Last week, relatives and friends held a funeral for a leader of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma who fought for the rights of Black freedmen descendants.
Lena Jo Hunt Shaw, nicknamed “Bonnie”, passed away at the age of 85 on September 2nd, leaving behind a husband, children, grandkids and an entire Tribal community.
“I am overwhelmed by the support because she deserves every bit of it,” Saché Primeaux-Shaw told The Black Wall St. Times. Saché is “Bonnie’s” granddaughter and caretaker. “I just think she had a life well lived. I aspire to have half of that.”
A legacy of unapologetic service to community
According to her granddaughter, Sache, “Bonnie” Shaw’s legacy was filled with advocacy for others in her community, especially other descendants of Black freedmen who were once enslaved by the Seminole Nation.
Shaw spent decades on Seminole Council advocating for her people.
The Seminole Nation isn’t alone in having a slaveholding past. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Muscogee (Creek) Nations each held slaves prior to the end of the Civil War.
Seminole Nation continues to discriminate against freedmen descendants
When the Tribes were forced onto the deadly Trail of Tears en route to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), they brought their enslaved Black people with them.
Combined, the Five Tribes enslaved upwards of 8,000 Black people in Indian Territory, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Consequently, a series of treaties in 1866 between the Tribes and the U.S. government ensured full citizenship and recognition of rights for Black Freedmen and their descendants.
Today, however, Freedmen descendants of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma continue to face segregation within their own community.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Seminole Freedmen descendants say they’ve been denied access to vaccines, housing subsidies, and other benefits, according to the Associated Press.
Today, the Cherokee Nation remains the only one of the five tribes that fully recognizes the citizenship rights of its Freedmen descendants. For members of the Seminole Nation, the discrimination is especially hypocritical, considering Black people who fled slavery helped defend the Seminole Nation from the U.S. government in a series of wars in Florida, according to the Seminole Nation Museum.
“We fought in three wars with them to get where we’re at, and now they’ve turned against us,” Anthony Conley previously told the AP.
Righting wrongs committed against Seminole freedmen descendants
For her part, “Bonnie” Lena Jo Hunt Shaw spent two decades on the Wewoka-based Seminole Nation’s Tribal Council. Her family says she’s been a fierce advocate for the rights of freedmen descendants, even during tumultuous times.
In 2000, a Chief of the Seminole Nation completely expelled thousands of Black freedmen descendants from the Tribe, cutting them off from any funding.
A subsequent Chief reinstated the freedmen descendants following de-certification of the Tribe by the U.S. According to relatives, the change was also thanks in large part to the advocacy of people like “Bonnie” Shaw, who made a trip to Congress to give testimony in support of her fellow freedmen descendants.
Saché Primeaux-Shaw said the significance of her grandmother’s death will be felt for generations.
“Primarily it means they need to make things right with the freedmen,” Primeaux-Shaw said.
A legacy passed down to the next generation
Shaw said her grandmother’s community building inspired her to follow in her footsteps. “Bonnie” Shaw was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, a worker at Tinker Air Force Base, and eventually, a proud council member of the Seminole Nation.
“She really encouraged me to get into leadership and to organize young people,” said her granddaughter Saché Primeaux-Shaw, who has been extremely active in her Oklahoma City community and across the nation.
Saché has served as an organizer with the NAACP in college. She’s also served in the Urban League, Young Professionals, Young Democrats of Oklahoma, and Young Democrats of America.
“She worked with so many people from so many walks of life,” Primeaux-Shaw said. “And thats what I’ve been doing.”
“Bonnie” leaves behind a husband of more than 50 years. Her granddaughter said the pair met as college students at Langston University.
James Shaw Sr. would ask Lena Jo for free malts at the University cafe at which she worked. Saché said her grandma wasn’t feeling her granddad’s charm at first. But over time, he grew on her.
Decades later, “Bonnie’s” granddaughter, Saché, would be born on her 52nd birthday, calling the new baby her “gift.”
In recent years, Saché has taken it upon herself to be both her grandparents’ caretakers, bringing the family story full circle.
“She saw my first breath and I saw her last. Because I was the one who found her unresponsive,” Saché Primeaux-Shaw said.
A Pastor at Evangelistic Baptist Church gave the eulogy at last Week’s service, held on Friday, September 10.