Lost African-American World on Film  /  September 13, 2006

“The African-American past is an iceberg, still 90 percent submerged. Because so much material remains in family hands or lies piled in the unvisited attics and basements of libraries, newspapers, and even police stations, rich discoveries await. Currie Ballard, a historian in Oklahoma, has just made what he calls “the find of a lifetime”—29 cans of motion picture film dating from the 1920s that reveal the daily lives of some remarkably successful black communities. The film shows them thriving in the years after the infamous Tulsa Riot of 1921, in which white mobs destroyed that city’s historic black Greenwood district, which was known as the Black Wall Street of America. Through the flickering eloquence of silent film we see a people resilient beyond anyone’s imagining, visiting one another’s country homes, parading through downtown Muskogee in some two dozen Packards, crowding an enormous church in Tulsa not long after the riots, during a gathering of the National Baptist Convention.

Indeed, this extraordinary archive exists because someone at the powerful National Baptist Convention assigned the Rev. S. S. Jones, a circuit preacher, to document the glories of Oklahoma’s black towns, Guthrie, Muskogee, and Langston. Reverend Jones surely has a way with a camera as he comes in close on the animated faces of his neighbors, sweeps wide to track black cowboys racing across a swath of ranch land, or vertically pans up the skyscraper-high oil derricks owned by the Ragsdale family, whose wells produced as much as a thousand barrels a day. We know the names of these families and others because typed labels accompany each of the eight-minute cans, and onscreen titles introduce the various segments.

This is a historian’s dream, more than four hours of never-before-seen film that is engaging, intimate, and shown in its full context, incorporating names, dates, and places. And Reverend Jones even traveled (as reflected in those 29 cans of film but not in the excerpts here) to Kansas City, Denver, Arkansas, and even Paris and Marseilles to film life there. Ballard admits that he mortgaged his life away when the opportunity arose to acquire this treasure. Now he’s hoping to find an appropriate institution to take it over and transfer the highly unstable film to disk, a costly operation. He wants the world to view this material, to make people aware that only 60 years after emancipation, and in the shadow of one of the nation’s most violent and destructive race riots, these people persevered and built anew. Perhaps someone out there, watching this, right now, will take the lead.”

For more information contact Wyatt Houston Day, a bookseller and
archivist working with Currie Ballard : whdbook [at]


Bill Moyers: Look at these pictures. Those photographs are from one of the most stunning new books you’ll read this year, Slavery by Another Name. The author is Douglas Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. His articles on race, wealth and other issues have been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes four times. His reporting on U.S.Steel and the company’s use of forced labor was included in the 2003 edition of Best Business Stories, and his contribution to the Journal’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina received a Special Headliner Award in 2006. Welcome. This is truly the most remarkable piece of reporting I have read in a long time. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough. What you report is that no sooner did the slave owners, businessmen of the South, lose the Civil War, then they turned around, and in complicity with state and local governments and industry, reinvented slavery by another name. And what was the result?

Douglas Blackmon: Well, the result was that by the time you got to the end of the 19th century, 25 or 30 years after the Civil War, the generation of slaves who’d been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and then the constitutional amendments that ended slavery legally this generation of people, who experienced authentic freedom in many respects tough life, difficult hard lives after the Civil War but real freedom, in which they voted, they participated in government.

“Sharecroppers, Lowndes County, Alabama”

Bill Moyers: They farmed?

Douglas Blackmon: They farmed. They carved out independent lives. But then, this terrible shadow began to fall back across black life in America, that effectively re-enslaved enormous numbers of people. And what that was all about, what that was rooted in, was that the southern economic, and in a way, the American economy, was addicted to slavery, was addicted to forced labor. And the South could not resurrect itself. And so, there was this incredible economic imperative to bring back coerced labor. And they did, on a huge scale.

Bill Moyers: You said they did it by criminalizing black life.

Douglas Blackmon: Well, and that was that was a charade. But the way that happened was that, of course, before the Civil War, there were Slave Codes. There were laws that governed the behavior of slaves. And that was the basis of laws, for instance, that made it where a slave had to have a written pass to leave their plantation and travel on an open road. Well, immediately after the Civil War, all the southern states adopted a new set of laws that were then called Black Codes. And they essentially attempted to recreate the Slave Codes. Well, those that was such an obvious effort to recreate slavery, that the Union military leadership that was still in the South, overruled all of that. Still, that didn’t work. And by the time you get to the end of Reconstruction, all the southern legislatures have gone back and passed laws that aren’t called Black Codes, but essentially criminalized a whole array of activities, that it was impossible for a poor black farmer to avoid encountering in some way.

“Log train to forced labor timber camp, Alabama”

Bill Moyers: Such as?

Douglas Blackmon: Vagrancy. So, vagrancy was a law that essentially, it simply, you were breaking the law if you couldn’t prove at any given moment that you were employed. Well, in a world in which there were no pay stubs, it was impossible to prove you were employed. The only way you could prove employment was if some man who owned land would vouch for you and say, he works for me. And of course, none of these laws said it only applies to black people. But overwhelmingly, they were only enforced against black people. And many times, thousands of times I believe, you had young black men who attempted to do that. They ended up being arrested and returned to the original farmer where they worked in chains, not even a free worker, but as a slave.

