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Native Americans weren’t alone on the Trail of Tears. Enslaved Africans were, too

Andrew Cuomo

When Alaina E. Roberts started piecing her family’s history together she made a surprising discovery that changed what it meant to be a Black American.

Her father’s ancestors in Oklahoma were once enslaved by Native Americans.

Nearly a century before Tulsa’s Greenwood District became a beacon of Black prosperity in the 1920s, Native American tribes and thousands of enslaved Black people arrived in the state. Members of the Five Tribes — the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — had been forced out of their homelands in the Deep South, leading to the exodus known as “Trail of Tears.”

“Owning slaves was a part of their strategy to assimilate into American society and it allowed them to be seen as different from other Native people and as more civilized,” said Roberts, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Roberts tells the story of how Oklahoma became a melting pot and the decades of racial tensions that preceded the Tulsa Race Massacre in her new book “I’ve Been Here All The While: Black Freedom on Native Land.”

For Roberts, the 1921 Tulsa Massacre is only a portion of the complicated history of Black, Native American and White people in Oklahoma.

After the Civil War, the Five Tribes signed a treaty with the US government abolishing slavery. Those formerly enslaved by the tribes, known as freedmen or freedpeople, built churches and schools. They later received land allotments as part of the 1887 Dawes Act, which dismantled Indigenous reservations and redistributed the land. Some were granted tribal citizenship but many were not.

Roberts’ great-great-grandmother was among the thousands of Black women and men once held in bondage by the Chickasaw tribe who received land allotments. Her family has now lived in the state for generations.

Black people began building wealth and founded all-Black towns. By the late 19th century, Oklahoma attracted people of all races who saw it as an opportunity for a fresh start, landownership and prosperity. But soon it became a hotbed for racial tensions.

Roberts recently spoke with CNN about her book, the quests for land and freedom in the years leading to the Tulsa Massacre and how learning about Oklahoma’s past changed her views on race. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It can be hard to talk about this period of history because of how complex it is and because it involves several communities of color. What would you tell people who prefer to avoid this complicated conversation?

It’s certainly difficult. It’s not the happy narrative that we sometimes want to think about. I think that if we want to come together today and form interracial coalitions — like last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and how people of different races have come together to fight against anti-Asian hatred — in a powerful and honest way, we need to acknowledge the past and the issues that we’ve had there.

In the case of the formerly enslaved Black people, they had a chance to leave Oklahoma after Emancipation and as you mention in the book, blend as African Americans in the United States’ territories, but many stayed, including your great-great grandmother. Why?

I argue that it’s really the land and the communities that they built within these Indian nations that ends up being more important to them than political rights. So instead of going to the United States and joining this congressional action that is happening right after the Civil War with Republicans, they decided to stay in (tribal) nations where they don’t necessarily have all the rights. For my ancestors in Chickasaw Nation, they don’t have rights as citizens at all but being able to really stay together with their communities and being able to own land is more important to them.

At this point in time, two different groups of formerly enslaved people merged on Indian territory: those who were brought by the Five Tribes and Black people who fled the South. Why was this region such an attractive destination for all of them?

After emancipation, African Americans are moving to various places. They move to urban places in the North. They move to some other places in the West like Kansas, Nebraska, etcetera. Indian Territory is especially attractive to them because they are able to see that Indian freedpeople are getting land and that they have various rights that African Americans in the South are not able to exercise. Indian territory looks to them almost like a racial paradise. They can have these rights, they can maybe get land and they don’t have to suffer from White violence.

How did Native Americans react to the changes and the waves of migration?

Their response to both White and Black migration was fear. They knew that more Americans coming meant more changes in the way the United States treated them. For example, in the 1890s there were lots of White and Black people there and the US government basically said they were not going to allow them to try White people in tribal courts and started shutting them down. That is an important part of a nation, your courts and your ability to try crimes. They (Five Tribes) tried to fight back by trying to stop this immigration and for African Americans, the rhetoric was quite racist. They were afraid their nation would be seen as full of black people and therefore not seen as Indian.

In the years leading up to the Tulsa Race Massacre, how did Black people build wealth and a thriving community in Oklahoma?

Freedpeople are obtaining their land allotments in the 1890s and onward. Some of those are on places that have timber and they were able to sell it. Some of were just good farming lands and they were able to create farms and communities. For some very lucky people it’s on oil and gas reserves. In the early 1900s when that becomes very valuable and usable, some of those people get rich, and that draws more people to the area. Then, they are able to use that wealth to create businesses and then draw other business owners and entrepreneurs to the area.

What made Tulsa stand out from other towns in the region?

Primarily the oil that was in the area. Tulsa was situated in there because of those natural resources while other towns like Boley (Oklahoma) where near railroad stops and land allotments. There were a lot more wealthy people in Tulsa who had the capital to create businesses but certainly, there were also profitable businesses in other Black towns as well.

You said in the book that the Tulsa Race Massacre represents the end of the largest representation of what Black people were able to build and that White Americans rose up against Black success. A hundred years later, how are we still seeing its impact?

Almost more than the impact of the massacre, we feel the impact of the erasure of the massacre. Many stereotypes about Black people revolve around the idea that they’re lazy, they’re not smart, they don’t create businesses for themselves, they don’t create opportunities for themselves Why are they the poorest, least educated demographic in the United States? People blame African Americans for their own issues. But “Black Wall Street” is an example of how African Americans and Indian freedpeople (those formerly enslaved by tribes) built an amazing community for themselves. They were very much willing to work hard and create things for themselves, it’s just that White racism destroyed that.

We have lots of instances where Black communities and Black businesses have been destroyed by White racism. It’s is a lack of desire on the part of White Americans to remember that history. Instead, they whitewash it so that it seems like it’s African Americans’ fault.

As you mention in the book, it was hope what kept drawing people from all over the country to Oklahoma. What does that tell you about people in this country, especially people of color?

I think the United States has created a narrative around itself that says anyone can come here and become wealthy and become accepted. That really appeals to White people. It also appeals to people of color who even though they know they are going to face discrimination and inequality, they still are willing to try as hard as possible to make that real for themselves. Some do achieve that dream.

The kind of unfortunate point of my book is that, for people of color, there’s always going to be discrimination and there’s always going to be White supremacy that can possibly undo everything that you’ve worked so hard for.

You make it clear in the book that in this region, the success of some people came at the expense of others and it was something that happened over and over again. What has it been like for you to learn that?

It put into a different perspective the stories that we often tell about Black towns, Black spaces, and Black migration to the North and to the West. These are amazing stories and we should celebrate them but we should also talk about the Native Americans who lived there before or sometimes lived there at the same time because without that, it seems like Black people come here and created something that wasn’t there before. Acknowledging Black history is just as important as acknowledging Native American history, and often those narratives go hand in hand to tell a more complete story of our history in this country.

Has learning about the complicated history of Oklahoma and your family’s land changed how you think about race today?

Yes. I think I see more how White supremacy has influenced the way people of color think about each other. We’ve seen that in a number of the attacks on Asian people that have been perpetrated by Black people or other people of color. People of color can have problematic ideas and discriminatory ideas about other people of color. It has made me realize that this is still an issue, and that we need to talk about racism and prejudice as it is in all of our communities, and not just the White community.

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