Freedmen: The untold history of Indian Country slaves
(FORT COFFEE, Okla.) Tens of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands during the 1830s and 1840s. But lesser in known history are the stories of who they took with them.
Angela Walton-Raji is a family historian and author. She tells us interest in her Native American ancestry was piqued when her Uncle Joe came to visit her great grandmother Sally and she stumbled upon them smoking pipes in the backyard.
“They were not speaking English,” Walton-Raji said. “They were speaking to each other in their native language, which was Choctaw. You know, it was just interesting to hear it even though they would kind of shoo us away.”
Decades later she attended a workshop on Native American ancestry at a genealogy conference.
And it got her thinking.
“I wonder if I could find anything in the National Archives on Nana, you know?” Walton-Raji said. “Is her name on any piece of paper here?”
It was. As was her grandmother’s, her uncle’s, and her aunt’s.
“And of course, Choctaw Nation was no surprise, this was always known to us,” Walton-Raji said. “But then I looked and saw something called ‘Freedmen roll’. Wow, what’s that? And I realized I had a really steep learning curve ahead of me.”
Through extensive research Walton-Raji fully grasped what she was uncovering.
“Ah. Freedmen. Freed women,” Walton-Raji said. “Freed from bondage. Freed from enslavement. And I realized this was more than interesting.”
It was untold history, hidden in plain sight within thousands of records. Thousands of African Americans had been owned by Native Americans. 20,000 people were enrolled in the Dawes Rolls as freedmen from 1898 to 1907. Some were born free. Others came over on the Trail of Tears.
“There were hundreds of enslaved people who came with the Cherokee removal, many of whom died also because that was such a tragic loss of life,” Walton-Raji said. “Yet the loss of the Black lives somehow did not matter.”
Some, like Walton-Raji’s ancestors, were born from a slave mother and Native American father. But that still wasn’t enough to enroll as a blood citizen.
“Even if the father was Native, the blood was never recorded,” Walton-Raji said. “So that column is empty.”
The Treaty of 1866 was the basis for the Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt ruling in 2020, which reaffirmed that much of eastern Oklahoma is still Indian Country because Congress never disestablished the reservations. But Walton-Raji laments another aspect of the same treaty is often overlooked: the part where the tribes agreed to abolish slavery and make their freed people citizens.
Instead, the majority of the Five Tribes kicked the Freedmen out. Some offered land. Some offered nothing.
The Seminole Nation accepted them as members but not citizens, denying them full rights.
The Chickasaw Nation abandoned them completely, leaving them without a nation for 40 years. They would become Oklahomans following statehood in 1907, but it was hardly a warm welcome.
“The very first bill enacted by the State of Oklahoma,” Walton-Raji said. “The coach law. Jim Grow. All of you, we don’t care what you are Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, from Tennessee, wherever. Get to the back of the bus. First law said you’re all negroes. Get to the back.”
In 2017, the Cherokee Nation decided to recognize their Freedmen as full citizens following years of legal battles. To this day it is the only Native American tribe to do so.
Walton-Raji said the lack of recognition for these people and their community leaders is tragic. Some were even tribal leaders, like Sugar T. George, whom she has been researching for nearly 30 years.
“This man at the time he died was said to have been the wealthiest negro in Indian Territory. Yet you can’t find a picture of him?” Walton-Raji said. “Now, not just because he was wealthy. But this man served in the House... in two ruling Houses of the Muscogee Creek Nation. He served in the House of Warriors. He served in the House of Kings.”
Walton-Raji said George was also a town king, interpreter and even permitted other freedman to camp on his land when they had no where else to go. Now he’s buried at Union Agency Cemetery in Muskogee County with other important freedmen leaders in a clump of trees that has long been forgotten, his headstone toppled over.
“This cemetery has been abandoned,” Walton-Raji said. “No effort from anyone to preserve this burial ground. What a tragedy. You have individuals who were leaders in their community. Forgotten. Ignored. They have become invisible in Oklahoma.”
But they won’t stay forgotten under Walton-Raji’s watch. She started writing about the Freedmen in 1991 and has since published three books on the topic.
Walton-Raji told us discovering what your ancestors lived through and accomplished during their lifetimes empowers future generations. That’s why she’s also helping to ignite sparks in Freedmen descendant towns like Fort Coffee, where others are picking up the torch of their untold history.
Stay tuned for more Freedmen stories coming soon.
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