Anti-slave labor pamphlet, 1880s, Georgia”

Bill Moyers: And the result, as you write, thousands of black men were arrested, charged with whatever, jailed, and then sold to plantations, railroads, mills, lumber camps and factories in the deep South. And this went on, you say, right up to World War II?

Douglas Blackmon: And it was everywhere in the South. These forced labor camps were all over the place. The records that still survive, buried in courthouses all over the South, make it abundantly clear that thousands and thousands of African-Americans were arrested on completely specious claims, made up stuff, and then, purely because of this economic need and the ability of sheriffs and constables and others to make money off arresting them, and that providing them to these commercial enterprises, and being paid for that.

“Punishment in a forced labor camp II, 1930s, Georgia”

Bill Moyers: You have a photograph in here I have literally not been able to get this photograph out of my mind since I saw it the first time several weeks ago, when I first got your book. It’s a photograph of an unnamed prisoner tied around a pickaxe for punishment in a Georgia labor camp. It was photographed some time around 1932, which this is hard to believe was two years before I was born.

Douglas Blackmon: Well, that picture was taken by a journalist named John Spivak, who took an astonishing series of pictures in these forced labor camps in Georgia in the 1930s. He got access to the prison system of Georgia and these forced labor encampments, which were scattered all over the place. Some of them were way out in the deep woods. There were turpentine camps. Some of them were mining camps. All incredibly harsh, brutal work. He got access to these as a journalist, in part, because the officials of Georgia had no particular shame in what was happening.

“Cotton wagons, Chain gang in rear”

Bill Moyers: That’s a surprising thing.

Douglas Blackmon: Well, and but what the picture also demonstrates was the level of violence and brutality, the venality of things that were done. And so, this kind of physical torture went on, on a huge scale. People were whipped, starved. They went without clothing. There were work camps where people reported that they would arrive looking for a lost family member, and they would arrive at a sawmill or a lumber camp where the men were working as slaves naked, chained, you know, whipped. It was it’s just astonishing, the level of brutality.

“Punishment in a forced labor camp III, 1930s, Georgia”

Bill Moyers: You have a story in here of a young man who a teenager who spilled or poured coffee on the hog of the farmer he was working for. He was stripped, stretched across a barrel, and flogged 69 times with a leather strap. And he died a week later. But that’s not a unique story in this book.

Douglas Blackmon: No, that was incredibly common. And there were on the there were thousands and thousands of people who died under these circumstances over the span of the period that I write about in the book. And over and over again, it was from disease and malnutrition, and from outright homicide and physical abuse.

“Hounds for tracking escapees, 1880s, Alabama”

Bill Moyers: You give voice to a young man long dead, whose voice would never had been heard, had you not discovered it, resurrected it, and presented it. He’s the chief character in this book. Green Cottenham, is that is.

Douglas Blackmon: Yes, that’s right.

Bill Moyers: Tell me about Green Cottenham.

“Chain gang, Thomasville, Ga.”

Douglas Blackmon: Green Cottenham was a man in the 1880s born to a mother and a father who, both of whom had been slaves, who were emancipated at the end of the Civil War. Imagine, a young man and a young woman who’ve just been freed from slavery. And now they have the opportunity to break away from the plantations where they’d been held, begin a new life. And so, they do. They marry. They have many children. Green Cottenham is the last of them. He’s born in the 1880s, just as this terrible curtain of hostility and oppression is beginning to really creep across all of black life in the South. And by the time he becomes an adult, in the first years of the 20th century, the worst forces of the efforts to re-enslave black Americans are in full power across the South.

“Punishment in a forced labor camp, 1930s, Georgia”

And in the North, the allies, the white allies of the freed slaves, have abandoned them. And so, right at the before of the 20th century, whites all across America have essentially reached this new consensus that slavery shouldn’t be brought back. But if African-Americans are returned to a state of absolute servility, that’s okay. And Green Cottenham becomes an adult at exactly that moment. And then, in 1908, in the spring of 1908, he’s arrested, standing outside a train station in a little town in Alabama. The officer who arrested him couldn’t remember what the charge was by the time he brought him in front of the judge. So he’s conveniently convicted of a different crime than the one he was originally picked up for. He ends up being sold three days later, with another group of black men, into a coal mine outside of Birmingham. And he survives there several months, and then dies under terrible circumstances.

Slave wagon, Tennessee

Bill Moyers: You write, 45 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Cottenham was one of thousands of men working like a slave in these coalmines. Slope 12, you call it.

Douglas Blackmon: Slope number 12.

Bill Moyers: What was slope number 12?

