Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forgotten Days of Early Oklahoma - The Negro State Fair

From the years before statehood till the mid 1900s there were a number of events that were frequently attended by the Oklahoma African American community.  For many decades, families from the Freedmen communities of Indian Territory and later Oklahoma, celebrated Freedom and emancipation in early August. Another event was the Negro State Fair. In the early 1900s after statehood, Jim Crow was made legal when Senate Bill #1 was passed. But the African American community still lived and worked within those limitations to work and find time also to celebrate life.  One such even was the Negro State Fair. By 1915 such events occurred frequently.  But prior to that, many blacks from the new state of Oklahoma looked to Texas for inspiration for such fairs. A decade earlier a Negro state fair was a much anticipated event in Bonham Texas as well, and many families from Oklahoma are said to have frequented those four day events as well.
The events consisted of festivals, parades, music and rodeo expositions for the amusement of the spectators and visitors.

In 1920, the Tulsa Star, a black newspaper from Tulsa Oklahoma widely advertised the Oklahoma based Negro State fair. The sponsor of the event was J. Coody Johnson, the well known attorney and advocate for Seminole Freedmen. 
J. Coody Johnson
Courtesy: Oklahoma Historical Society

A resident of Wewoka, the event was held on Johnson's property along the state highway outside of the city limits. As this was a four day event, the state superintendent of education allowed the "colored" schools to be closed so that school children could also participate in this event.

Tulsa Star October 9, 1920

Events for this fair consisted of exhibitions, rodeo events and a unique treat----airplane rides for those who wished to experience flight!

Portion of article about Negro State Fair
Source: Tulsa Star October 9, 1920 Page 2

It should be noted that the 1920 event was not the first such fair. Several years prior to Coody Johnson's sponsored fair there were similar events held in Muskogee in 1915 and 1917.

As indicated on the flyer for the Muskogee event, a parade through Muskogee was planned. In a rare piece of film footage depicting Oklahoma black life in the 20th century, one can get a glimpse of the Muskogee parade.

Film Footage Showing Glimpse of Muskogee Parade

Although times have changed over the past century, that such events no longer have to be racially segregated, one should still take note of the efforts when people who were legally sanctioned from many public events, struggled to entertain each other within those boundaries established by law. They were and still are those who resisted, remained and thrived.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our History Has No Shame

If one has been reading the papers, there has been a flurry of articles from the mainstream press as well as the Indian press.  All refer to the current issues of the rights of Cherokee Freedmen.  These are people who have a documented tie to the Cherokee Nation. These are people that many in Tahlequah wish would disappear, but at last, their existence is becoming known. Their ties in fact are well documented.  There is the Dawes Roll--but there are three additional rolls depicting black Cherokees before that. (see below) And decades before the Dawes Rolls were created, there were several hundred slaves taken west on the Trail of Tears.

This history is the very reason why such headlines appear in the press today. The descendants of those slaves---whose taxes pay for their very own discrimination, are speaking out against their exclusion and treatment. Many are writing about the subject, and for some, the argument is simply put by Professor Carla Pratt, of Penn State University: 

What Does a Slave-holding People Owe to the Those They Enslaved?

To many, the story in the headlines in recent months has been a story that is complex and confusing. 
To others, this is a story where those who were enslaved, lived within a community, were later freed, and now ostracized by the community where they were enslaved. To others this is a latent struggle for civil rights.

For many, this is a source of surprise and shock, because much public sympathy is given to Cherokees and sad stories about their sufferings on the Trail of Tears are well known. 

But now it is becoming widely known that this same group enslaved others, and now 140 years later---some wish to have nothing to do with the descendants of those slaves--citing an "invasion" of now "non-tribal" people who have no rights, and who should never have rights. There are fears that including this portion of people who were in the Territory from the years of removal to the present, will somehow make their nation weak.

The press has covered this story with a variation of  headlines and reactions. Some will call it blatantly racist. Others will point out the injustices of how a tribe receiving Federal funds, and those same funds paid for by taxpayers---including Freedmen descendants---are now used to prevent descendants of the tribe's former slaves from being considered a part of the nation where their ancestors continued to live.

The story is a broad one that covers not only one, but  of FIVE tribes of Oklahoma. Those tribes known as the Five "Civilized" Tribes, by some, and the Five Slave-holding Tribes, by others, were removed to Indian Territory years before the Civil War. (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Nations) But what is not known is that slaves---African slaves---from the American South were taken westward with them.  These slaves were not friends, or wards, or people "taken in" as many wish to hear.  These people were enslaved, auctioned for, purchased, traded,  bartered for and sold.  

The ugly side of America's past also stains the histories of these tribes, although to date, none of these tribes, nor their "official histories" even admit that it took place. 

However, there are records---thousands of them, that tell another story---and these records rest in many places.

One hears about the Dawes Rolls---but before that there was the Kern Clifton Roll. Before that there was the Wallace Roll. Before that there was the 1880 Authenticated Cherokee Roll. Before that there were the federal records---the 1860 Slave Schedules, and before that there were the hundreds of Cherokee slaves taken west on the Trail of Tears. 

There is an abundance of documents, and the records are worth studying and the story is well worth telling.

Kern Clifton Roll of Cherokee Freedmen was compiled before the Dawes Roll

Wallace Roll was created before the Kern-Clifton Roll and the Dawes Roll

Barbara Benge Documented the 1880 Authenticated Cherokee Census in her book published by Heritage Books 

Thankfully the records and the press are slowly unraveling the secret of the stories of 7,000 plus slaves from Indian Territory, and their descendants. 

And Genealogists as well as hsitroian historians are telling so much more. One historian Dr. Tiya Miles who has begun to tell the stories of the slaves of Cherokees was recently awarded the esteemed MacArthur Award--the genius grant for telling this little known chapter in American history. The lesson for us all is to tell the story and to study the records, old and new and insure that this significant part of history will no longer be hidden. 

Those of us who descend from those who were enslaved must remember---our history has no shame. The shame comes in not telling the story. 

Whether descendants of the enslaved or the slave holder, withholding this story dishonors the ancestors and dishonors the past, it creates disharmony in the present and it also threatens the future.

We honor all of our ancestors by telling their story. Descendants of slaves are now discovering this story and telling it.  Descendants of Indian slave holders .....some are acknowledging it, some are resisting it, but like all battles for integrity, that which is correct, shall prevail.

Let us chose to honor our ancestors---all of them.