Friday, November 8, 2019

Open Letter to Curriculum Developers of Oklahoma History

Several weeks ago an erroneous message came forth from the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. On their website there was a statement that "slaves found refuge in the Chickasaw Nation."

Images from website

This statement was placed on the official website until finally word was passed to those in charge that the statement was not simply incorrect. It was, in fact, placing a false narrative about the relationship between Chickasaws and people who were enslaved by most of their leaders in the 19th century.

In recent days information was shared in a social media history research group for descendants of Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen, about the curriculum for use as part of the Chickasaw elementary school curriculum. The text has a statement that does not address the history of  slavery to any degree. The piece was shared to the group, actually painted slave holders as the victims in the one small piece that mentioned slavery.

(excerpt from Chickasaw Elementary School Curriculum)

This focus of this appeal, is not to malign the Chickasaw Nation, nor the Chickasaw people. Nor it is a piece intending to put forth an angry narrative about the lives and treatment of Freedmen  in the difficult post Civil War era.

The goal of this piece  is to address the fact that several thousand people lived, worked, toiled, and died among Chickasaw people, as Chickasaw slaves, and later as Chickasaw Freedmen. And a similar story is found among the other slave holding tribes, that also brought their southern culture with them to the Territory--- they brought their language, foodways, burial practices, and among those who could afford it--the enslavement of human beings.

After Freedom, Chickasaw Freedmen remained in the Territory---it was their home. They spoke the Chickasaw language, ate the Chickasaw food, and practiced the culture as a Chickasaw-influenced people. And many Chickasaws today have Freedmen descendants among their friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates. Many Chickasaws today have Freedmen descendants in their families, and some have Freedmen descendants as husbands, as wives, and also as children. Those relatives, those family members deserve to be a part of the history that is theirs.

Most educators would agree with the following:

*To tell the story of the United States of America, without the mention of the practice of slavery would be a lie---of omission.

*To tell the story of pre-statehood Oklahoma without mention of the Trail of Tears would be a lie of omission.

But I must add to that agreement:

*To tell the story of pre-statehood Oklahoma without the mention of slavery would be a lie of omission.

*To tell the story of the Chickasaw Nation and all of the Five "Civilized" without their own involvement in the practice of slavery would be a lie of omission.

Descendants of those enslaved people who fought for freedom and won---they too are Oklahomans, living on Oklahoma soil and trusting their educators to tell them the story of the amazing land where they live. Yet, at the same time, the descendants of those Freedmen, who still remain in Oklahoma are finding that their own history is being omitted. There were thousands of Freedmen in Oklahoma at the beginning of statehood.

For reference this was the population in 1906 before statehood:
Cherokee Freedmen 3,982
Choctaw Freedmen 5254
Chickasaw Freedmen 4995
Creek Freedmen 5585
Seminole Freedmen 857 + 93 later added
Total Indian Tribal Freedmen:  20, 766
(Source of data: Muskogee Cimeter, January 4, 1906 page 2)

After more than a century since statehood, there are now hundreds of thousands of Freedmen descendants. And it is known that those Freedmen descendants who are native born Oklahomans, who speak with pride about their ancestry--they are not permitted to enroll in their ancestral nation today due to a bias against those of their race. But despite this---surely those children deserve to have their ancestors become more than a footnote in Oklahoma history. Those children who descend from over 20,000 Freedmen, deserve not to have their history overlooked and erased from the pages of their state.

Many who live in Oklahoma often see the "Friendly neighbor" advertisements coming from the Chickasaw Nation and how relations with fellow Oklahomans is so important. Yet, many young people learning their history, whose ancestors were Freedmen, see nothing of their own presence mentioned by the same "friendly" people who are influencing the curriculum.

Oklahoma African American history did not being with the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, and it did not begin with the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889. African presence in Indian Territory began seven decades before statehood because many arrived during the years of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Their stories are captured in the Indian Pioneer Papers at the University of Oklahoma, and the WPA Oklahoma slave narratives of the 1930s, and the interviews of the Dawes Commission 1898-1914.

Likewise, the institutions built by Freedmen deserve more than a footnote----

-Tushka Lusa
-Oak Hill Academy
-Dawes Academy
-Evangel Mission (Now the Five Tribe Museum in Muskogee)
-Tullahassee Mission School
-Cherokee Colored High School
...........and dozens of Freedmen neighborhood schools.

They are long gone, and perhaps forgotten by the tribes, but not forgotten by those of us whose ancestors attended these schools.

There is much that can be done from the education community, and hopefully the curriculum of Oklahoma will reflect that. And hopefully Freedmen descendants will not see the lives of 20,000 people from the Five Civilized Tribes, swept under the proverbial rug as if they did not exist, and were not a part of the land that became Oklahoma.

