Sunday, May 29, 2022

An 1880 Appeal for Help from Choctaw Freedman

In the years after the Civil War, the plight of Freedmen of both Choctaw and Chckasaw nations was one of trying to neogiate freedom in a somewhat hostile community that did want them to enjoy such freedom. Some experienced acts of violence against them, while others simply found themselves of a difficult day to day situation of having to negotiate with others for assistance. Theirs was a constant struggleto simply carve out a living  in an unpredictable post Civil War Choctaw Nation. With time, some Freedmen turned to church leaders, and many found occasiaonl assistance from the AME Church and also the Baptist convention as well.

  In 1880, one of the Freedmen, Nelson Coleman an emerging Choctaw Freedman leader, reached out to AME Church Presiding Elder James Sisson for his assistance with the plight of Freedmen in Indian Territory.

On a recent trip to the National Archives, a letter was found written by Coleman to Rev. James Sisson, a high ranking leader in the AME Church. A follow up letter by Sisson was also found. An image of Coleman's letter appears below, followed by a transcription of the letter.

Letter from Nelson Coleman to AME Elder James Sisson, 1880
National Archives Record Group 75, Entry 604

Transcription of Letter:

Brazil Station, Choctaw Nation

August 29, 1880

Elder Sisson, Dear Friend

    I received your kind and welcome letter yesterday and was glad to get to read a few lines from you, but so sorry to hear that you have been in such bad condition, but I am in hope that you will soon gain your strength back and that we may see each other again face to face. My wife is not in very good health at this time present. All the people is well, I think. I have not heard no complaint.
   I hope that you will tend to that matter for me as soon as possible and send me answer as it concerns me and all of my race of people that live in this territory. We know you to be kind and faithful to us. I hope that you will do the best you can for us. You will please write to me just as soon as you can hear from that matter. So with such few remarks I will close my letter for this time. This leaves us all well. Hoping to hear from you again soon.                                   
                            Yours truly friend

                             Nelson Coleman

Several weeks later, Elder Sisson reache out to the Secretary of the Interior in Washington DC.

Letter from James Sisson to Sec'y of Interior
November 1880
National Archives Record Group 75, Entry 604

Transcription of  Sisson's Letter

                                                                                                              Indian Territory
                                                                                                              October 5, 1880

Honorable Charles Schultz
Sec'y Interior
     Washington D.C.

           Dear Sir:

                      The discomforts to the colored people; from the threats of some of the Choctaws are very great: many are kept from improving plantations, of being told that all the colored people are to be driven out of this nation by Choctaws. Could your department settle this matter fully and acceptably to all parties, it would be a great blessing.

                                                                                              James F. A. Sisson
                                                                                              Presiding Elder
                                                                                              Oklahoma District
                                                                                              Indian Mission Conference
                                                                                              African Methodist
                                                                                              Episcopal Church

***** ***** *****

Although both letters are simple letters they reflect the difficult times and issues that Freedmen faced years after slavery was abolished. Some lived with threats and others lived in fear of being driven away from the only place they knew as home.

Sadly, the saga of Freedmen from the Choctaw Nation is one that continues to this day. Both letters above were  written a full five years before citizenship would ever come their way, and the Freedmen at that time were asking questions and seeking their rights then, just as they do today, in the 21st century where today, Freedmen--descendants of Choctaw-held slaves are alienated from the nation of their ancestral nation. No other reason can be except that they come from the enslaved members of the Choctaw nation. And today as descendants of slaves, even those whose ancestors were Choctaws who fathered children, they are kept away, for no other reason than their color, and the slave status of their ancestors.

In the 1980s descendants of the same people, found themselves once again an unwanted people, who had never done anything to merit the alienation demonstrated to them. And now, in the 21st century, and a full year after a letter from the head of the Choctaw nation, Chief Gary Batton, promised to look into the issue of citizenship for them, the gesture has become a hollow one as no one has even had the courtesy of a response to their efforts to reach out to the nation.

