage.

Thankfully, the Oklahoma slave narratives are poignant reminders that bondage---no matter who the enslaver was--was bondage.  They yearned to breathe free air, and like their brethren in the United States, the enslaved men, and women in Indian Territory yearned for the same thing. Some escaped and seized their own freedom. Others sampled the first taste of Freedom when Union soldiers came through, raiding communities, and so many of the men, once given the chance--joined the United States Colored Troops, serving in the Union Army.

I share these few brief snippets of statements from the WPA Slave Narratives from Oklahoma, as samples of freedom stories of the Indian Freedmen, who recalled how they learned that they were, at last free people.

Slaveholder: Mose Perryman

...Then, early one morning, about daylight, old Mr. Mose came down to them cabin in his buggy, waving a shot gun and hollering at the top of his voice. I never saw a man so mad in all my life, before nor since! He yelled in at mammy to "git them children together and git up to my house before I beat you and all of them to death." Mammy began to cry and plead that she didn't know anything, but he acted like he was going to shoot sure enough, so we all ran to mammy and started for Mr. Mose's house as fast as we could trot.

We had to pass all the other Negro cabins on the way, and we could see that they were all empty, and it looked like everything in them had been tore up. Straw and corn shucks all over the place, where somebody had tore up the mattresses, and all the pans and kettles gone off the outside walls where they used to hang them.

At one place we saw two Negro boys loading some iron kettles on a wagon, and a little further on was some boys catching chickens in a yard, but we could see all the Negroes had left in a big hurry. I asked mammy where everybody had gone and she said, "Up to Mr. Mose's house, where we are going. He's calling us all in."

"Will pappy be up there too?" I asked her.
"No. Your pappy and your Uncle Hector and your Uncle William and a lot of other menfolks won't be here any more. They went away. That's why Mr. Mose is so mad, so if any of you younguns say anything about any strange men coming to our place I'll break your necks!"  

Mammy was sure scared!  We all thought sure she was going to get a big whipping, but Mr. Mose just looked at her minute and then told her to get back to the cabin and bring all the clothes, and bed ticks and all kinds of cloth we had and come back ready to travel.

"We're goin to take all you black devils to a place where there won't no more of you run away!" he yelled after us.

So we got ready to leave as quick as we could. I kept crying about my pappy but mammy would say, "Don't you worry about your pappy, he's free now. Better be worrying about us. No telling where we all will end up!"

Mr. Mose found a place for us to stop close to Fort Washita, and got us places to stay and work. I don't know which direction we were from Fort Washita, but I know we were not very far. I don't know how many years we were down in there, but I know it was over two for we worked on crops at two different places, I remember. 

Then--one day Mr. Mose came and told us that the War was over and that we would have to root for ourselves after that. Then he just rode away and I never saw him after that until after we had got back up into the Choska country. Mammy heard that the Negroes were going to get equal right with the Creeks and that she should go to the Creek Agency to draw for us, so we set out to try to get back. ..........
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Slaveholder: Sobe Love
We git along the best we can for a whole winter, but we nearly starve to death, and then the next sprig when we getting a little patch planted Mistress go into Bonham and come back and say we all free and the War over.

She say "You and Vici jest as free as I am, and alot freer I reckon, and they say I got to pay you if your work for me, but I ain't got no money to pay you. If you stay on with me and help me I will feed and home you and I can weave you some good dresses if you card and spin the cotton and wool."

Well I stayed on, cause I didn't have no place to go, and I carded and spinned the cotton and wool, and she make me just one dress. Vici didn't do nothing but jest wait on the children and Mistress.

Mistress go off again about a week, and when she come back I see she got some money but she din't give us any of it. After a while I asked her ain't she got some money for me, and she say no, ain't she giving me a good home? Den I starts to feeling like I ain't treated right. ...........So one night I jest put the new dress in a bundle and set foot right down the big road a-walking west, and don't say nothing to nobody ! It's ten miles into Bonham, and I gits in town about daylight. I keeps on being afraid, cause I can't git it outn my mind I still belong to Mistress.

Purty soon some negroes tell me a negro name Bruner Love living down west of Greenville, and I know that's my brother Franklin, cause we all call him Bruner. I don't remember how all I gits down to Greenville, I know I walks most the way, and I finds Bruner. Him and his wife working on a farm, and he say my sister Hetty and my sister Rena what was little is living with my mammy way back up on the Red River. My pappy done died in time of the War and I didn't know it. ........
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Slaveholder: Judy Taylor
Then mistress took her slaves and went somewhere in Texas until after the war. She started back to the old home place, but wasn't going to take us with her until mammy cried so hard she coulnd't stand it and told us to get ready. We drove through in an ox wagon and sometimes had to wait along the way because the streams were flooded and we couldn't ford.