Douglas Blackmon: Slope number 12 was a huge mine on the outskirts of Birmingham, part of a maze of mines. Birmingham is the fastest growing city in the country. Huge amounts of wealth and investment are pouring into the place. But there’s this again, this need for forced labor. And the very men, the very entrepreneurs who, just before the Civil War, were experimenting with a kind of industrial slavery, using slaves in factories and foundries, and had begun to realize, hey, this works just as well as slaves out on the farm. The very same men who were doing that in the 1850s, come back in the 1870s and begin to reinstitute the same form of slavery. And Green Cottenham is one of the men, one of the many thousands of men who were sucked into the process, and then lived under these terribly brutalizing circumstances, this place that was filled with disease and malnutrition. And he dies there under terrible, terrible circumstances.

“Slave cages, Florida”

Bill Moyers: And you found the sunken graves five miles from downtown Birmingham?

Douglas Blackmon: It’s just miles away. In fact there are just two places there, because all of these mines now are abandoned. Everything is overgrown. There are almost no signs of human activity, except that if you dig deep into the woods, grown over there, you begin to see, if you get the light just right, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of depressions where these bodies were buried.

Bill Moyers: You say that Atlanta, where you live now, which used to proclaim itself the finest city in the South, was built on the broken backs of re-enslaved black men.

“Chattahoochee Brick Company, Atlanta, Ga.”

Douglas Blackmon: That’s right. When I started off writing the book, I began to realize the degree to which this form of enslavement had metastasized across the South, and that Atlanta was one of many places where the economy that created the modern city, was one that relied very significantly on this form of coerced labor. And some of the most prominent families and individuals in the in the creation of the modern Atlanta, their fortunes originated from the use of this practice. And the most dramatic example of that was a brick factory on the outskirts of town that, at the turn of the century, was producing hundreds of thousands of bricks every day.The city of Atlanta bought millions and millions of those bricks. The factory was operated entirely with forced workers. And almost 100 percent black forced workers. There were even times that on Sunday afternoons, a kind of old-fashioned slave auction would happen, where a white man who controlled black workers would go out to Chattahoochee Brick and horse trade with the guards at Chattahoochee Brick, trading one man for another, or two men. And-

“Prisoner stockade”

Bill Moyers: And yet, slavery was illegal?

Douglas Blackmon: It had been illegal for 40 years. And this is a really important thing to me. I was stunned when I realized that because the city of Atlanta bought these millions and millions of bricks, well, those are the bricks that paved the downtown streets of Atlanta. And those bricks are still there. And so these are the bricks that we stand on.

Bill Moyers: Didn’t this economic machine that was built upon forced labor, didn’t these Black Codes, the way that black life was criminalized, didn’t this put African-Americans at a terrific economic disadvantage then and now?

“Slave wagons, North Carolina”

Douglas Blackmon: Absolutely. The results of those laws and the results of particularly enforcing them with such brutality through this forced labor system, the result of that was that African-Americans thousands and thousands of them worked for years and years of their lives with no compensation whatsoever, no ability to end up buying property and enjoying the mechanisms of accumulating wealth in the way that white Americans did. This was a part of denying black Americans access to education, denying black Americans access to basic infrastructure, like paved roads, the sorts of things that made it possible for white farmers to become successful. And so, yes, this whole regime of the Black Codes, the way that they were enforced, the physical intimidation and racial violence that went on, all of these were facets of the same coin that made it incredibly less likely that African-Americans would emerge out of poverty in the way that millions of white Americans did at the same time.

“Men in cell, Birmingham, Ala.”

Bill Moyers: How is it, you and I both Southerners, how is it we could grow up right after this era, and be so unaware of what had just happened to our part of the country?

Douglas Blackmon: Well, I think there are a lot of explanations for that. The biggest one is simply that this is a history that we haven’t wanted to know as a country. We’ve engaged in a in a kind of collective amnesia about this, particularly about the severity of it. And the official history of this time, the conventional history tended to minimize the severity of the things that were done again and again and again, and to focus instead, on the idea, on a lot of false mythologies. Like, this idea that freed slaves after emancipation became lawless and sort of went wild, and thievery, and all sorts of crimes being committed by African-Americans right after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. But when you go back, as I did, and look at the arrest records from that period of time, there’s just no foundation for that. And the reality was there was hardly any crime at all. And huge numbers of people were being arrested on these specious charges, so they could be forced back into labor.

“Breaking rocks, 1930s, Unknown location”

Bill Moyers: Another reason — I just think, as you talk — another reason is that anybody who raised these allegations or charges, or wrote about them when I was growing up, were dismissed as Communists. If it had been from The Wall Street Journal, it might have been a different take.

Douglas Blackmon: Well, I think there’s some truth to that. Anyone who tried to raise these sorts of questions was at risk of complete excoriation among other white Southerners. But that’s also what’s remarkable about the present moment. And one of the things I’ve discovered in the course of talking about the book with people is that there’s an openness to a conversation about these things that I think didn’t exist even ten or 15 years ago.

Bill Moyers: What has been the response to it? Americans don’t like to confront these pictures, these stories.

Douglas Blackmon: They don’t. But over and over and over again I’ve encountered people who’ve read the book, who e-mailed me, or they come up to me after I talk about it somewhere, particularly African-Americans, who African-Americans know this story in their hearts. They may not know the facts. They may not know exactly what the scale of things were. But they know in their hearts that this is what happened. And so, people come up to me and say, “Gosh, the story that my grandmother used to tell before she died 20 years ago, I never believed it. Because she would describe that she was still a slave in Georgia after World War II, or just before. And it never made sense to me. And now, it does.”