Nevertheless, we honor all who worked on the behalf of Freedmen from both Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. Their story continues and their strength is ever enduring. Their story continues to be researched and their stories are being told.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Twenty Thousand People Should Not Be Overlooked

Suggested books about Oklahoma Freedmen

* * * * *

As Black History Month has arrived many are honoring those of African descent and the contributions that have been made in the nation. In places like Oklahoma for the first time a workshop discussing Freedmen from Oklahoma will be presented in a workshop presented by the state's historical society. This is applauded and embraced, however so much more has to be done.

In 1906 over twenty thousand people had been classified as Freedmen of the Five Tribes. After a century the number of twenty thousand will more than tripled in number, and clearly over one hundred thousand of descendants today 
can claim ancestry among those thousands from 1906.

Broken down more specifically by nation: 

Indian Freedmen Population in 1906:

Cherokee Freedmen 3982
Choctaw Freedmen 5254
Chickasaw Freedmen 4995
Creek Freedmen 5585
Seminole Freedmen 857 (+ 93 children born later)

Total number of Freedmen from Indian Territory:  20,766

This seldom studied history of the lives of Freed people in Indian Territory deserves attention by Oklahoma-focused historians and also by the state's historical archives. 

Scholars from several disciplines are urged to examine this history and engage with the community of people who descend from the twenty thousand. Their presence has been on the soil of Oklahoma for more than a century. The Freedmen and their parents and grandparents were present in Indian Territory 9 whole decades before statehood. Yet---so little is known about them. 

1) Many arrived in the 1830s as enslaved people. They traveled on the same Trail of Tears spoken about from the Oklahoma Historical Society, to the shores of the Atlantic seabord, yet slavery in the Territory is not taught, nor studied. It is time to change.

2) Once freed, the newly emancipated began their lives in the tribal communities into which they had been immersed, as now a bilingual, bicultural, and in some cases, bi-racial people. Living within two segments of territorical life, the Freedmen emerged as people with a "hybrid" existance, navigating life and facing challenges of frontier and their tribal cultural base.

3) Politics and anti-black racial sentiments, influenced many challenges Freedmen faced, including a racial bias towards them for having African ancestry. The struggles included the effort to become full citizens in the land of their birth and to claim their legacy as citizens of the nations where they had lived as a people enslaved for decades. Some found resistance by the same people who enslaved them, carrying forth racial biases to the present time. Descendants now face a climate where their presence is dismissed on the basis on whether they possess the blood line of the families that enslaved them, as if blood line determine inclusion in a community that perceives to be a "nation" in a country where citizenship is not based on blood line. 

The plight of Oklahoma's Freedmen and their Descendants is a subject that demands truly objective analysis and scholarship. Therefore a call and plea is made to members of the academic community to extend their focus into this overlooked arena. 

Twenty thousand people should not be overlooked! The number of Freedmen from Indian Territory is an impressive number and clearly this is a population that deserves to studied from every academic perspective. Historians have at least made a few efforts to document the history in the past 30 years. But academicians have much work that can be done within their discipline.

Sociologists are needed to study the demographics and the social dynamics of the five groups of people classified as Freedmen. They are needed to study how the Freedmen of these Five Indian Tribes fared and how eventually their status and recognition would change as the decades of the 20th century passed.

Psychologists can pursue issues of identity and self definition by examining the issues and struggle of those who embrace a tribal identity today and who are met with rejection from the tribes to which they have a tie.

Anthropologists have yet to begin to study the cultural norms and language, foodways, traditions, burial practices of Freedmen and how they have changed over time.

Archeaologists have much to explore, with the now disappeared black towns that were built upon tribal reservation land, and also to explore and to find the remnants of the slave dwellings of the large plantations such as that of Robert Jones, the wealthiest Choctaw who had over 500 slavesm and who is known to have been the largest Indian slave holder in the Territory. To date, no studies of former plantations have ever been studied in Oklahoma.

