Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wiley Homer, Minister, Educator and Leader Among Choctaw Freedmen

Enrollment Card of Wiley Homer with photo superimposed.
Source of Card: NARA Publication M1186, Choctaw Freedman Card 491

Reverse side of enrollment card reflecting information on parents

     Born about 1851 in the Red River Valley of the southern part of the Choctaw Nation, Wiley Homer was the son of two Choctaw slaves, Isom McCoy and Adaline Shoals. Little is known how he became separated from his parents and became a slave of the Homas, a Choctaw family, but it would be their surname that he would retain throughout his life, even after the Treaty of 1866 which brought freedom to Wiley and to his parents.

      His father was from the nearby Chickasaw Nation, and his mother Adaline was from Kiamitia and was last enslaved by William Roebuck but at one time enslaved as a Shoals. Wiley grew up in the cattle country and saw many of the cattle drives that ran through the southern part of the Choctaw Nation. During his teenage years and shortly after freedom began his effort to educate himself, and to teach himself how to read, by learning the names of the various cattle brands and what ranches they represented.

     He was said to begin by drawing outlines of the cattle brands in the sand. And eventually he became so skilled that his employer hired him to find stray cattle of his with the "A.B." brand. He demonstrated by writing in the sand that he could do that and his intelligence was duly noted by those for whom he worked.

     The book Choctaw Freedmen, Oak Hill Academy reveals a great deal about leaders in the southern part of the Choctaw Nation. According to author Robert Flickinger, after freedom came, the young Wiley Homer obtained a small primer and first reader and began to earnestly study. It was no longer illegal for slaves to learn to read and Wiley took full advantage of the opportunity to learn. Evenings and spare time were spent trying to read, and with time he was given a small catechism and religious book which would launch his life into a new direction. Though working as a farm hand during those difficult year right after freedom, all free time he would spend pouring through pages, learning new words, and writing, often in the dust, to improve upon his skill.

     One summer Wiley was given the privilege of having a true teacher, and he was limited to these instructions only on Sabbath afternoons, after all church services were over. But he devoured his lessons and learned how to read Biblical names and places correctly, and also perfected his skills in language and reading. In exchange for these lessons he had to split 250 oak rails. Though a enormous task, this was a small price to pay for learning.

     His skills in reading then lead to him becoming well sought by Freedmen in the community, to read and occasionally write for many former slaves. This precious skill also lead to his becoming a leader in the small church community that developed. Within a few short years, while still in his early twenties, Wiley Homer became an elder in his church, which was sponsored by the Presbyterian missionary outreach.  He was the elder of Beaver Dam and Hebron Churches in Grant, Indian Territory.

     In 1914, the book Choctaw Freedmen, Oak Hill Academy, by Robert Flickinger contained a fascinating biography of Wiley Homer, and his service to the Freedmen religious community of that part of the Choctaw Nation, which was largely Presbyterian.

      "In 1893 he was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Choctaw and assigned the pastoral care of Beaver Dam and Hebron churches. On Sept. 28, 1895, by the same Presbytery, meeting at Oak Hill Academy, now known as the Alice Lee Memorial, he was ordained to the full work of the gospel ministry. He continued to serve Beaver Dam, his old home church, until Oct. 1, 1912, when, after a pastorate of twenty years, he was honorably retired from the active work of the gospel ministry. In 1904 he secured the erection of a commodious chapel at Grant that, during the next five years, served also as the most convenient place for holding the neighborhood school. After serving Hebron about ten years on alternate Sabbaths, in connection with Beaver Dam, he relinquished that field and served Sandy Branch and Horse Prairie, each a short period."

     As a young man, Wiley Homer had married Laney Colbert not long after freedom. They had ten chilldren but only five lived to adulthood, Susan, Mary Shoals, Hattie Lewis, Sarah Williams and Lincoln Homer. When his wife Laney died, he then remarried a second wife, Rhoda with whom he had additional children.

     In 1912, he retired from the Presbytery, from active ministry. For many years, his name was often mentioned as a leader and orator, but as the 20th century melted away, much of his influence on the religious life as well as the literacy of former slaves from the Choctaw Nation was simply forgotten.

Presbytery of Kiamitia 1914 (Wiley Homer stands to the right), Garvin, Oklahoma

     Stories such as the story of Wiley Homer are important, because if one relies solely upon the data from the Dawes cards and Dawes interviews, much will be lost. Wiley Homer's life should be remembered for he gave so much of his life to the community, and his legacy should endure. His Dawes application jacket revealed nothing of his efforts to bring knowledge to those once enslaved. His Dawes application in fact only focused upon the fact that he had once been enslaved, and by whom. His rich legacy was simply not mentioned, and of no interest.

     But Wiley Homer was truly a man of influence in the communities around Grant and Garwin, and  many learned to read because of his inspiration, and his legacy affected many Freedmen families for years, although now his name is almost forgotten. Many attended Oak Hill Academy because he encouraged other families to have their children educated.

Therefore, his life is shared here, so that perhaps this small piece of the Choctaw Freedmen history, this small piece of Oklahoma History and even this small piece of Black Presbyterian history, will also be remembered.

Wiley Homes  with members of the chapel at Grant, I.T. in 1904
Source: The Choctaw Freedmen, by Robert Elliott Flickinger, 1914

1 comment:

  1. A story of true courage and persistence. Teaching yourself to read (even with a once-a-week teacher) is simply heroic. Wiley Homer was a force for goodness and freedom. I'm sorry that his influence was forgotten (I don't know what Dawes cards are?), but I'm glad you are making sure that we will remember him.

    I wonder how many other Wileys are out there, whose influence has been forgotten?