Freedman fills in the blanks in black history with Native Americans
Posted 2 hours ago
Kenneth Ford is a retired ironworker from Kansas City. He is in his late sixties. And he is black. But he’s also a Freedman.
For the past several years, he has worked through the Descendant Freedmen Alliance of Kansas City to educate people about what this Freedmen designation means and why it matters.
So because Black History Month begins Tuesday, it’s a good time to learn about Native Americans who owned black slaves, like some of Ford’s ancestors, and who fought for the Confederacy during civil war. The descendants of these indigenous peoples are today linked with many African Americans, sometimes in an uncomfortable way.
Ford’s goal is to make sure people know about this complicated and fascinating history and to bring members of the five civilized tribes, as they are called, to work with black people whose family history is linked to these tribes. .
In the 1830s, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole tribes, located in the southeast part of the young nation, were forcibly moved to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) via the Trail of Tears. Ford’s own ancestors were sent to Oklahoma from Alabama.
Black slaves from these tribes and other free blacks who had married or were otherwise related to members of the tribe also walked the cruel path of tears.
Indian Territory began to shrink under the pressure of white expansion until it simply disappeared when Oklahoma became a state in late 1907. As Ford explained, something called the Dawes Act “was how the U.S. government determined how to acquire Indian lands. As long as the land was held collectively by the tribes, the government was unable to obtain it. But by dividing it into allotments and making it available to individuals – who then ceded their tribal covenant for US citizenship – it was much easier to take advantage of their economic ignorance and ultimately take control of the land.
Ford says his “family was associated with the Creek Tribe of Indians”, although that connection “is a bit murky”. But his research showed that some of his ancestors were slaves of a Creek Indian named McIntosh, “so once they moved to Oklahoma, they settled with the Creek Nation. That’s where I started looking for information. And I found little pieces along the way.
The name “civilized” attached to the five tribes reveals their willingness to embrace the culture of European invaders. Ford says these tribes “readily adhered to the European religion (Christianity). They stopped hunting and went trading instead. They dressed very similarly to white or European culture. And that also included owning slaves. The slavery of movable goods practiced by Europeans, these five civilized tribes adopted it more easily than others.
To try to keep their slaves, many of these tribes joined Confederate forces during the Civil War. Union troops, after all, had abandoned Indian Territory when the war began.
The war ended slavery but not for Native American slaves. This was to be accomplished by treaty in 1866. All tribes agreed to abolish slavery and give freedmen tribal rights, but as the High Country News publication explains, those rights, if granted, are become either abbreviated or patchy in many cases over time.
Ford found that after the Civil War his great-grandparents “received 160 acres of land in Oklahoma. They later sold half of it to the town of Broken Arrow. I have the receipt where my great-grandfather signed his 80 acres and my great-grandmother had her “X” on it, so they sold half, but we really don’t know what happened to the other half.
The history of the Freedmen is also complicated by the fact that tribal membership was determined by whether people were counted on particular rolls (the Dawes Rolls) of tribal citizens. High Country News says that this often left “freedmen without a country – at the time, they weren’t recognized as tribal or American citizens. Eventually, some of the five tribes enlisted the freedmen, only to unenlist them later.
More problematic, as this story explains, was that “tribal sovereignty allows tribes to determine their own criteria for citizenship. The five tribes base registration on lineage. Applicants who can prove descent from a member of the tribe are eligible for membership. But to prove this, would-be tribesmen must find an ancestor who was listed on the Dawes Rolls, a… Indian Country census that also served as a vehicle of dispossession. The Dawes Rolls divided the members of the tribe into two categories: “By blood” or “Freedmen”.
This meant that many people “descended from both tribal and freed ancestors remain ineligible for tribal membership simply because an ancestor was listed as freed on the Dawes Rolls”.
Ford put it this way: “The half-bloods ran the show in the five tribes.”
(Ford’s own Creek membership application was denied, he says, because the Creek slave owner who fathered one of Ford’s ancestors never acknowledged the child as his. )
But part of that tension between Bloods and Freedmen is changing. In 2017, for example, the Cherokees accepted their Freedman after a court ruling.
And though Ford says “the other four tribes have still been quite resistant to freedmen as tribal citizens,” he sees signs of possible change, in part because groups of freedmen with different tribal connections across the country seem to work together more closely.
“Over the past two years, I’ve seen a lot more unity, camaraderie and interaction with all Freedmen from all bands – because we’re all going through the same thing.” said Ford. “We have a common denominator: we serve a living God and believe in Jesus Christ as savior, and our grandparents and great-grandparents had a servant spirit.
Beyond that, there are lawsuits and a bill pending in Congress to allow freedmen who want to be full tribal members to accomplish this.
Additionally, Ford sees the progress his Kansas City Freedmen organization is making by connecting with others across the country.
“Our group has helped bring people together. When I walked in, there were Creek Freedmen here and Choctaw Freedmen there. And there were a few groups of Creek Freedmen and they were picking on each other. But since we started six years ago, we’ve been able to help start a group called Oklahoma Freedmen Collective. This group helps people collect their stories and document them.
All of this shows how complex and surprising black history can be. And it gives all of us, including the teachers who help students understand this story, a new word to add to our vocabulary: Afro-Indigenous.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly of the Kansas City Star, writes the “faith mattersblog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. Her latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at [email protected].