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Before Black Wall Street birthed the wealthiest African American business district in the nation, Black people known as Freedmen were once enslaved by the nation’s Five largest Indigenous Tribes.
Gaining freedom through a series of treaties after the Civil War, the Freedmen and their descendants went on to establish many of the historically All-Black towns throughout what is now known as Oklahoma.
Without the strength and perseverance of Freedmen, the prestige of Black Wall Street might never have existed. Adding to the unique richness of Oklahoma’s cultures, Afro-Indigenous people boast a lineage of love, whose blood contains both African and Indigenous roots.
Yet, these days Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt ( a Cherokee Nation citizen) goes on Fox News spreading anti-Indigenous hate in the state following the 2020 McGirt Supreme Court decision. That SCOTUS ruling reaffirmed the Muscogee Nation’s jurisdiction over their territorial boundaries and other Tribes have referenced the ruling.
Meanwhile, most Freedmen descendants continue to lack citizenship and rights in the Tribes that once enslaved their ancestors.
Speaking with The Black Wall Street Times, Freedmen descendants detailed the richness of their family’s stories and their fight for justice as the world continues to overshadow them.
“I feel like the Choctaw Nation is ignoring the freedmen’s plight and the 1866 treaty giving them full rights to be citizens,” Choctaw Freedmen descendant Dedra Strickland told The Black Wall Street Times.
Some Tribes who fought for Confederacy continue to discriminate
During the Civil War, citizens of the Five largest Tribes in Indian Territory: The Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw aligned with the Confederate army during the U.S. Civil War.
While members of some of the Tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation, were equally aligned with both the Union and Confederacy, other Tribes, such as the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, were fully aligned with the Confederacy, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
As retaliation for their support of the Southern insurrectionists, the federal government forced the Five Tribes to enter into binding agreements known as the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866. Each of the Tribes signed treaties that forced them to give up land in the Western half of what is today called Oklahoma. That relinquishing of land allowed for the migration of Southern Whites to the area, along with entrepreneurial Blacks recently freed from slavery in the South.
Yet, prior to the Civil War, the Five Tribes had long enslaved Africans among their ranks.
“I feel like we are being left out. I also feel like the Choctaw Freedmen helped build the Choctaw Nation through slavery,” Choctaw Freedmen descendant Lewis Ervin told The Black Wall Street Times. “I believe that we are all equal, and we should come together and have unity for our people.”
Notably, the treaties of 1866 forced the Tribes to abolish slavery and give the freedmen full citizenship and rights.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society: “The Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole treaties gave the freedmen unqualified rights, but the Choctaw and Chickasaw treaty gave them the choice of being adopted into their nations or being removed by the federal government and settled elsewhere.”
Fast-forwarding to the present era, the attitudes in 1866 remain relevant today. Out of the Five Tribes, only the Cherokee Nation has granted full citizenship and rights to their descendants of Freedmen, and only in recent years after a lawsuit reached the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the Seminole Nation received fierce backlash in 2021 after initially refusing to provide Covid vaccines for freedmen descendants. They also give freedmen citizenship cards that read “voting benefits only” even as they use the freedmen population in their allocation for federal funding.
Freedmen descendants seek equal rights and recognition
For freedmen descendants of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, which fully supported the confederacy, the discrimination is even more severe. The Choctaw Nation has refused to recognize their freedmen descendants.
“When I was younger it was just not talked about much. My folks were just trying to survive like a lot of our families,” Choctaw Freedmen descendant Michael Dean told The Black Wall Street Times.
Dean is a descendant of Indigenous Africans and Choctaw and Chickasaw citizens. His third great-grandmother Mahala was enslaved in Mississippi and brought to Indian Territory on the deadly forced march known as the Trail of Tears or “The Trail Where We Cried.”
“My second great-grandma Julia Ann Jackson, when she was a teenager, was given the duty of being a plantation cook during the Civil War,” Dead added.
Dean said he knows of many other Chickasaw and Choctaw of African descent who come from freed peoples that’ve been denied full rights and tribal membership.
“Although I have not yet sought formal membership in my tribe due to these types of discouragements. My hope is that the wisdom of our collective ancestors will prevail and we make collaborative efforts to formally restore our kinships as a nation of Chickasaw/Choctaw with diverse backgrounds but a common heritage,” Dean said.
Federal government takes steps for equal rights
Last year, “Auntie” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) warned the Tribes discriminating against their darker skinned relatives that federal funding could be withheld. Yet, so far the threat hasn’t been met with action.
For its part, the Cherokee Nation has taken major steps to rectify its past harm toward Freedmen.
On May 12, 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland approved a new constitution for the Cherokee Nation which explicitly ensured the protection of Freedmen’s rights and citizenship, NonDoc reported.
“We encourage other tribes to take similar steps to meet their moral and legal obligations to the Freedmen,” Haaland said.
Notably, Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. nominated a leading Freedmen descendant, Marilyn Vann, to the Tribe’s Environmental Protection Commission. It marks the first time the Tribe has had a Freedmen descendant serve in a government position. The Chief nominated after she lost her election for a council seat. The council ultimately approved her nomination to the Environmental Protection Commission.
Yet, Freedmen descendants continue to seek justice within the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Muscogee (Creek) Nations.
On July 1, 2021, Choctaw Chief Gary Batton wrote an open letter announcing an initiative to consider membership for Choctaw Freedmen, NonDoc reported.
“Today we reach out to the Choctaw Freedmen. We see you. We hear you. We look forward to meaningful conversation regarding our shared past,” Batton wrote.
Yet, for Choctaw Freedmen descendant Angela Walton-Raji, the announcement rings hollow as no action has been taken to address the issue. Speaking with The Black Wall Street Times, Walton-Raji said that while the Chickasaw Nation immediately broke the 1866 Treaty, three of the Tribes signed and abided by the 1866 Treaties pretty quickly.
“Cherokee Nation did, Muscogee (Creek) Nation did, Seminole Nation did. It took 19 years for the Choctaw Nation to finally give citizenship to the freed people, who never left,” Walton-Raji told The Black Wall Street Times.
“I mean, they’re Choctaw people, many of them had been fathered by Native people, some of whom enslaved them and some of whom just had children with them.”
The Black Wall Street Times has reached out to the Choctaw Nation for comment. Please follow us as we continue to cover the Freedmen descendants.