And Chickasaw Freedmen children, whose ancestors were disenfranchised by their own tribe after the war, will not see once again, no mention, no story, no acknowledgement of their existence from the nation in which their history is rooted.

As a descendant of one whose ancestors lived in the Choctaw Nation, and who arrived in Indian Territory with the Perry clan from Yalobusha Mississippi, I can only hope that the someday the children of those who remain in the state of Oklahoma will have their history told.

I am an independent researcher, and an educator by profession, and many for whom I conduct research, live in Oklahoma. They are often quite shocked when I share records with them, reflecting that their ancestors were slaves right there where they live They then ask me, why they were never taught that in school. I can only respond by telling them to talk to their educators and talk to their leaders.

An Opportunity
This is a wonderful time and a wonderful opportunity for scholars of multiple disciplines, (history, sociology , anthropology and archaeology) to allow their spirit of academic inquiry to expand into other arenas. Tell those stories of Freedmen settlements, find this historic sites where the Freedmen schools once stood, research their past--and tell the stories of the people who made these events unfold.

But this can't happen, if the state of Oklahoma cannot even teach the history correctly. Without the full story, historians cannot truly explore the many unwritten chapters in its history. Without the full story, a false narrative emerges, and entities will create false myths such as slaves seeking refuge in the tribes that were, in fact slave owning tribes.

My appeal is that the full history be included as the curriculum is developed, so all of the sons and daughters of Oklahoma----native people, Freedmen descendants, and pioneers--will all find their story put back on the historical landscape where it occurred.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Freedmen Descendants Share Common Histories

Six Active Oklahoma "Freedmen" Groups

In the past two decades numerous groups have come and gone among people who descend from Oklahoma's "Freedmen" more correctly described as Freedmen from the Five Civilized Tribes. Such groups did exist among separate tribal groups in the late 1800s when Freedmen were negotiating their status prior to statehood. They did not wish to leave the only place that they knew as home, and where they had lived, and toiled, and whose elders elders died there on that soil.

In the 1800s, 
Cherokee Freedmen had an association formed as well as Chickasaw and Choctaw Freedmen. Both of those last two groups were,  particularly vulnerable after the Civil War, because the tribes tried to have them removed from their nation. The efforts to act upon their own behalf left small footprints on the historical landscape, that can be researched today. From the proceedings from many of those meetings, stories of resilience of Freedmen are noted.

In recent years, especially in the last two decades, efforts to act on behalf of the Freedmen have arisen, and today in both physical and online communities a few groups have arisen to study preserve and protect the legacy of Indian Territory and Oklahoma "Freedmen".

Here is a list of the groups in which discussion on history, legacy and political status have occurred. You are encouraged to explore them.

-Cherokee Freedmen Descendants (Online Group)
-Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Descendants
(Online Group)
 -Descendant Freedmen Alliance of Kansas City 

-Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes
-Muscogee Creek Freedmen Band
-Young Freedmen Descendants of the Five Tribes, Discussion Group  (Online Group)

 For those interested in earlier discussions about the status of Freemen, the older AfriGeneas African-Native American message board is still active. This contains archived and searchable messages and threads that go back to 1997.

Over the years discussion has occurred within many sectors of the community, and at present there is also discussion about the possibility for another "real-time" meeting/conference in the next year or so. Whether or not such meeting unfolds, it is clear that activity is unfolding among more people who wish to pursue this much under-told story of Freedmen from Indian Territory. The Oklahoma-Freedman diaspora is widespread, but the need to encourage more dialogue and research is strongly encouraged. Hopefully more will become interested in this history and will join some of the groups mentioned above. 

These groups all hold promise for a continuation of the history being preserved. One thing however appears to be missing---the written record. Perhaps a history journal in which stories of Freedmen communities, Freedmen leaders, and the political and social initiatives of Freedmen, could be developed. 

Several years ago, discussion occurred to establish a group focused on history and devoted to production of a periodic journal and or events to present the past to emerging generations. 
Perhaps now,the long discussed, Indian Territory-Oklahoma Freedmen Historical Association may be the group whose time has come: ITOFHA

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Freedmen of the Frontier

Freedmen of the Frontier

The book is here!

In 2017 I decided to undertake a year-long project to document 52 families in 52 weeks. The families to be documented were Oklahoma-based families that originated in Indian Territory among the Five "Civilized" Tribes-Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Nations. These were African American families whose elders had at one time been enslaved by Native Americans.

