Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Remembering the August "Freedom Celebrations" in Indian Territory

Little is spoken about the lives of those once enslaved in Indian Territory. However, it is from the details of the people that history can be found. The issue of slavery practiced in Indian Territory is often ignored by historians of Oklahoma, historians of the Five tribes where enslaved people lived, and unfortunately largely forgotten by the descendants of those enslaved as well.

Thankfully there are a few stories that were captured and the Western History Collection of the University of Oklahoma has many of those long forgotten stories in the Indian Pioneer Papers. This is the month of August and for a period of at least 50 years after slavery ended in Indian Territory, the freed people, as well as their descendants celebrated their own release from bondage. These emancipation celebrations were widespread and freedmen from all of the five tribes. Well into the 20th century, such celebrations were known to be held in the month of August. With time, most celebrations were held around the 4th of August, in many Freedmen communities. Sadly, much of that tradition is now lost and today thousands of descendants are oblivious to the many yearly traditions honoring their ancestors and celebrating freedom.

As August quickly wanes it is important to note the words left by some who shared their memories of such celebrations. One of the field workers for the Indian Pioneer Papers project was Elizabeth Ross, who described Emancipation celebrations that occurred in the Cherokee Nation, and her notes are stored with the collection and are recorded here:

"Freedmen Celebration"

"During a number of years when the Cherokee government was in existence, it was a custom of the freedmen or former slaves  and their descendants to observe the 4th day of August as the anniversary of their emancipation. As a matter of historical fact, the Cherokee emancipation was issued in the month of February 1863. Just why the August date was selected is not clear, but many were of the belief that the fourth day of that month was the date upon which freedom became their possession.

At Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory the Four Mile Branch, east of Fort Gibson, and at other places, there were held during the years largely attended picnics, at which there was speaking, singing, and bountiful repasts. Noted speakers, prominent white men, Cherokee officials and others often attended the observances. Besides a great variety of other food products, barbecued beef, mutton and pork were provided in abundance, all being spread upon long tables in the shade of the trees, in the vicinity of a spring of water. One of the most largely attended anniversary picnics was that which was held at Tahlequah at the close of the seventies of the last century. A long line of horsemen was formed on the banks of a small stream nearly a mile south of the town, and then a procession headed by a ma*n with drawn sword beside whom rode another man carrying a United States flag rode back and through the main street of Tahlequah. The mounted men sang patriotic songs in far-reaching tones, and halted at the chosen place of meeting which was on level and shaded ground near the vicinity of the large spring at the north end of the main street. The spring was years later designated as the Seminary spring, the Cherokee National Female Seminary having been completed a short distance north of the spring in 1889.

The young persons in attendance indulged in games and older persons "reminisced" of bygone years. A large number of the old time negro people were then alive, some of them having been brought to Indian Territory from the "Old Nation" east of the Mississippi River, at the time of the great Cherokee removal in 1838-39.

At later dates the celebrations were held on the "May party Grounds"  on the (...words missing from image...) of Tahlequah. This was the spot upon which was held the annual 7th of May anniversary holiday which was observed by the National high schools in commemoration of the opening of the Seminaries at the beginning of the fifties of the nineteenth century. On what was probably the last emancipation celebration at this picnic ground, considerable trouble prevailed. There was a revolver firing and a horse was killed, and a man received a painful but not dangerous wound.

In later years the celebration was usually held in the Four Mile Branch locality, in which lived a number of Freedmen and their descendants. The very few older negroes now living recall having seen large and enthusiastic crowds at the annual observance in long past years.

Authority:  E. P. Parris, and Dennis Hendricks"
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In September of 1937, Billie Byrd was an interviewer in the Pioneer project as well. She spoke at length with Aaron Grayson who was a Creek Freedmen. He too spoke in depth about the celebrations in the territory. In addition to the Creeks, it appears that Seminoles also joined in the celebrations as well. The notes made by Billie Byrd from that interview are transcribed below:

An Interview with Aaron Grayson, freedman
of Hitchita Town (Tulwa), Okemah Okla."

Billie Byrd Interviewer
Indian Pioneer History

There was an annual celebration held each year from the period from 1870 on up until the early part of 1900, which was held by negroes and freedmen. The white people observed Independence day on July 4th while the colored people observed the Emancipation day on August 4th. The observance of this Emancipation proclamation was mainly for and by negroes and freedmen, yet the Indians and whites were welcome to attend the celebrations.

