Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Forty Acres and a Mule!

“I’ve spent much of my life searching for the stories of the African American peoples; I’ve always wanted to tell their story” Henry Louis Gates

As I watched Episode 3 of “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” I was reminded of the Naked Gun movie and the scene where explosions are going off, cars are being demolished and all kinds of havoc are going on when the main character of the movie parts the crowd and deadpans, “move along people there’s nothing to see here.” If you have ancestors that lived in Indian Territory, watching this program would be like the Naked Gun, no reason to watch, just move along, nothing to see…

Having said all of that, there was considerable attention given to the proposition of former slaves owning their own land and an emphasis was placed on the Sea Islands for their farming of the  a special blend of cotton and the fact that these blacks had the opportunity to grow this cotton on their own land.

I find it increasingly difficult to say good things about Dr. Gates and his so called “searching for stories of the African American people.” Episode three dealt with the issue of General Field Order # 15 issued by General William Tecumseh Sherman granting the proverbial forty acres and a mule to the emancipated slaves.

Map of Indian Territory Located at Fort Smith, Arkansas Museum
If the producers had taken the time to research the history of “The African American peoples” they would have EASILY discovered thousands of former slaves working land of their own and a treaty that granted these former slaves anywhere from forty to one hundred and sixty acres of land for every man, woman and child that was enslaved or a descendant of a former slave in the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek or Seminole Nations.

Following the Civil War the Five Slave Holding Tribes agreed to treaties in 1866 that emancipated their slaves; adopt them into the nation of their last slave owner as a citizen and provide them with land to become self sufficient.For the thousands of African Americans formerly enslaved in Indian Territory, they would have the ability to farm land that “state Negroes” could only dream about.  

The idea that a complete and thorough history of “African American peoples” is being presented with this program has been increasingly disappointing. Evidently, the idea of former slaves owning and farming their own land and developing all black towns while facing long odds and southern hostility did not occur for the former slaves of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Indians.

I have to ask the question why?

The struggle for civil rights among the Indian Territory freedmen is extensively documented in government record after government record from the Congressional Record to the Supreme Court; again, why is this history being excluded as part of African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross?
House Executive Document 207 42nd Congress, 3rd Session

If the producers and Professor Gates were dedicated to presenting the “stories of the African American peoples” he most certainly should have been aware of the rich stories about survival, protest and political intrigue that existed in Indian Territory following the Civil War. The Five Slave Holding Tribes fought on the side of the confederacy to protect their institution of chattel slavery.  Yet there was not one word concerning this history and the African Americans in Indian Territory affected by the war and it’s aftermath.

For the record, there is no way Dr. Gates can claim ignorance to this part of “African American history. In another made for television program he produced; Dr. Gates presented the genealogy of actor DonCheadle who is, in fact a Chickasaw Freedmen descendant. During the course of his presentation to Cheadle, Gates was quick to point out the one person who had some connection to Native Americans had no discernible “Indian blood” in his DNA; rightfully so, but to dismiss this history as a vital part of African American history is without a doubt problematic and incomplete.

Chickasaw Freedmen Dawes Card#729 Mary Kemp ancestor of Don Cheadle's
At this point I have absolutely no confidence the history of African Americans and their descendants who survived slavery among the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Indians will be presented in this six part program; African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. As I look at this last night was a perfect opportunity to present the history of Native Americans involvement in the Civil War and the land acquired by thousands of African Americans because despite General Field Order #15, these were probably the only former slaves that received at least forty acres. How the program missed that is beyond belief.
Land Allotment Land Description for Mary Kemp Ancestor of Don Cheadle
Mound Bayou was touted as an example of what former slaves could do when allowed to live alone in an all black town providing for their family's. It is remarkable not a word was mentioned about the multitude of "all black towns" in Indian Territory. 

When you look at the history of all black towns in Indian Territory and later the state of Oklahoma, you see towns from Bailey to Wybark with many of the citizens there former slaves and their descendants along with former slaves of the United States settling in during reconstruction to establish a place where they could worship, raise a family and provide the necessities of life to survive and prosper. Why there hasn't been any mention of these African Americans is a mystery to me; especially since Professor Gates has prior exposure to this very history.

The freedmen of Indian Territory who were enslaved by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Indians rebelled during their enslavement and some found their way to military locations where the Union Army was stationed to volunteer to fight to secure their freedmen as United States Colored Troops. These men came back to the Territory to become some of the leading men in the territory to continue their struggle for equal rights, citizenship and a share of the land that a few short years earlier they had been enslaved. 

Senate Document 82 40th Congress, 2nd Session p5

There were many men who survived the Civil War in one capacity or another when the war was over these former slaves manifested the leadership skills necessary to serve their community during the struggle to equal rights as citizens in the nations of their birth.They became interpreters, lawmen, farmers, and civic leaders their efforts should be recognized as contributions to the history of African Americans.A few of them survived and lived to be allotted land by the Dawes Commission circa 1898-1914.

Bynum (Byington) Colbert, Franklin Bartlett, Richard (Dick) Stevenson, Stephen Colbert, Nathan Cochran, Smith Brown, Isom Flint, Richard (Dick) Brashears, Watson Brown, King Blue and Isaac Alexander all lived to teach and train a younger generation of leaders like Charles Cohee during the difficult transition from enslavement to citizenship. 