Bill Moyers: It is amazing that this was happening at a time when many of the African-Americans retiring today, were children.

“Juvenile convicts at work in the fields, 1903”

Douglas Blackmon: Were children, exactly. Exactly. And so, again, these are events unlike Antebellum slavery. These are things that connect directly to the lives and the shape and pattern and structure of our society today.

Bill Moyers: Does it explain to you why there might be so much anger in the black community among, let’s say, African-Americans who are my age, 73, 74, who were children at the time this was still going on?

Douglas Blackmon: Well, there’s no way that anybody can read this book and come away still wondering why there is a sort of fundamental cultural suspicion among African-Americans of the judicial system, for instance. I mean, that suspicion is incredibly well-founded. The judicial system, the law enforcement system of the South became primarily an instrument of coercing people into labor and intimidating blacks away from their civil rights. That was its primary purpose, not the punishment of lawbreakers. And so, yes, these events build an unavoidable and irrefutable case for the kind of anger that still percolates among many, many African-Americans today.

40 Acres and a Mule
by Gerene L. Freeman  /  01 November 2003

“Did you know that “40 Acres and a Mule” was not actually promised to freed slaves after the Civil War? Well here is the real story of what happened and how the phrase “40 Acres and a mule” became such a catch phrase for African Americans? On March 3, 1865, just weeks before the end of the Civil War and almost a year prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment the Freedmen’s Bureau was created by Congress. Originally the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, the Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for, among other things, “the supervision and management of all abandoned lands . . .the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel States.” Also according to Section 4 of the First Freedmen’s Bureau Act, this agency “shall have authority to set apart for use of loyal refugees and freedmen such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise; and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman, as aforesaid there shall be assigned not more than 40 acres of such land.”

Introduced into Congress by Thaddeus Stevens this portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act was defeated by Congress on February 5, 1866 “by a vote of 126 to 36.” Lands which had been distributed to freedmen were reclaimed and returned to the previous owners. It should be noted that there is no mention of providing the freedmen with a mule (or any other type of animal) in any portion of this legislature. So the question remains in part unanswered. What is the origin of the promised 40 acres and a mule? The second possibility for the basis of the ‘promise’ has to do with the efforts of the War Department to furnish accoutrements for the thousands of freedmen who assisted General Sherman in his triumphant march across Georgia. According to Claude F. Oubre in his book Forty Acres and a Mule, General Tecumseh Sherman, acting under an edict from the War Department, issued Special Field Order No. 15. Promulgated on January 16, 1865, after Sherman had conferred with 20 black ministers and obtained the approval of the War Department, Special Order No. 15 provided that: “The islands of Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of [N]egroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”

The land was then divided into 40-acre tracts. Sherman then issued orders to General Saxton to distribute the plots and processory titles to the head of each family of the freedmen. There were no mules included in the order, so where did the “and a mule” come from? Shortly after Stanton left, Sherman’s commissary man came to him complaining that he had a large number of broken down mules for which he had no means of disposal. Sherman sent the useless animals to Saxton for distribution along with the land. “By June, 1865 approximately 40,000 freedmen had been allocated 400,000 acres of land.” However, by September, 1865 former owners of the land reserved by Sherman “demanded the same rights afforded returning rebels in other states.”

After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became President. One of his first acts was to rescind Special Military Order No. 15 because of the constitutional violations that it created. Former slave owners were then exempted from the initial general amnesty given to them, and instead secured special pardons from President Johnson, who broke the promise made to the freedmen when he ordered the processory titles rescinded and the land returned to the white plantation owners. Johnson gave little or no regard to the fate of the former slaves. From the viewpoint of the former slaves, who believed that they were owed this property, their eviction from land was seen as another example of ill treatment. The illegality of the promise was not their concern, but from that late war incident grew an urban legend that survives into the present day.

Dismayed, like many, Saxton wrote Oliver O. Howard (Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau) stating: “The lands which have been taken possession of by this bureau have been solemnly pledged to the freedmen. The law of Congress has been published to them, and all agents of the bureau acting under your order have provided lands to these freedmen . . . . I sincerely trust that the government will never break its faith with a single one of these colonists by driving him from the home which he was provided. It is of vital importance that our promises made to freedmen should be faithfully kept . . . . The freedmen were promised the protection of the government in their possession. This order was issued under great military necessity with the approval of the War Department . . .  More than 40,000 freedmen have been provided with homes under its promises. I cannot break faith with them now by recommending the restoration of any of these lands. In my opinion this order of General Sherman is as binding as a statute.”

Saxton’s pleas were to no avail. The freedmen were ultimately summarily removed from the land. There were however, numerous individuals and organizations which believed the freedmen were entitled to land. Their conviction in this belief was not easily thwarted. Between 1865-9 countless alternatives for solving this matter were proposed and presented to Congress as well as President Johnson. The motivations for these proposals were as varied as the propositions themselves. They ranged from a sincere belief that the freedmen were entitled to land, to fear of violence, resistance to social, economic and political equality, concern about miscegeny, attempts to purge the country of the burden of freedmen on the doles, economic gain and to eliminate any competition they might present for employment.