The project ewas inspired by a popular genealogy blogging meme of documenting 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. But with this project the goal was to document the families from these nations, because so little is written about these families from the soil of what is now Oklahoma, although their enslavement, emancipation, and families were rooted on that soil.

By years's end, I had met the goal of putting the family stories out there, but decided to move the stories from my blog to book form, so that more people who have ties to the Freedmen of those nations, will be able to easily access these stories. Many people will find it easier to read their stories in book form than will actually go online and find their family story there.

The families profiled in the book are listed below:

The book can be ordered directly from AMAZON.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Irony and Opportunity from the Chickasaw Nation

A recent post from Chickasaw TV website recently reflected a revised version of their history, presenting the Chickasaw community as a place where enslaved people found "refuge".

Knowledge of this statement came while I was in the midst of a conversation with a young college student who is ardently researching his own family of Chickasaw Freedmen, In the midst of our cordial dialogue he was casually surfing and suddenly exclaimed "Whoa, the Chickasaw Nation has an article about slavery on their website! When did that happen?" He went to the then scrolled and was shocked to see what was stated, and suggested that I also get on the site, which I did.

And there is was, with the blatant headline:

"Runaway Slaves Found Refuge With the Chickasaw People."

What in the world was this?

A former slaveholding tribe, the same tribe that produced 4 regiments of Confederate soldiers that fought in the Civil War to keep people enslaved, is now "rebranding" their history to become a people who gave runaway slaves "refuge"!

History shows that this is the tribe that produced: 
-1st Regiment of Chickasaw Infantry

-1st Regiment of Chickasaw Cavalry 
-1st Battalion of Chickasaw Cavalry
-Shecoe's Chickasaw Battalion of Mounted Volunteers

These are all Confederate regiments who fought for the South in the Civil War. They fought in various battles and skirmishes, but clearly not to continue to offer "refuge" to runaways. In fact it is clear that many of the enslaved ran away from the Chickasaws to join the Union Army, and to fight for their freedom.

It is not clear when this was placed on the website of Chickasaw TV, but for those of us who today celebrate and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to see this post on this holiday is more than disappointing. It dishonors the history and legacy of Dr. King, and it dishonors those whose ancestors were enslaved in Indian Territory.

This is clearly the first time, any website pertaining to the Chickasaw Nation made even a mention of slavery, but depicting the nation as a place where runaway slaves fled to and took refuge is a distortion and simply not true. But sure enough there on the  Chickasaw website is a fabricated story of runaways who found their way to Chickasaw country for refuge, as they fled bondage from white slave masters.

If the goal of the webmaster and the Chickasaw Nation is to present slaveholders and kinder and gentler than southern white slaveholders, the words of those once enslaved will refute that. Kiziah Love, a former Chickasaw slave interviewed in the 1930s as part of the slave narrative project spoke of many cruelties experienced by those enslaved around her.

"The slaves lived in log cabins scattered back of the house. He wasn't afraid they'd run off. The didn't know as much as the slaves in the states, I reckon. But Master Frank had a half-brother that was as mean as he was good. I believe he was the meanest man the sun ever shined on. His name was Buck Colbert an he claimed he was a patroller. He was sho' bad to whup Negroes. He'd stop a Negro and ask him if he had a pass and even if they did he'd read it and tell them they had stayed over time and he'd beat em most to death. He'd say they didn't have any business off the farm and to get back there and stay there."

One time he got mad at his baby's nurse because she couldn't git the baby to stop crying and he hit her on the head with some fire tongs and she died. He wife got sick and she sent for me to come a take care of her baby. I sho'd did't want to go and I begged so hard for them not to make me that they sent an older woman who had a baby of her own so she could nurse the baby if necessary.

In the night the baby woke up and got to crying and Master Buck called the woman and told her to git him quiet. She was sleepy and was sort of slow and this made Buck mad and he made her strip her clothes off to her waist and began to whip her. His wife tried to git him to quit and he told her he'd beat her iffen she didn't shut up. Sick as she was she slipped off and went to Master Frank's and woke him up and got him to go and make Buck quit whipping her. He had beat her so that she was cut up so bad she couldn't nurse her own baby anymore.

Her words are sobering and painful to read. And while  it is known that every slave holder was not prone to such violent acts of physical cruelty, but the very act of "ownership" of another human being in and of itself is the a cruelty. And to depict Chickasaw community before and after removal as a place of "refuge" is an effort distort history.

It is noted that everyone did not own slaves, and this is true for Chickasaws as well as others on the American continent. But to suggest that there was an anti-slavery, "come-to-me-my-brother" sentiment in an Indian nation that fought for the south in the Civil War, and that refused to grant their former slaves citizenship after freedom is simply wrong.

