Tuesday, June 29, 2010

High School Life in Oklahoma Black Communities

Pages from Souvenir Booklet from combined 
school event from participating black high schools in
1950, Muskogee County, Oklahoma

When we speak to our elders, asking them about details from their own life and their youth can sometimes bring out wonderful artifacts from their lives.  These artifacts are more than just mere souvenirs, for they are reflections of the times.

I had a chance to look at such artifacts from a cousin who lived in Muskogee Oklahoma when a young girl, and she shared a booklet from her youth.  Though a this might appear to be a mere senior prom book---it told a greater story.

It must be pointed out that Indian Territory, now Oklahoma is seldom mentioned as part of the south, but southern it was. In the early days of Indian Territory there was slavery, slave rebellions, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and then legalized segregation. Freedmen struggles, and the struggles of blacks who fled the deep south----all led to circumstances that made the lives of our ancestors in the Territory and later in the new state of Oklahoma very challenging.

But this was also felt among those of the next generation, who became our parents,  Although the 20th century for many brought a degree of stability,  hundreds of black families at the very least, saw a system that would provide mandatory education for their children, though segregated. Thus, children of  Indian Freedmen from the Slave holding tribes as well as "state Negroes" both became victims of a well entrenched system of exclusion that would last for 6 decades. But----they coped within the system.

Their schools did not have much funding individually to hold their own events such as proms. And many had senior classes that were extremely small---in some cases less than 10 graduating students. So---to provide some social outlets for the students, the segregated schools decided to hold a combined senior prom, incorporating the black schools in the area.  Most were from Creek communities, including towns such as Tullahassee, Rentiesville and Summit.

From my recent visit to Reno Nevada, and spending time with my father's first cousin who attended such a segregated school in Oklahoma-- she brought out some wonderful old photos and souvenirs from her high school days in Muskogee Oklahoma. She graduated from the well known all black high school in Muskogee, Muskogee Manual and Training School.   One of her mementoes was a souvenir book from her Senior Prom in 1950.
Cover of Souvenir Booklet from Senior Prom 1950

The prom was a collaborative effort between the black high schools in the nearby black towns and settlements, and all celebrated together.  The booklet reflected the communities where mostly Creek Freedmen resided, and the names of the seniors from each participating school was listed. They were listed as "Special Guests."

Though the booklet could simply be described as a souvenir from an event in the life of a teenage girl, it is more than that.  The families living in a segregated south, did carve out meaningful lives for themselves. They thrived and shared events and they too, holding on to precious memories of the days of their youth.

The booklet reflects the fact that even where some of the graduating classes were notably small, such as Ft. Gibson, they were segregated and would not be merged into the larger school systems till the late 1960s, when integration came. So their schools, though separate and not equal to the schools of their neighbors--persevered, by merging events and social activities and they interacted within a larger community where residents of the small black settlements cooperated to provide a social network for their children.


Many of these students attending this senior prom in 1950 are now in their 70s, and thankfully time has changed somewhat---even in Oklahoma.  Though struggles still continue especially for those seeking more information on their history in the historical black communities---it is through the artifacts of our families that we can obtain interesting glimpses into the past.


The greater lesson is for us to inspect the items from the past and to place them in the historical context from which they came. 

These schools no longer exist and the children and grandchildren of these students now attend integrated schools, with exposure to the same curriculum, textbooks and opportunities.  We must also appreciated how our parents and grandparents coped within a world that put so many obstacles in their paths for success. Our own appreciation for their accomplishments should therefore enlighten us and inspire us all to tell their stories.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Let My People Go! An Appeal to the Ft. Smith Freedman's Bureau Field Office

Old Commissary Bldg.
Ft. Smith Arkansas Field Office Freedman's Bureau
(Library of Congress)

A good friend and colleague of mine from Hampton Virginia, was going through a publication that she had pertaining to records of the Freedman's Bureau.  Known officially as the Bureau of Refugees Freedmen & Abandoned Lands, this bureau worked as an agency providing services to newly freed slaves. Selma Stewart, Hampton AAHGS president shared with me a series of documents that she saw indexed, and that they contained references to Indian Territory Freedmen.  She thought that I would be interested.  Indeed, she was right. 

Some background----

The Freedman's Bureau had a field office in Ft. Smith Arkansas. Among the many tasks at the Ft. Smith Freedman's Bureau office, was also to serve as an office that assisted with the needs of Freedmen from Indian Territory. These were those enslaved by the Indian tribes that had held families of African descent in bondage. 

Freedom had already come to Ft. Smith by late 1863, when a combination of abolitionist activities, and the occupation of the Ft. Smith fort by Union soldiers, occurred, and many once enslaved black people inhaled their first breath of Freedom. In nearby Indian Territory--in both the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, many men got the word that if they could make their way to either Ft. Gibson, or Ft. Smith---they too, would be free.  Some took their chance and escaped, mostly in the dead of night. They would eventually find their way to the Federal line---and if able bodied, they enlisted. 

After the war, many wished to return to Indian Country---but several indicated that they had been prevented from returning----as slavery had not yet ended. 

They had but once choice---to appeal to the US Government for assistance to set their people free.  These letters were retained by the Ft. Smith Field Office, and they provide a glimpse into the days after the war, when in late 1865 and 1866--some of these individuals wanted to be reuninted with their loved ones.