For instance, quartermaster M.C. Megis devised a plan which would enable the freedmen to secure land in the South. Simply put he suggested that: 1) As a condition of receiving pardons, southerners, whose net worth exceeded $20,000 and were not recipients of an automatic pardon as a result of Johnson’s amnesty proclamation, give to each head of family of their former slaves from 5 to 10 acres of land. 2) The freedmen would receive full title to the land with the stipulation that the land could not be alienated during the life time of the grantee. President Johnson chose not to adopt this recommendation. However, according to Oubre, Megis’ proposal may have been the inspiration for Thaddeus Stevens’ confiscation plan (one of the many he proposed for black reparations). Just and well thought out I feel had it been approved Stevens’ proposal may have provided a more equal distribution of wealth. The primary points of Stevens’ ‘confiscation plan’ according to Oubre are as follows:

1) The government would confiscate the property of all former slaveholders who owned more than 200 acres of land. 2) The property seized would have been allocated to the freedmen in lots of 40 acres. 3) The remaining land would be sold and the monies would be used to remunerate loyalists whose property had been seized destroyed or damaged as a result of the war. 4) Any remaining funds would be utilized to augment the pensions of Union soldiers and to pay the national debt.

Yet another proposal suggested that the government transport the freedmen west and colonize them along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad. It was argued that to do so would prove beneficial for the railroad as well as the freedmen. The freedmen would have their land. The railroad would have both an accessible labor force and someone to protect the trains from Indian attack Additionally, adopting this particular proposal would also bode well for the government. permitting it to keep its promise to provide land for the freedmen. Simultaneously, according to Carl Schurz sand John Sprage, “this plan would serve to remove some of the “surplus” black [people] from the South.”

The American Missionary Association requested, to no avail, that President Johnson reserve the land promised to the freedmen. If that was not a suitable option they further petitioned that the freedmen be provided with transportation to homestead lands in the west and provided with rations enough to sustain them until crops could be yielded. Concerned with the burgeoning African American population in Virginia, Orlando Brown proposed, that some 10,000 African American soldiers stationed in Texas, might be provided with a land bounty in Texas if they remained there and sent for their families. A similar proposal was made by “Sergeant S.H. Smothers, an African American soldier from Indiana serving with the 25th Army Corps in Texas.” But President Johnson seemed to be determined to make sure that freedmen received no land. He mercilessly vetoed any proposal having to do with providing land to the freedmen that reached his desk. Finally, Congress overrode his veto and passed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. However, it contained no provision for granting land to the freedmen, other than to provide them access to the Southern Homestead Act at the standard rates of purchase.”


“A natural or Quasi-experiment is a naturally occurring instance of observable phenomena which approximate or duplicate the properties of a controlled experiment. In contrast to laboratory experiments, these events aren’t created by scientists, but yield data which nonetheless can be used (commonly through the use of instrumental variables) to make causal inferences. Natural experiments are a common research tool in fields where artificial experimentation is difficult, such as economics, cosmology, epidemiology, and sociology.”

“Although over 140 years have passed since slaves were emancipated in  the United States, African-Americans continue to lag behind the general population in terms of earnings and wealth. Both Reconstruction era policy makers and modern scholars have argued that racial inequality could have been reduced or eliminated if plans to allocate each freed slave family “forty acres and a mule” had been implemented following the Civil War. In this paper, I develop an empirical strategy that exploits a plausibly exogenous variation in policies of the Cherokee Nation and the southern United States to identify the impact of free land on the economic outcomes of former slaves.  The Cherokee Nation, located in what is now the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, permitted the enslavement of people of African descent.  After joining the Confederacy in 1861, the Cherokee Nation was forced during post-war negotiations to allow its former slaves to claim and improve any unused land in the Nation’s public domain.  To examine this unique population of former slaves, I have digitized the entirety of the 1860 Cherokee Nation Slave Schedules and a 60 percent sample of the 1880 Cherokee Census.  I find the racial gap in land ownership, farm size, and investment in long-term capital projects is smaller in the Cherokee Nation than in the southern United States. The advantages Cherokee freedmen experience in these areas translate into smaller racial wealth and income gaps in the Cherokee Nation than in the South.  Additionally, the Cherokee freedmen had higher absolute levels of wealth and higher levels of income than southern freedmen. These results together suggest that access to free land had a considerable and positive benefit on former slaves.”