There is more honor in admitting to history, acknowledging that history,  and making the effort to know the people who later become Freedmen as well as to get to know those who descend from the enslaved. Truly that is the better way to tell the story. And it is essential that the descendants of the enslaved tell their stories and present their ancestors in the light of dignity that they deserve. The slaveholder descendants in the Chickasaw Nation do not need to "dress up" slavery. It can never be made a pretty part of history. The better gesture is  to acknowledge it, without "dressing it up" 

Chickasaws owned slaves, as did many others in North America. But to paint and to distort one's own history as a place of refuge, clearly makes even current tribal policies of excluding descendants of those same slave completely even more incomprehensible.

The confederate Chickasaw Mounted Rifles in the Civil War were surely not fighting to bring in more people of African ancestry and give them refuge, and nothing could be further from the truth. The anti-black sentiments were strong and they prevail to this day. Chickasaw Freedmen are fully aware that they have, at present no possible way of applying for citizenship and having it granted----although their presence in Chickasaw country predates the days of removal, from Mississippi.

An Interesting Irony
There is an interesting irony however, that prevails today. Many descendants of Chickasaw Freedmen, and nearby Choctaw Freedmen, have relatives who are enrolled in the nations. As inter-racial marriages have occurred over the years, some have spouses, in fact who are enrolled Chickasaws, and even a well known politician from Oklahoma--a man of African Ancestry--is an enrolled Chickasaw. However, his enrollment comes from an ancestor on a blood roll, and not from one who was enslaved. 

The current policy of several of the former slave-holding tribes, is clear---the blood of the slaves meant nothing, and ties of the descendants of those who were enslaved, means nothing today. This is no secret to Chickasaw Freedmen descendants. Their blood and their life meant nothing while slavery prevailed, and it means nothing now, although Freedmen descendants have a direct blood tie to those who labored and sustained the wealth of the Chickasaw slaveholders.

And sadly, to date, there has yet to be a voice spoken on behalf of Chickasaw Freedmen descendants or Choctaw Freedmen descendants from those of African ancestry who are enrolled in their nations. No one has yet to point out the travesty of the disenfranchisement of their kinsmen from within. And to see a statement, that somehow Chickasaw-held African slaves were given refuge--and to see the statement coming from a tribal-sanctioned site is disturbing.

An Opportunity
Yet, as much as their statement is disturbing, it also presents an opportunity for a new dialogue. There is an opportunity for those in the Chickasaw Nation who wish to mention slavery in the Territory, to truly address it with honesty and clarity. There is an opportunity for there to be dialogue between the Freedmen of both Choctaw-and Chickasaw Nations, to engage in dialogue with descendants of Choctaw and Chickasaw slave holders.

On this day, honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King we can learn much from the words of this wise man, on this day. And perhaps someday on the soil of Tuskahoma to Tishomingo, as Dr. King said, that perhaps "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood."

If there is such a desire to extend an olive branch, the opportunity should be seized.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

1896 Roll and Chickasaw Freedmen

When the 1896 Roll was compiled, prior to the official Dawes enrollment process, there were many Chickasaw Freedmen who had begun to be interviewed.  Many were aware of their status as Freedmen, and were wishing to make sure that their status as having the blood of their fathers be acknowledged. Many appeared and went into great detail about their family background. They knew that they were "Negro" as stated in many of the records, but they also went into significant detail about their Chickasaw heritage, hoping that their possession of " Indian blood" would be recognized.

However, their possession of African blood was evident and was a point that the Chickasaw Nation chose to point out was the basis of their exclusion. In the case of Aaron Simon, who was applying as a Chickasaw citizen, the attorneys for the Chickasaw Nation replied and pointed out clearly that there was no place for people from the "Negro race" among their citizens by blood, even if the applicant contained the coveted "Indian blood." The response is seen clearly in this official statement by Chickasaw Nation attorneys that follows.

The first reason to reject all freedmen states clearly: "The laws of the Chickasaw Nation forbid the inter-marriage between a Chickasaw Indian by blood with any negro."

The letter points out that the nation refused to adopt the Freedmen according to the treaty, and that they were vehemently against this and because they refused to do so, once again, the Freedmen with Indian blood were not to be considered as Chickasaws by blood. In case after case, the applications made by Freedmen unfolded, until they were suddenly as a policy brought to an end. The result was that Freedmen applications were to simply be "summarized" as the concept of family units consisting of Indians and Freedmen was not to be tolerated within their nation. The applications of Freedmen seeking admission by blood contains useful data for historical as well as genealogical research. Hopefully many will start to look at these records.

These records are part of National Archives record group M1650