They wrote for assistance under the leadership of Daniel Loman, a Choctaw Freedman. They also compiled a list of names of some of the families still being held in bondage.  

The letter pertaining to their suffering right after the war, depicted a time in which though the war had ended, the plight of slaves held in bondage in Indian Territory--was a dangerous one.

Daniel Looman was a leader among a group of other men, who wrote to the Bureau asking for assistance.  He was among a group of men who had escaped from bondage, who still have loved ones remaining in bondage towards the end of 1865.  They wanted to be reunited with their loved ones, and they were in fear of losing their lives.

Letter sent to Freedman's Bureau

Thanks to Selma Stewart a devoted Virginia genealogist, these documents were brought to my attention.  Filed among a series of over 70 reels of microfilm---these precious pages reflecting the letters and some of the names are a wonderful find. They tell another part of this long over looked history.  I present a one of those pages here. 

A Partial List of Freedmen still held in bondage
included in appeal to the Freedman's Bureau in Ft. Smith, Arkansas

Once received, this letter was directed to the national headquarters of the Freedman's Bureau in Washington DC.

Cover Letter sent to Washington DC seeking
relief for families still held in bondage, October 1865

Let us hope that the wait to be reunited with their families was not too long. 

The Treaty of 1866 eventually abolished slavery in the Indian Tribes, and although many today, would like to see this never mentioned again, thankfully, some of  the stories of these forgotten people have been found, and can be told.

Friday, June 4, 2010

When Freedom Came...to Indian Country

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

* * * * * * * * * *

"...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

* * * * * * * * * *

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. ..........
* * * * *
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. ........
* * * * *

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.

* * * * *
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.
* * * * *

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!
* * * * *

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.
* * * * *

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.
* * * * *

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Old Newspapers - A Gateway to the Past Days of Indian Territory

Muskogee Cimeter - Muskogee, Indian Territory
 August 1904

In 1904 the Muskogee Cimeter, an African American newspaper in Indian Territory, a series of articles appeared reflecting the events from the local citizens. This Muskogee newspaper, was based in the Creek Nation, but it reported events pertaining to Freedmen from both Creek and Cherokee Nations, in addition to all items newsworthy to the black population as a whole. From such newspapers much history can be learned and one can also reflect how the events of the day may have affected their own families.

Glancing at the front page of the Muskogee Cimeter, in August 1904 one learns that towards the end of the Dawes interview process, several hundred Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation were still not interviewed. Therefore, they had to travel from their homes in Cherokee country, to interview with the Dawes Commission in Muskogee.

Cherokee Freedmen to go to Muskogee to Enroll

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the town of Rentiesville (referred to as Rentie) the activities in this small town can be gleaned by reading this entry.
Articles from the town of Rentiesville

The activities of the local AME Church were mentioned and the community was also preparing eagerly for the annual August 4 BBQ. As is known by many with ties to Oklahoma, August 4th was celebrated for many decades as the official celebration of Emancipation. This day commemorated the date when the Loyal Creeks made an official designation of the Freedmen as citizens of the nation. This was prior to the 1866 treaty, in fact. For many years Freedmen throughout Indian Territory symbolically embraced August 4, as a day to celebrate their own release from bondage. Many black communities held annual picnics, barbecues and celebrations to honor this date. In the latter half of the 20th century some of the emancipation celebrations evolved in to local church homecoming celebrations that occurred at the same time, but the newspapers of the day clearly reflected the importance of August 4th as a celebration of Freedom.

(According to scholar Gary Zellar: On August 4, 1865, the Loyal Creek Council formally declared that African Creeks would be considered full citizens of the Creek Nation. African Creeks soon designated August 4th “Emancipation Day” and organized celebrations, including picnics, parades and speakers beginning as early as 1867, which continued through the Territorial days and early years of Oklahoma statehood. The celebration fell into disuse as the African Creeks and other Indian freedpeople were increasingly marginalized in the twentieth century.)
SOURCE: Gary Zellar, African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).

Remembering August 4th Emancipation Day

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Acts of violence towards people of African Ancestry were common throughout the South and in the twin territories--Indian Territory/Oklahoma Territory life was no different:

Holdenville Citizens Needing protection
The town of Holdenville had experienced violence towards its black citizens and Federal officers were aswked to intervene. This occurred 3 years before statehood, and many in that small community were not protected from such threats to their safety.  References to the Republicans (the more liberal part of the day) being unseated by more hostile southern Democrats, were heard, and the terror with which the population lived are discussed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A Call for a Mass Convention
The political climate of the day was felt by the local population and was reflected in the same publication. A call for a mass Colored Convention was made and was scheduled for August 16th calling many who were spokespersons of the day to celebrate.  The purpose was to call for the rights of suffrage as stated by the United States constitution.  As statehood quickly approached, the concernw as that blacks living in the soon to be new state, be given the right to vote, and not be ostracized as were blacks in other parts of the South.

The call for a Mass Colored Convention

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The stories from the newspapers of the day, reflect the political and social climate that our ancestors experienced.  Indian Territory in pre-statehood days was a volatile place and our ancestors lived with those fears for their life and safety.  Thankfully, one can still explore the newspapers of the day that assist us in telling the story more effectively.  They can also become useful guides for researchers when sitting down to discuss the issues of the day, with the elders. 

Our goal of course, is to tell the story.