Melinda C. Miller
email : millermc [at[ umich [dot] edu

These are boom times for the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma. But bad times for thousands of black Indians battling for tribal citizenship. Now the Freedmen are turning to genetic science for help
by Brendan I. Koerner  /  September 2005

“Even by the pancake-flat standards of Middle America, Stick Ross Mountain is an unimpressive peak. It’s more of a gentle hill, really, poking out from behind the Wal-Mart just west of Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. But to the Cherokee, the 900-foot crest was remarkable enough to be named for a revered 19th-century member of the tribal council. Stick Ross is thought to be the illegitimate grandson of Chief John Ross, who led the tribe along the Trail of Tears. Ross the younger was a respected Native American and a skilled diplomat who acted as a liaison between tribes and local townsfolk. “He knew sign language and spoke Cherokee and Seminole. He was a trapper and a farmer and a rancher,” says Stick’s great-grandson, Leslie Ross, a 56-year-old retired civil servant whose greatest joy is recounting the Stick trivia he learned from his family in Muskogee. “And he was sheriff at one time, too. He was pretty renowned in Tahlequah.”

Stick may have died an exemplary citizen of the Cherokee Nation, but he was born into slavery. The Cherokee kept black slaves until 1866, when an emancipation treaty freed them from bondage and granted them full tribal citizenship. Known as the Freedmen, these men and women were embraced by the Cherokee as equals, and often married the offspring of their former masters. Like Stick, they identified with local cultures, spoke tribal languages, and took part in tribal religious rites. And yet, three-quarters of a century after the death of Cherokee legend Stick Ross, there’s no room for his great-grandson in the Cherokee Nation. Leslie Ross has been denied citizenship in the tribe on the grounds that he is not truly Indian. “They said I don’t have any Indian blood. They say blacks have never had a part in the Cherokee Nation,” says Ross, his usually calm voice swelling with anger. “The thing is, there wouldn’t be a Cherokee Nation if it weren’t for my great-grandfather. Jesus, he was more Indian than the Indians!” Ross is just one of at least 25,000 direct descendants of Freedmen who cannot join Oklahoma’s largest tribes. Once paragons of racial inclusion and assimilation, the Native American sovereign nations have done an about-face and systematically pushed out people of African descent. “There’s never been any stigma about intermarriage,” says Stu Phillips, editor of The Seminole Producer, a local newspaper in central Oklahoma. “You’ve got Indians marrying whites, Indians marrying blacks. It was never a problem until they got some money.”

These are boom times for the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole – due in no small part to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allowed the tribes to construct their own casinos. The Chickasaw’s net assets have more than doubled to $315 million in the two years since it opened the mammoth WinStar Casinos complex in Thackerville. The corporate arm of the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Nation Enterprises, is on track to make nearly $70 million this year thanks to a new casino in Catoosa. Then there’s the government reparations fund. In 1990, the Seminoles received a $56 million settlement as compensation for the seizure of the tribe’s ancestral lands in Florida almost 200 years ago. The casino profits and make-good money have increased the standard of living for the recognized members of the tribes who make their homes in some of the poorest areas in the US. Cherokee Nation Enterprises allocates 25 percent of profits to the Cherokee government, which distributes the money in ways designed to help end the cycle of poverty – college scholarships, health care, and low-interest home loans. And the Seminole Nation offers grants for home repairs, which many of the ramshackle structures in Seminole County can sorely use. On the outskirts of Wewoka, the county seat, families loll on wooden porches that seem one gust of wind away from collapse. And so, in recent years, a rush of Indians has come forward to claim tribal citizenship and get their share of the benefits. In 1980, there were 50,000 members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; today, there are more than a quarter million. But even as the official ranks of the Five Civilized Tribes have swelled, they’ve revised membership guidelines to exclude the Freedmen.

For the better part of the 20th century, black Indians were permitted to vote in elections, sit on tribal councils, and receive benefits. Tribal leaders now insist that the Freedmen were never actually citizens and that they will never attain the honor of membership because they don’t have Native American blood. In 1983, the Cherokee tribe established a rule requiring citizens to carry a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. This federal document is available to anyone whose ancestors are listed on the Dawes Roll – a 1906 Indian census that excludes Freedmen. In 2000, the Seminoles expelled all 2,000 black members and denied their families a cut of the reparations money – never mind that their ancestors joined the tribe in the 18th century, endured the march from Florida to Oklahoma in the 1830s, and have considered themselves Indian for generations.

Outraged, numerous Freedmen have turned to the courts for help. In the most celebrated case, a black tribal leader named Sylvia Davis filed suit against the Seminole tribe in 1994 to get her son a $125 clothing stipend from the Seminole reparations money. But US courts have repeatedly refused to meddle in Indian affairs, noting that the sovereign nations determine their own membership criteria. Davis suffered a serious – and perhaps final – setback last year, when the Supreme Court refused to consider her appeal of a lower court’s ruling that the Seminoles could not be sued in federal court. (The Bush administration filed a brief on behalf of the tribe.)

Now, just as the Freedmen’s struggle appears all but lost, new hope is emerging from an unlikely place – the front lines of genetic science. Last year, several Freedmen leaders were approached by a molecular biology professor named Rick Kittles. As head of African Ancestry, a company he had recently founded to sell DNA testing services to amateur genealogists, Kittles promised to reveal any customer’s preslavery roots, whether they stretch to the Tikar of Cameroon or the Mende of Sierra Leone.