There were always good times, because no one became drunk, quarrelsome or tried to pick a fight but only a feeling of good comradeship was felt by all who participated in the events. Of course the Lighthorsement and United States marshals were present to check any trouble and to keep peace and order. Many new acquaintances and lasting friendships were often made at these gatherings.

When a place was chosen where the celebrations were to be held, an American flag was set up and a cannon placed nearby which was fired at certain times. When the day of the celebration drew near, the best and the most highly spirited horses were taken care of by being well groomed and fed to have them in fine shape and rested up to ride that day. The saddles were all decorated with ornaments and fringes which were draped down on both sides of the horse. The rear part of the horse were (sic) mostly covered by heavy fringing and sometimes these fringes were decorated with German silver.

The Indian men who rode horses wore what seemed to be fancy costumes but they were the clothes that were being worn in everyday life. There was a coat which was made of fancy printed calico. These coats were not only worn during the celebration, but all the time. They were highly and fancy trimmed by very bright and vari-colored material, had a large cape collared and heavily trimmed. The sleeves just above the elbow length were further ornamented with colored ribbons that hung in streamers. The trouser legs were both gathered above the knees with ribbons and tied into a bow. If a ribbon was not used, the trouser leg was stiffly starched.

When the day of the great celebration arrived, the people did not come poking around one by one, but they came in a group or by bands, such as the Bruner band, Tokpafka band, etc. These people had assembled at one of the tribal towns from where they had come to the celebration as early as they could. They came on horses at a gallop, laughing and joking and yelling and were heard miles away before they finally came to the chosen place of the event.

When these groups reached the place of the celebration, the band would circle around the flag pole and the cannon was fired off, which was a sign for the people to take off to one side, for the other band to march around the flag pole and the cannon fired off again. There were always cheering words for one another of the participants and friendly greetings from friend to friend.

A queen was often chosen for the occasion by a majority vote of the people and there were always several girls running for this title. My sister was once elected queen. The queen was crowned with a crown made of silk material. The elected queen was given a divided riding skirt which had been made out of calico and the best decorated horse complete with saddle and other accessories was donated to the chosen queen to ride that day. The queen was free to ride anywhere she wished but there were two mounted attendants always at her side whose duties were to help the queen mount and dismount on and from her horse and in any way assist the queen even when a runaway occurred.

It was mostly the women who attended to the fixing the barbecue while the idle ones spent their time riding to and back to a certain place and in exchanging jokes, telling tales and other loud and boisterous fun.

When the refreshment hour rolled around it was then that the Indians showed why they were present because they had come for the eats mostly. At the close of the day, everyone felt that this was a day that had been well-spent in good fellowship. At the end of the day, different groups left for their homes with as much banter as they had gathered. 

These celebrations have been held in Wetumka, and Wewoka vicinity and the last even was held at Tuskegee, a country trading store north of Okemah........."

* * * * * 

Both of the interviews reflect a close and amicable relationship among the various populations found in both Cherokee, Creek Nations and from Grayson's interview it is clear that Seminoles also celebrated freedom in August as well. It is not clear if there were emancipation celebrations in Choctaw or Chickasaw Nations. Freedmen in the northernmost part of Choctaw country actually were geographically close to Cherokee communities, so it quite possible that Freedmen from Skullyville, Oak Lodge and other communities, would have attended the events in Tahlequah, or Ft. Gibson.

The celebrations of those years also reflect an amiable rapport between Freedmen and tribal leaders. Socially the Freedmen and those "by blood" were not strangers to each other. And most notably, the tribal leaders did not hold anti-Freedmen sentiments, or exhibit blatant racial disdain that has been evidenced in recent years with leaders espousing various concerns about the Indian-ness of tribal Freedmen. Linguistic calisthenics are often played today, with clear lessons that can be learned from their ancestors of a century ago.

Perhaps with time, Freedmen descendants and other Territory descendants of the various tribes will revive a time of celebration of fellowship and camaraderie. Both communities, share the same historical landscape, they share the same soil, and the share the same history from the same trail. There is much to be learned from the ancestors.