We found the old house burned to the ground when we got back and the whole place was a ruin. There was no stock and no way for any of us to live. The mistress told us that we were free anyway and to go wherever we wanted to.

We went to Fort Gibson and then to Tahlequah; mammy earning our way cooking at both places. Victoria was hired out to Judge Wolfe and that's where she was when father had her stolen. We was all worried about her for a time, until we found out she was with him.

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Slaveholder: Isaac Love

When de War was over, and ol Mster told us we was free, Mammy she say, "Well I'm heading for Texas." I went out and old Master ask me to bring him a coal of fire to light his pipe. I went after it and mammy left pretty soon. My pappy wouldn't leave old Master right then but old Master told us we was free to go where we pleased, so me an pappy left and went to Texas where my mammy was. We never saw old Master anymore. We stayed a while in Texas and then come back to de Indian Territory.
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Slaveholder: Tuskaya-Hiniha

I don't know when de War quit off. and when I git free, but I stayed wid old man Tuskaya-hiniha long time after I was free, I reckon. I was jest a little girl, and he didn't know whar' to send me to, anyways. One day three men ride up and talk to de old man awhile in English talk. Den he called me and tell me to go wid dem to find my own family. He jest laugh and slap my behind and set me up on de hoss in front of one de men and dey take me off and leave my good checkedy dress at de house!
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Slaveholder: Charley Rogers

.....All the slaves was piled intogether and some of the grown ones walking, and they took us way down across the big river and kept us in the bottoms a long time until the War was over.....We lived in a kind of a camp, but i was too little to know where they got the grub to feed us with. Most all the Negro men was off somewhere in the War.......  Then one day they had to bust up the camp and some Federal soldiers go with us and we all start back home. We git to a place where all the houses is burned down and I ask what is that place. Miss Hannah say, "Skullyville, child. That's where they had part of the War."

All the slaves was set out when we git to Fort Gibson, and the soldiers say we all free now. They give us grub and clothes to the Negroes at that place. It wasn't no town but a fort place and a patch of big trees.
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Slaveholder: Chief Joseph (Rich Joe) Vann

When the War come they have a big battle away west of us, but I never see any battles. Lots of soldiers around all the time though.

One day young Master come to the cabins and say we all free and can' stay there lessn we want to go on working for him just like we'd been for our feed, an clothes. Mammy got a wagon and we traveled around a few days to go to Fort Gibson. When we git to Fort Gibson they was a lot of negroes there, and they had a camp meeting and I was baptized. It was in the Grand River close to the ford, and winter time. Snow on the ground and the water was muddy and all full of pieces of ice. The place was all woods, and the Cherokees and the soldiers all come down to see the baptizing. .........

Slave holder: Chief Rolly McIntosh
One day my pappy come home and tell us all that the Creek done sign up to quit the War, and that old Master send word that we all free now and can take up some land for our own selves or just stay where we is if we want to. Pappy stayed on that place where he was at until he died.
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As we seek the stories of our ancestors---whether in Indian Territory or in nearby states---we must learn how slaves were freed.  And we must learn about the impact of this newly freed population was felt in the community where they lived.  They had toiled for decades without pay. Suddenly they were free. Some continued to live in bondage until others came to release them with the word of freedom.  Others remained in a hostile land where their freedom was tolerated but resented.

Most of us will never learn how our ancestors coped in those first days when freedom came.  However by reading the stories of those who lived nearby---whose stories were recorded---we can learn about the climate of the day, the sentiments of the day, and we learn about the community where our ancestors lived. 

They encountered the same obstacles, and though their freedom stories might not remain, we can still get a glimpse into the world where they lived which will assist us in telling the family story, much better.

At least we can rejoice as we wonder how they coped, when freedom came.

When Freedom Came

When freedom came some wept for joy
and others fled at night.

When freedom came--no more free toil
nor auctions bringing fright.

When freedom came some found their way
to Gibson all alone.

When freedom came some would stay
not hearing freedom's song.

When freedom came, at long last
free air they heaved their sigh.

When freedom came---for some not fast
No more their dreams to die.

When freedom came no nighttime flight.
For now they stood as men.

When freedom came their women might
Join them at slavery's end.

When freedom came the Freedmen formed
New hopes, new goals, new dreams

When freedom came, old prayers now worn.
Families finally now redeemed.

When freedom came tell to all
of how they came to be.

When freedom came they finally stood.
Intact as family.

©Angela  Y. Walton-Raji 2010


RoxanneRoxanne said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful article. I am now thinking about my sweet great grandmother who was a Creek Freedmen and who was born in 1880 and died in the 1970's, and wondering about her childhood. I am thinking about my great great grandparents and wondering how they learned that they were free.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Roxanne,

Part of telling the story of our ancestors, involves telling the stories of those who were close to them, and in their circle.

I felt compelled to share these statements, as the words of the Freedmen are so seldom heard. Best wishes as you document your own Freedmen family.