Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Timelines Cross Many Rivers

Slavery is not a shame on me!” Vincent Brown Ph.D

I am struck by the use of timelines to tell the story of "African American history" and how they can illustrate so many points along the “Many Rivers” we have crossed. The first time I was made aware of timelines was a presentation given at the genealogical society I have been a member since it’s founding; African American Genealogical Society of Northern California.

Don’t ask me who gave the presentation and I apologize to the woman that did, however her lesson was not lost on me. As I continue to view the program “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” it is apparent the producers and historians are utilizing this technique to tell the complex history of blacks in America.

What has puzzled me (to some extent) is not what is being offered as historical events along this timeline but what I would consider a history that is just as interesting and vital in telling a more complete story of African Americans and their history on the American continent.

Episode two opened on the timeline of 1781 with the story of ElizabethFreeman aka Mum Bett, a woman who filed suit for her freedom because she believed she too was entitle to the “pursuit of happiness” as was expressed around the dinner table she served.

The timeline was used again to illustrate the point in time when in 1786 Richard Allen purchased his freedom and moved to Philadelphia where he would eventually found the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As the program pointed out, the church he attended previously segregated the congregation and reminded Allen that freedom did not mean “equal.”

The date on the timeline of 1800 illustrated a couple of things that are of great significance; the introduction of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney and the establishment of Natchez, Mississippi as the second largest slave market in the United States at the time at Forks of the Road, MS.

These timelines were particularly interesting to me because in a very brief passing moment I heard the narrator mention the “Indian Removal” I’m sorry; the Native American removal during this period of time and was perplexed why this was used as a footnote to African American history.

In the state of Mississippi, next door to Alabama, just south of and west of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and good old Florida the “Native American” removal, the brainchild of no other than the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, (you know him, of the Declaration of Independence;  fame “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Somehow this timeline of events did not warrant including with it, the history of antebellum slavery among those same “Native Americans” who would be “removed” to Indian Territory circa 1830-40’s and would carry with them possibly Africans and African descendant people purchased at Forks in the Road Mississippi is incredible. I would suggest this history belongs on the same timeline of African Americans in the United States.

NARA Record Group 75 M234 Roll 148, frame 134

This nonchalant mentioning of the Indian removal dismisses thousands of people who descend from men and women who were brought west from places like the Carolina's, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida, who had a long history of being enslaved by Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Indians. I am at a lost as to how this continues to be no more than a footnote in African American history?

It is ironic; these people of African descent literally had to cross the largest river (Mississippi) in the country to get to Indian Territory and they would in time create some of the wealthiest “Indians” in the country based on slave labor.  

Episode two mentioned the second middle passage was the buying and selling of slaves to the Deep South; I guess when it came to Indian Territory they could technically say it wasn't “the deep south.” But even today Oklahoma (formerly Indian Territory) is referred to as “Little Dixie" and I'm sure in the upcoming episode on the Civil War the fact the Five Slave Holding Tribes fought on the side of the confederacy.

It seems to me that if the origins of the Five Slave Holding Tribes began in places like Mississippi (Choctaw), Alabama (Chickasaw), Georgia (Creek), Carolina’s (Cherokee) and Florida (Seminole) then the slaves held in bondage among these “tribes” warrant more than a footnote? Clearly before the Five Slave Holding Tribes were being removed during the 1830's and 40's they were residing in a place where the institution of slavery was rampant and they were willing participant and all we heard was "the removal of Native Americans?"

Prior to the Civil War, the 1860 Arkansas Slave Schedule was produced with the enumeration of slaves in Indian Territory. The one time I saw any indication of the fact that slaves were held in bondage during this program was the map illustrating the spread of "King Cotton" from the Atlantic coast and the deep south through what was Indian Territory (for those who are not aware, it’s that unique shaped state just about Texas.) IF the producers of this show knew that much, they seem to be remiss in the telling of this story; YET! I'm holding out hope that this oversight is corrected before we reach episode six….

The emigration roll of 1842 compared to the 1860 Arkansas Slave Schedule illustrates just how Jackson Kemp increased his wealth in eighteen years. There were other wealthy Native Americans who derived their wealth from enslaving people of African descent; including but not limited to the Love and Colbert families in the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. "Rich Joe" Vann in the Cherokee nation was rich because of slavery and this was repeated throughout the five tribes but you wouldn't know that by watching African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.


As we can see, according to the same timeline utilized in Episode Two of African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, there is another story of enslaved people of African descent living seemingly in a parallel universe; suffering the abuses, dehumanization and degradation that exist throughout the American continent. Unfortunately it appears their story has been lost on the producers of this documentary and that is disturbing considering the number of black voices with doctorates providing historical commentary.

I would humbly suggest the producers may have overlooked scholars who have published volumes on the history of Indian Territory and the institution of slavery. I would begin with Dr. Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. author of several books on Indian Territory and arguably the dean of historians on this subject.

Another excellent source of Indian Territory history would be my friend Dr. Jesse T. Schreier (yes, I’m biased but his work is worthy of reading.) Dr. Claudio Saunt has been teaching and writing about Creek freedmen and the Creek Nation history for quite some time and he deserves recognition as someone with valuable insight into African Americans enslaved by Native Americans.

There were many experts utilized that write about African American women’s interest during slavery and there are many women who can provide insights into the experience about the women of Indian Territory. Dr. Celia E. Naylor, has been writing on Cherokee Freedmen for years and recently I was delighted to engage in an online radio broadcast that showcased the work of Dr. Barbara Krauthamer; Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South.

I first met Dr. Tiya Miles in 2000 at a conference she was instrumental in organizing called “Eating From the Same Pot” at Dartmouth University. Dr. Miles was named as a MacArthur Genius Award recipient in 2012 and I’m sure capable of providing some critical information concerning the history of African Americans who were enslaved by Cherokee Indians.

Perhaps it’s “time” to present ALL  African American History?


Throughout the series, the African American genealogists and family historians listed below will weigh in on each week’s episode through the lens of their experiences as researchers, the stories of their ancestors, and the implications of the moments of African American history presented on family history research. 

Here’s the list of esteemed writers:


1 comment:

  1. Oh trust me Terry. I'm going to touch on this when we get to the next episode. There's a whole LOT of my ancestry that is being ignored in this series. I think they may be trying to make nice and not upset people, but you can't skirt the truth.

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