Archives and Arhivists are encouraged to study what records can be found of Freedmen institutions, as they are more than mere memories. 
From Tushka Lusa, to Oak Hill Academy, to Dawes Academy, to the Cherokee Colored High School, to the Tullahassee Manual Labor School--all are gone and the locations of most of these schools are now forgotten. There is much to do from the academic community and hopefully the lives of 20,000 people, all citizens of the Five "Civilized Tribes", will stimulate the interest of scholars from Oklahoma and beyond.

Legal scholars have many avenues to explore, because each tribe had their own relationship with their Freedmen. Some were inclusive and some are continally exclusive and distant, but all deserve study.

Most of the activity involving exploration of Oklahoma Freedmen history revolves around the efforts of a handful of researchers and community preservationists. So much more needs to be done and hopefully more scholars will respond to the call for more study and research.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Bow Fishing Among Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen

 One often reads about the culture and life within Indian Territory. However, in reference to the community of Freedmen, very little is mentioned.  A few glimpses of how people lived occassionally appear from rare images captured in the 1890s, some of which reflected the lives of Freedmen in Choctaw country. Many of the images were captured during the Dawes years, when dozens of families gathered to enroll, and photographers were present to capture some of those images.

One image that many are familiar with, is an image of Freedmen who were fishing in one of the many creeks and streams in the Territory.

The image was not a random one, it actually reflected an aspect of how many fished and were able to bring food to their families. Such a fishing method carried on into the 20th century among tribal members.

An interesting article about an elder Nero Perry, a Choctaw Freedman appeared in the Talihina American, in 1906. This elder who was in his mid 70s at the time, still did most of his hunting and fishing with bow and arrow. 

Brought to the Territory during the Chickasaw Removal to the west, Nero Perry lived within the cultural Chickasaw community practicing the lifestyle and culture of the only community that he knew.

Talihina American, 11 Oct 1906 p 2

At the time of the Dawes Commission, Nero Perry lived in the Woodford community, where numerous other Freedmen lived. He was enrolled with his wife Ann, both of whom were in the 60s at the time. Oklahoma and Indian Territory, U.S., Dawes Census Cards for Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914 

[database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.

Original data: Enrollment Cards for the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1186,
93 rolls); Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Thankfully, though both Nero and wife Ann were elders, and having been brought to the Territory during the Removal, both had a strong memory of their parents and were able to share their names during the years of Dawes Enrollment. Nero's parents were Siah and Lizzie Perry, and the parents of his wife were Sam and Jane Burney. As the article mentioned, Nero had been enslaved by McLish. His wife Ann had been enslaved by Nancy Smith.

It is noted that the parents of each of them had different Chickasaw slaveowners, and were held in bondage by the same person, which reflects how enslaved people were often held by different people and not together as a family, under the same slave holding person. Thankfully their memory of their parents was still with them by the 1890s and their names could be shared, unlike others whose knowledge of loved ones was taken during the years of slavery.  

Hopefully both of them lived to be with their parents after slavery was finally abolished in 1866, and it is hoped that their lives were lives of peace and contentment during their latter years. They remained in the Territory after Freedom, and well into his 70s Nero Perry sustained his life by hunting and bow fishing.

May he be always remembered.

Friday, December 10, 2021

110 Years Ago, Chickasaw Freedmen Lost When Their Lawyer Chose Not to File the Brief

McAlester Weekly Tribune
McAlester, Oklahoma 21 Dec, 1911  p 1.

Bettie Love Ligon, Head Litigant Equity 7071
© Terry Ligon

This week marks the 110th anniversary of the end of Equity Case 7071. The hopes of almost 2000 Freedmen from the Chickasaw Nation were dashed, when the Supreme Court dismissed their case, after their attorney turned against the Freedmen, and suddenly chose not to file the brief, thus preventing their case from being heard in the United States Supreme Court.

Equity 7071 was the case when over 1500 Chickasaw Freedmen who were fathered by Chickasaw men, sought to have their names transferred to the rolls by blood, because they were half Chickasaw by blood. Being transferred to the blood roll did not mean that they were denying that they had African blood. They sought the transfer, because having their Chickasaw blood being recognized, they would have received, 320 acres of land, and not the mere 40 acres that they and nearby Choctaws, chose to give to their former slaves.