Kittles heard about the Freedmen’s plight from a friend at the University of Oklahoma and wondered how the black Indians’ genetic makeup would compare to other subsets of the African-American population, such as the isolated residents of South Carolina’s Gullah Islands. He visited the 2004 conference of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, an organization dedicated to ending “discrimination against people of mixed Indian African descent,” and offered free DNA tests. There are many light-skinned tribal citizens with less than 1 percent Indian genetic material; most Freedmen claim to have at least that much. So they began taking Kittles’ test in hopes that science would succeed where rhetoric, litigation, and historical documents have failed.

“It’s important that we be able to establish that we are Indian people, not just African people who were adopted into the tribe,” says Marilyn Vann, who is suing the Cherokee Nation for citizenship. “If you’re the average tribal member, you don’t want to be discriminated against because you look Indian. So how can you discriminate against other people just because they have some African features?”

“I have something for you.” A linebacker-sized man with a shaved head and a disarming smile, Ron Graham is holding a manila envelope stuffed with hundreds of fuzzy photocopies bearing lists of names and numbers in chicken-scratch script. He ushers me to an empty table in Dale Hall, on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. We’re here for the third annual meeting of the Descendants, the highlight of which will be Kittles’ presentation on the results of last year’s DNA tests. When he’s not working in a nearby xanthan gum factory, Graham moonlights as a genealogist-for-hire and vice president of the Descendants. He specializes in helping African-Americans who believe their Native American roots have been obscured by a combination of government racism and tribal avarice. Like Vann, Ross, and Davis, Graham took a DNA test to help prove his heritage and is in the midst of suing the Creeks to gain membership. In the final days of August, just as this issue of Wired hits newsstands, he will present his case, complete with DNA test results, to the tribal council. Graham believes that, in the face of scientific evidence, the Creeks will return his birthright. Graham admits that money is a factor in his crusade: His three college-age sons could benefit from federal scholarships reserved for Native Americans. But he’s not just looking for a handout. He seeks recognition as a Creek because that’s how he has always identified himself. Graham fondly remembers his late father, Theodore “Blue” Graham, dancing at the stomp grounds near the town of Arbeka, where Creeks in traditional dress would gather for sacred ceremonies. Blue spoke Creek fluently and handed down some knowledge of the language to his son. During one of his citizenship hearings with Creek Nation officials, Ron was shocked to learn that he was one of the only people in the room who could recognize the word for girl written in the tribe’s ancestral language. “My nation won’t accept me because of skin color,” he says, shaking his head.

Graham leafs through documents that he believes will demonstrate his ancestors had considerable Creek blood. He shows me a handwritten testimonial from Keeper Johnson, a full-blooded Creek and member of the Creek National Council, recognizing Blue as a fellow citizen. “I have known Theodore Graham since 1946 as a Creek Indian,” the note reads. “He was traditional and spoke our language fluently. I always assumed he was Creek decent [sic].” Graham also dredged up documents known as Proofs of Death and Heirship, which list his father as one-eighth Indian – 12.5 percent. Then he flips to his trump card. It reads, “Creek Nation, Creek Roll, Card No. 191.” The date stamp: Approved by the Secretary of the Interior March 3, 1902. Above the seal is the name Rose McGilbray. When it was completed, likely by a clerk working for the Department of the Interior, McGilbray was 35 years old. In a column headed “Blood,” the notation says “Full.” “See, this is my great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side,” Graham says.

It’s official recognition of McGilbray as a member of the Dawes Roll, a 1906 tally of Oklahoma Indians that is, according to the tribes, the only acceptable way to document Native American heritage. The Dawes Roll was the brainchild of a patrician Massachusetts senator, Henry Laurens Dawes, who wanted to “civilize” Indian territory by ending communal land ownership and allotting 160-acre plots to individual members of each tribe. At first, the tribes resisted the white man’s efforts to destroy a centuries-old way of life. One Creek official compared the Dawes Commission, which oversaw the roll’s creation, to the plague of locusts the Egyptians faced in the Bible. But the tribes relented, if only to avoid a conflict with the US government.

The task of enrolling the Indians was assigned to white clerks dispatched from Washington. They set up vast tent villages in Oklahoma towns and sent word through tribal officials that anyone interested in claiming their land had to register. Once the news spread, the tents were deluged with applicants, including scores of Caucasians claiming to have a sliver of Indian blood. More surprising for the clerks were the thousands of African-Americans who showed up. The 1890 census counted 18,636 people “of Negro descent in the Five Tribes.” With no ability to speak any Native American language, the clerks often relied on the eyeball test. Those who fit the stereotype – ruddy skin, straight hair, high cheekbones – were placed on the “blood roll.” The roll noted each person’s “blood quantum,” the fraction of their parentage that was ostensibly Native American. That number was sometimes based on documentation, but often, given the lack of accurate records and the language barrier, it was nothing more than crude guesswork.

Those with obvious African roots were sent to a different set of tents. There, they were added to the Freedmen Roll, which had no listing of blood quantum. Contemporary Freedmen believe the segregation was part of a government conspiracy to steal Indian land. Freedmen, unlike their peers on the blood roll, were permitted to sell their land without clearing the transaction through the Indian Bureau. That made the poorly educated Freedmen easy marks for white settlers migrating from the Deep South. Stories abound of Freedmen, unable to read the contracts they were signing, selling their 160-acre plots for as little as $15.