Civil War pension file Isaac Alexander Courtesy of Angela Walton-Raji

Bynum Colbert Index to Civil War Pension file Courtesy of Angela Walton-Raji
Charles Cohee photo courtesy of Evelyn Norwood

If forty acres of land is the benchmark for progress it was in full effect in Indian Territory. 
The transition from slave to freedman was seen in full effect in Indian Territory. 
The ups and downs of Reconstruction was seen in full effect in Indian Territory. 
Dealing with lynching and Jim Crow was seen in full effect in Indian Territory.

What does it take to recognize this history of African Americans on the other side of the Mississippi River? 

What is the problem with recognizing the history of the African Americans just north of the Red River?

Indian Territory Freedmen and their descendants could borrow a phrase from Harriett Tubman, "Ain't I African American?"

This blog post is part of a collaboration of posts being shared by a group of bloggers who are part of the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle. We are sharing our own personal family stories, as the series air on PBS. 

The Bloggers are:
Nicka Sewell Smith (Who is Nicka Smith)                               


  1. I wish you could do a program devoted to this very neglected aspect of black history. I learn more with each reading of your blog and I don't think Gates is going to include any of it in Many Rivers.

    1. Greetings Kristin,

      It is unfortunate we don't have an opportunity to see the history of the Indian Territory Freedmen being presented in some form during the course of #ManyRiversPBS having been conducting this research for the past 100 years ;-D has left me with the understanding that the majority of people may never know this history but that is not what motivates my research.

      I am excited by the new discovery. The opportunity to help someone discover their ancestor and how they are connected to this history.

      My greatest desire is having the ability to perform more research, preserve and publish the images of freedmen I know exist in the families of freedmen descendants.

      Perhaps that's Gates' problem, it is easier to tell a story of an individual if you have an image of that person. They cease to be just words on a page.

      That is what he is doing with this 6 part program; by putting faces to this history it comes alive for people and I'm convinced there are faces of freedmen that exist like those on this blog page.

  2. Terry, you have presented this missing story quite well.

    And yes, the Freedmen of Indian Territory---of Five Slave Holding Tribes did get their land allotments before Oklahoma statehood.

    Sadly scholars from Hampton, to Howard, to Harvard, continue to look past these thousands of families of color who resisted their status of enslavement continually. Unfortunately some of today's scholars look the other way and dismiss Indian Territory and its hidden African American history as another chapter of Black trying to tie to a mythical Indian ancestor. We have seen this in previous documentaries.

    But the story of Blacks in Indian Territory is there, and should one of the old guard scholars look, they will find an amazing history of resistance to slavery and incredible resilience.

    The only good point is that there are new scholars on the horizon who are emerging and who are daring to address this long overlooked piece of history, Thanks for your work and for continuing to tell the story. All of them need to be told, from that of your ancestor Bettie and her roll for the Chickasaw Freedmen, to that of poor Lucy--the Choctaw slave burned by a revenge seeking slave mistress, to that of Jackson Crow, caught in a political tribal murder and its aftermath. So much more work needs to be done and so much more to research.

    1. You are correct, we can't and probably shouldn't depend on other people telling our story. There are some good people out there that have done an admirable job, Jesse Schreier, Daniel Littlefield, Kevin Mulroy and Claudio Saunt come to mind but it may just come down to us providing some intimate details that only we can to breathe life into this story.

    2. My name is Shryl Cudjoe-Quintane. I live in Oklahoma. I am a black descendant of Daugherty Winchester Colbert who was the second governor of the Chickasaw Nation. I have applied for citizenship to the Chickasaw Nation and was denied on January 15.2014. I sent in all of the documentation to prove lineage by blood, but was told that my ancestors were freedman, even with proof of the Chickasaw 1890 Census stating my ancestors were both Indian and Negro. I am appealing this decision this week. If we don't stand up for our rights, there is no hope to change this type of discrimination,. When I applied, I sent in your article on how Winchester Colbert sold his son to Johnson Perry. His son, Nelson Colbert was my great-great-great grandfather. Do you know of any other avenues I might be able to pursue?

      Shryl Quintane

  3. Mabe just mabe Gates and others will see these stories and give them their due in a larger audience. I won't hold my breath for fear of passing out but I will pray that it will come to pass. Nice blog post!!

  4. My name is Shryl Cudjoe-Quintane. I am a descendant of the second Chickasaw Governor of Oklahoma. His name was Daugherty Winchester Colbert. I have proven with official documents to the Chickasaw Nation my lineage to Winchester Colbert, but have been denied citizenship as of January 15,2014. I have 30 days to appeal the denial. The appeal will go back to the same person that denied me the first time. I am in the process of contacting as many other descendants of freedman so that these laws of discrimination can be changed for our descendants. If we don't stand up for what is due our people, then the same laws will remain in effect. Please contact me at

    1. Greetings Shryl,

      It is unfortunate the Chickasaw Nation as well as the other four "slave holding tribes" continue the antebellum practice of defining people by the "race" of their female ancestor.

      Despite the scientific and genealogical facts concerning lineage, the Five Slave Holding Tribes continue to rely on the idea that people like you have "Indian blood" and conversely continue to deny citizenship applications based on the flawed Dawes Commission records.

      Personally I have always been interested in working with other descendants who can demonstrate a "blood lineage" to a Choctaw or Chickasaw Indian (typically male) and denied citizenship solely because the Dawes Commission and the tribal leaders chose to make a distinction because ONE of their ancestor's was considered to be of African descent.

      It was wrong then and the practice is a continuation of that injustice.

    2. The Bureau of Indian Affairs have a document that states to become a citizen,, you must prove your RELATIONSHIP to an enrolled member of the tribe. What does a RELATIONSHIP include? Could that be an aunt or uncle? They are blood relatives.
      Shryl Cudjoe-Quintane