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)
"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.
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.
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.
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