While the 40 acre allotment was being given to both Chickasaw and Choctaw Freedmen, those who were counted as persons "by blood"  as well as inter-married whites were given 8 times more land, and had 8 times more of an opportunity to establish generational wealth than those whom they had oppressed, and enslaved, and forced to labor for them, for generations.

The case was challenged when a brave woman called Bettie Ligon, daughter of Robert H. Love, filed suit requesting to be moved from the roll of Freedmen to those by blood, almost 2000 other people joined her in the suit. A lawyer was secured by the Freedmen Webster Ballinger, but suddenly after weeks of working with the Freedmen on a cause that he had convince them was a just cause, he suddently changed his mind, and did not file the brief in front of the United States Supreme Court.

The Freedmen, many of whom had true relationships with their Chickasaw fathers, saw their opportunity to obtain a similar sized portion of land, reduced 8 times, for the only reason being that their mother was a woman with African blood. Their Indian blood did not count, although the white blood of inter-married whites was accepted. These freedmen men, women and children with Chickasaw fathers were being punished for their birth from African women. 

Sadly, the policy exists today, with in both Chickasaw and Choctaw communities saying that "they did right by the Freedmen", giving them 8 time less land, and denying their citizenship today.

Today's policy is based on the decision to not record blood quantum, of Freedmen in the 1890s and to use the rolls that ommitted their blood tie, as the basis for enrollment, thus keeping out black Chickasaw and Choctaw descendants. This allowed both nations to still choose to deny -- or as some see it, to punish people for having ancestors who were held against their will in bondage. Yet many still seek citizenship unaware of this anti-black bias held towards them.

Meanwhile individuals with next to no native blood (as little as 1/1000th blood) are free admitted into both nations today. Those who descend from inter-married whites who were never enslaved, and who had no native blood are welcomed into both tribes today. 

Those whose ancestors toiled for generations, with no payment, to be sold at will of those holding them in bondage, are today prohibited from citizeship.

But for a brief moment, one brave woman led the struggle and filed a suit to be recognized for who she was, Bettie Love Ligon, daughter of her Chickasaw father Robert H. Love. 

May she and all of those once enslaved never be forgotten.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

New Choctaw & Chickasaw Freedmen Group Makes a Splash on Social Media

 The new organization, Choctaw Chickasaw Freedmen Association has made a splash on Social Media. The new group announced its presence first on Facebook and also with a detailed press release. The new website came live at the same time and much needed energy has been injected into the community of descendants from both Oklahoma-based federally recognized tribes.

The Facebook page for Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen has over 1000 members, and many are now frequenting the new CCFA website for links to pages reflecting their history and their ancestral culture. In addition, a new Instagram page has been created with rich information not only about the new group, but also with useful links to contemporary issues pertaining to Freedmen.

The brainchild of Athena Gaiten Butler, originally of Kansas City Missouri, the group formed a small core group that worked together as a committee to establish, CCFA, the acronym for the group. One of the goals of this new organization is to reach out to Freedmen descendants of both Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. Although descendants of Freedmen at present do not have citizenship in either nation, descendants of both nations have much in common. Beyond the shared history of their ancestors having once been enlsaved in Indian Territory, their vision extends far beyond a goal of a tribal card.

Some of the goals of CCFA are reflected in their social media presence. CCFA's Instagram account presents history as well as contemporary issues pertaining to both Freedmen communities. Likewise the group also has an accont on Twitter and has had significant Twitter re-tweets to their posts as well.

Much discussion pertaining to CCFA interests stems from much of the activity found on the Facebook page. There are several communities of descendants from both nations, many still living on old land allotments from the past. In addition, many Freedmen descendants also still live within the geographic boundaries of both tribes, while many, especially elders still have a cultural identity to the tribes, despite decades of segregation disenfranchisement and estrangement.

Many Freedman descendants are found on the CCFA Faceboook page, and over 1000 are found on the Descendants group page. Last week on Facebook, in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, the Descendants group honored the day by honoring their ancestors, and posting images of them and identifying their relationship to their respective nations. Several dozen images were shaared and the reaction to the postings has been extremly positive!

