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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh Author's Book Explores "Black Freedom On Native Land" In The Old West

Roberts, Alaina_Photo by Jen Worley.jpg
Jen Barker Worley Photography
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Alaina E. Roberts is the author of "I've Been Here All The While."

Among the more infamous broken vows in American history is the promise of “40 acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved persons after Emancipation. But there’s one place on the continent where that promise was, to some degree, kept: The territory that later became the state of Oklahoma, where newly freedpeople lived alongside their former owners – Native Americans who’d been forced to move there from the American South.

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It’s a complicated story, one that Alaina E. Roberts tells in her new book “I’ve Been Here All The While: Black Freedom on Native Land” (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Roberts is a University of Pittsburgh professor specializing in the intersection of Black and Native American history. But that history is also one she lives, as the descendant of Creek and Chickasaw freed people who once inhabited that very land (though Roberts grew up in California). And it’s a slice of history that can help readers interpret a grim centennial: This May marks 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre, when mobs of whites killed hundreds of Blacks in Tulsa, Okla., and burned down the community known as Black Wall Street.

Indeed, even the fact that Native Americans once practiced chattel slavery — with the consent and encouragement of state and federal governments — might surprise some readers. But Roberts said it was all part of an official “civilizing policy” that pertained to indigenous people in the southeastern U.S., namely, the so-called Five Tribes, the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole.

Indigenous people were pushed to learn English, convert to Christianity, educate their children in the American fashion, and dress like Euro-Americans. “One of the other ways that they encouraged assimilation was through the adoption of slavery, which was, of course, increasingly important in American society,” Roberts said. Native Americans who bought in, she said, “were viewed as more civilized and as closer to whiteness.”

In turn, when whites — many of them slaveholders — sought more land in the South, it was the Native people who were forced west, and their human property with them. Thousands of enslaved people went west this way, she documents.

“My ancestors on my father’s side were owned by Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians, and that is how I have that ancestry as well,” said Roberts. “They were originally living in Mississippi with their owners and then traveled on the Trail of Tears with them. … And so they moved to what was then Indian territory, and what is today modern-day Oklahoma.”

This was the first wave of “settler colonialism” in the Midwest: Indigenous people, not whites. Among those who made the journey were Roberts’ great-grand-uncle Eli Roberts, a Black man whose story is one of several pieces of family history she incorporates into the scholarly book.

White society viewed the transplanted Natives as a civilizing force against the Plains Indians — and one way to drive them out, Roberts argues in her book.

Members of the Five Tribes were no more U.S. citizens than the Black people they owned, though some Native Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After Emancipation, Black freedpeople were not offered tribal membership, either, though many remained in the territory. One reason, Roberts documents, is that they were the only formerly enslaved people to receive reparations, in the form of land, on any large scale. Ironically, the land was awarded by the U.S. government, which ultimately denied those reparations to Black freedpeople in the actual states. One of the recipients was Roberts’ great-great-grandmother, Josie Jackson, whose story she tells in the book.

Roberts calls these holdings — which sometimes took the form of whole towns — “Black spaces within Indian nations.”

The Reconstruction of the Southern states along racially equitable lines was a limited success, at best, and even that was rolled back after the federal government withdrew its support starting in 1876. But for Blacks, that only increased the lure of the Oklahoma territory, for there they had “the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, things that African-Americans in the South could really no longer do,” said Roberts.

Cheap and plentiful land, and the discovery of resources like oil, spurred a big influx of migrants both Black and white to the territory, especially starting in the 1890s. The more desirable the land became to whites, however, the harder things got for Blacks and Native Americans, Roberts writes. Things only got worse after statehood was granted, in 1907. A particularly violent strain of this mindset culminated in the Tulsa Massacre. In response to the alleged assault of a white woman by a Black man, white mobs killed as many as 300 Blacks and destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of property.

Yet the historical legacy of the time and place Roberts depicts in “I’ve Been Here All the While” is complicated. For instance, even Black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass cheered on settler colonialism as “civilizing,” and Indian freedpeople sometimes resented the arrival of African Americans.

Roberts said she hopes the book furthers understanding of how we think about race today.

“I would like for us to better understand the fact that people of color can take on these ideas about white supremacy, these ideas about the inferiority of people of other races and use it against each other,” she said. “We often think about racism and prejudice as kind of almost solely the realm of white people, or the white-and-Black dichotomy. But by telling the story about how Native people were slave owners, Native people were oppressors of Black people, but also how Black people themselves took on certain ideas about Native inferiority, I hope that we can see that history is far more complex and also understand that even today, people of color have skirmishes, misunderstandings amongst themselves.”