Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Burning of Lucy, A Choctaw Slave

Who was Lucy?
Not much is really known about Lucy. She was simply a Black woman enslaved in the Choctaw Nation.

The few facts that are known about her, are that she was the mother of eight children, and she was allowed as were other slaves, to worship at the local Presbyterian Church of their Choctaw Masters. And she was said to have been a member in good standing in the church. (This was also the church attended by noted leader Cyrus Byington who created the Choctaw dictionary.)

In 1858 an incident took place involving one of the slaves of Robert Harkins, a leading Choctaw leader who also held her as a slave. A confrontation had occurred between Harkins and a male slave called Prince. The confrontation ended with Harkins, the slave holder being killed.

For several days Harkins was simply missing, but then his absence was noted, and inquiries began. The male slave was confronted and at first denied any knowledge, but eventually admitted to the slaying of Harkins. During his confession he also stated that Lucy was involved and had planned the killing.

Lucy denied this vehemently and it is stated that much evidence was revealed that proved that she was not involved. However, Indian Territory and the Choctaw Nation were slave country. Harkins widow Lavina, wanted revenge for husband's death, But the slave who admitted to killing Harkins, then committed suicide, so there was no guilty party to execute. But Lavenia, the grieving widow, demanded that someone pay for the death of her husband.

The culture of Slave America prevailed and in spite of Lucy's vehement denials and arising doubts of any guilt, Lucy was sentenced to death. The decision was, that a black life had to pay for the death of Harkins. It was decided that she would be executed and the most cruel method was selected---she was to be burned alive!  She was to be burned along with the body of the now deceased slave Prince, who had admitted to the killing. Southern sentiments towards black life prevailed  in Lucy's case, and this is one of the earliest incidents were the culture of "lynching-as-entertainment" was recorded.

Word spread quickly throughout the Territory--a slave woman was going to be burned alive. No outrage was expressed, and nothing was done to prevent her demise, and in fact curiosity was aroused. The burning of Lucy was going to be entertainment, and people from many miles around were said to have packed up the family to come and watch Lucy burn. Her death was simply entertainment.

So the burning of this poor Black woman, was destined to become entertainment. Sadly "lynching as entertainment" would spread throughout the south and lynching culture prevailed till the middle of the 20th century. Such events would occur, without prosecution, and the lives of those with roots in a slave environment would pay the price of simply living.

Aftermath in the Community
Not much more was known of this story--Lavina the grieving widow in the Presbyterian church kept her good standing with the church. Because of the ties to the Presbyterian church, and the involvement of many affiliated church leaders, with the people involved,  the story of the Burning of Lucy was kept hidden for over a year from Presbyterians leaders, who had missions well established in the Choctaw Nation. It was feared that had church leaders learned of the Slave burning involving prominent members of their mission in Choctaw country, that many of their efforts may have been jeopardized.

Sadly, for many reasons, Lucy, and her tragic end have been erased, almost entirely from the pages of Indian Territory history, Choctaw History, Oklahoma history and American history.

But the impact of the burning of this woman had to have reached the lives of the enslaved people in Choctaw Country.

My gr. grandparents and their loved ones were among those enslaved in Choctaw country.
Did they know Lucy?
Or had they heard of her?
Did they have to watch her execution?
Did they have to weep in silence as one of them was lead unfairly to a painful death?
Or did the story come to them via the slave communication network?

The answers will never be known---but Lucy--whose children were most likely scattered and divided among other slaves, deserves to have her story told and to have her name called. It is said that she spoke of her innocence till her last breath.

Nevertheless, she paid the price, paid by so many for simply having lived, been enslaved and accused.

May Lucy's spirit be free, and may there be joy somewhere for her descendants whoever they are and wherever they may be.

More information:
Further reading about this incident can be found in the following works:

William McLoughlin, "The Choctaw Slave Burning": A Crisis in Mission Work Among the Indians. Journal of the West (no. 13), 1974, 114-115

Master's Thesis:
Fortney, Jeffrey L. Jr. Slaves and Slaveholders in the Choctaw Nation 1830-1866. Denton Texas
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