Small Collage of Ancestors Honored on Freedman Facebook Page

On the Facebook Freedman Descendants page, portraits of ancestors were shared, along with the Roll number and Card number. Some who did not have portraits shared images of their ancestor;s Dawes Card. Some elaborated by telling a brief story about their ancestor. Much of this history of various families will be reflected on the website as well as on the pages of social media

Challenges Ahead
Chickasaw Freedmen descendants have  a particularly interesting situation, because the despite the fact that the tribe broke the treaty of 1866, where they promised citizenship for their former slaves, many Freedmen descendants today will still tell others that they are Chickasaw. Likewise, descendants of Choctaw Freedmen also live on land allotments within the geographic jurisdiction of their nation and will tell others that they too, are Choctaw.

Thousands of descendants of both Freedmen groups live "at large" meaning outside of Oklahoma, having had family that migrated north and west. They left seeking more opportunities when the harshness of Oklahoma Jim Crow laws and the appearance of Sundown towns drove them away from the land that was for over a century, their home.

CCFA seeks to educate descendants to their rich history, to interact with those of both nations about the history and culture, and to empower descendants by offering workshops focusing on education, and opportunities for growth. CCFA also hopes to reach out to the community of enrolled Choctaw citizens through cordial meetups, and to encourage social interaction bewteen Freedmen and other fellow Choctaws.

Culturally, many Choctaw Freedmen considers themselves to be among the "Choctaw Proud" or Chickasaw people, and many are unaware that some of their leifestyle, including foodways come from their own their tribal background.

Much of who the freedmen are, will continue to be reflected both on the website and much more is planned to unfold on social media.

Follow CCFA on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Rare Census Record Reveals Early Roots of Choctaw Freedman Family

 A rare 1890 census document is found in a collection of records from the Choctaw Nation. On that record is found the name of the Hall family, of Choctaw Freedmen. Thomas Hall, his wife Rachel, and his sister Charity are on the document. What distinguishes the record is that the applicants are elders, all over 70 years of age, placing their years of birth in the 1820s! Their ages indicate that they were born several years before Choctaw Removal in the early 1830s. 

The Family of Thomas Hall, Choctaw Freedmen 
Typically, when researching records of the Freedmen of Indian Territory, the enrollment cards which are part of the Dawes records, are studied. In this case, the family of Thomas, Rachel, and Charity Hall, are found on Enrollment Card #435.

The National Archives at Fort Worth; Fort Worth, Texas; Enrollment Cards, 1898-1914; NAI Number: 251747; Record Group Title: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; Record Group Number: 75  (Choctaw Freedman Card #435)

On the reverse side of the card the names of Thomas and sister Charity's parents are revealed: 

Source: Same as above. Image shown is reverse side of card.

Sam and Nancy Hall are their parents. In many cases with elders who were Choctaw Freedmen, the names of parents are not always recorded, but in this case they were. Rachel, Thomas' wife also identified her own parents, who were Ben Seward and Phillis Seward. It is stated that they were actually somewhere in Texas. But the interview from the Application Jacket reveals that most of their entire life was spent in Indian Territory.

Applications for Enrollment of the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898–1914. Microfilm M1301, 468 rolls. NAI: 617283. Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75. The National Archives at Washington, D.C. (Image accessed on Ancestry)

Additional Records Reveal Much More

The first extensive Federal census in Indian Territory was taken in 1900 so the Dawes records are  critical to examininig Freedmen history before that time. However, a rare record from 1890 was shared in an online Facebook group known as The Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Descendants group.(Special thanks, Sandra Riley.)

The document was part of a collection of records from the Oklahoma Historical Society. They are now digitized and found on Ancestry as part of earlier pre-statehood records from the Choctaw Nation known as CTN records. (CTN means Chotaw Nation)

On the microfilm reel  CTN 4, also found on Ancestry, there are many records from the old districts in the Choctaw Nation.  There are 468 images on the reel. On image #318 some records from Towson in the Choctaw Nation are reflected and two of the pages reflect Freedmen. On that record are the Halls.

Source: Indian Marriage and Other Records, 1850–1920. Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Image acessed from Ancestry  CTN 4 Image #316 of 468. 1890 Census of Towson Choctaw Nation

It should be pointed out that most of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire in 1923. However, this unique census record was not part of the records housed in the U. S. Commerce building, when the fire struck the records. Thankfully this rare set of pages were not affected as they were not in the Commerce building at the time.

Interesting Data About the Thomas Family

That 1890 census record reflects some interesting details about this family. Thomas and his sister Charity were born in Mississippi. His wife Rachel however, was born in Virginia!  And both of her parents were also born in Virginia. Virginia ancestry is rare for a Choctaw Freedman.  On her enrollment card (shown in first image above), it says that her parents Ben and Phillis Seward were located or had been situated in Texas--to the south of Indian Territory.  So clearly in her early years she and her parents were either sold or removed with others from Virginia, to Texas, but clearly Rachel somehow ended up enslaved in the Choctaw Nation. 

In addition to Rachel being born in Virginia, she could also read. This reflection of her literacy as well as place of birth for her and her parents makes this rare image even more interesting! But how Rachel came to be in Indian Territory will not be known, but it is clear that she was in the Choctaw Nation quite early, because she and her husband were enslaved by the same Choctaw man, Eastman Loman. 

Did Loman go to Texas to purchase slaves or to purchase a female for Thomas?  Or was Rachel removed from her parents when taken to the territory? Was contact ever made with them after freedom?  The answers are not known and will perhaps never be, however, the record does exist to point to an early American presence of this family in post colonial Virginia. Many untold stories remain to be told, especially how many Choctaws obtained their human chattel slaves. 

It is revealed on the record, that sister Charity was never married, and remained close to her brother and family into their later  years. Seeing a rare household only of only elders living together makes this find even more special. Thankfully they all lived to receive allotments of land, and it is hoped that there were generations that followed them and that lived to tell their story.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen Announce New Organization


After much planning and organization, a group of descendants of Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen have gotten together and decided to work to share some of their common interests in goals under an organziational umbrella called the Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Association.

The name is derived from the old group from the late 1800s when Freedmen newly released from bondage sought strenght and guidance from each other. 

In the past 4 months much activity pertaining to the plight of Oklahoma Freedmen, since Chief Garry Batton released his Open Letter on his blog. In that letter he stated that he plans to start dialogue about the possibility of offering citizenship to Freedmen descendants.

In June many groups began writing to the Choctaw Nation expressing their interest in the subject. Most have never receive any kind of acknolegment that their letters were receive,  however, many began to organize and see where their talents could be utilized to work towards a greater awareness of history and to offer assistance to those who may have an interest in the current dialogue.

At the suggestion of a descendant from Kansas City, now living on the East Coast, Ms. Athena Butler pulled together a group of people to work with her, and after many weeks of discussion the group has worked to create the new organization, known as the Choctaw Chickasaw Freedmen Association.

Focus of the Group:
"CCFA is an association of advocacy and training that will develop and identify resources to those who are interested in gaining more knowledge about their Oklahoma-based Freedmen Ancestors.

Major focus will be on the contributions of Freedmen (including their ancestors), & the roles they played within the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations.

In addition, CCFA will explore the reasons for the omission of Freedmen history and the group will work to put this history properly on the pages of tribal history." Vision of the Group:

CCFA will educate through webinars, videos and publications.

CCFA will empower through workshops, and question and answer sessions

CCFA will engage members through regular online meetings.

CCFA will embrace the culture and history by studying, language, culture and history of the community from which they come.

The Founders of the group are: Athena Butler, Terry J. Ligon, Jerry H. Moore, Angela Walton-Raji, and Sandy Williams. One of the first activities of the group will be to offer a basic genealogy workshop on October 6th. Many additional workshops are being planned for upcoming months, into the new year. Hopefully this new group will change the trajectory for descendants of both Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen. With more information, a stronger people will emerge. With organization, more options will open. With determination, the members will become empowered.