Even when a man had an Indian grandparent and should have been assigned a blood quantum of one-fourth, he might well have been placed on the Freedmen Roll. The eyeball test sometimes assigned siblings to separate rolls simply because one was born with less melanin. Full-blooded women married to black males suddenly became Freedmen with no blood quantum. It was a wholly arbitrary process, but it didn’t matter much. Freedmen and Indians continued to live in relative harmony – until money and politics entered the picture.

Now the Oklahoma Freedmen find themselves haunted by a 99-year-old clerical error motivated by racism or incompetence, or both. “To this day, in Oklahoma, we don’t exist, our history doesn’t exist. Everyone should have the right to reclaim their heritage,” says Anissia Vo. Her grandfather, a Creek Freedman, said his dying wish was for his entire family to become recognized members of the tribe. Vo, who lives in Muskogee, has spent the last four years documenting her heritage and struggling to get recognition from the Creek government. “My great-grandfather was born Creek, his birth certificate says he was Creek. But when he died, he died a black man. It’s upsetting to deal with someone telling you, ‘We don’t care what you were yesterday – from now on you’re going to have to be someone else.’ We want them to acknowledge our existence.”

Even in the rare case that a Freedman can trace an ancestor to the Dawes Roll, as with Ron Graham and his great-great-grandmother Rose McGilbray, the tribes find a new way to ensure that the Freedmen are always the odd men out. The Creek tribal council has so far refused to believe that Graham is related to McGilbray. Which is why Graham turned to science in search of irrefutable evidence. His test reveals that he’s genetically 9 percent Native American. If the tribes insist that they’ll only accept members who are Indian by blood, he’ll show them what’s in his blood.

Searching for obscure ancestors once meant combing through the bowels of the National Archives or sending shot-in-the-dark letters to strangers who share a last name. Now anyone with a budding interest in their family tree can order a DNA test kit. Swab the inside of your cheek, mail the sample to a lab, which searches for variations that appear in certain ethnicities, and in a few weeks you’ll receive a CD telling you your great-great-grandmother was born in Senegal. For those who obsess over matters such as whether their heavy tooth enamel indicates Creole roots, genetic tests are a quick way to separate scientific fact from family fiction.

Many of the early adopters shell out a few hundred dollars just to prove to themselves that their cells are more exotic than their faces. “Ninety percent of the people interested in Native American ancestry are people who look as European as could be,” says Tony Frudakis, chief scientific officer of DNAPrint Genomics, a Sarasota, Florida, genetic testing company. “They think they might have a Native American ancestor three or four generations back. We call it the American Indian Great-Grandmother Princess.”

DNA tests works fine for amateur genealogists, but they’re hardly foolproof. Two of the three on the market – Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA – are limited in scope. The Y chromosome test looks for variations on just 1.5 percent of a male’s genes. The mtDNA test reads a mere 0.005 percent of the subject’s genome. While these tests have shown an ability to identify Native American gene lines, false
negatives are a big problem.

The third type, known as the genome-wide test, has proven more useful to the Freedmen. DNAPrint’s AncestryByDNA looks across all 23 pairs of chromosomes for mutations that seem to indicate one ancestry or another. The company uses proprietary statistical software to estimate what percentage of a person’s genetic material originated where – 85 percent European and 15 percent East Asian, say, or 60 percent African, 20 percent Native American, and 20 percent European. “Chief John Ross was between one-eighth and one-sixteenth Cherokee [12.5 and 6.25 percent],” Leslie Ross says, “and my DNA test said I’m 3 or 4 percent.”

But even the best tests have large margins of error. “If you show a positive result of 4 or 5 or 6 percentage points, there’s a possibility that it isn’t indicating Native American ancestry,” Frudakis says. People with these levels of Indian blood may simply have genetic roots in places like Greece or Turkey, whose natives can convey Indian-ness in their DNA. Pakistanis, meanwhile, typically show 30 percent Native American heritage, for reasons that are not yet totally clear to scientists.

The more tests that DNA companies conduct, the more data they’ll have for comparison, which should lead to more accurate results. As the DNA databases grow, it may be possible to identify ancestry by region – say, a Southwestern Navajo or a New England Pequot. Kittles’ database can already name the African tribes an African-American customer descends from. Still, linking Freedmen to particular tribes remains tricky because of all the intermarrying that has occurred over the years.

Even if the testing companies could narrow a person’s origins to a specific tribe, would it matter? The science might be improving, but the Indian tribes show no inclination to accept it – or even consider it. “Our citizenship laws require you to have a Cherokee ancestor who was on the Dawes Roll. Can a DNA sample prove that?” says Cherokee spokesperson Mike Miller. “If I did a DNA test, it might show that I have some German DNA. That doesn’t mean I could go back to Germany and say, I have German ancestry and I would like to be a German citizen.”

It’s a crude analogy. Germany’s citizenship laws don’t require applicants to prove that a relative was listed on a flawed census of people with purported Teutonic blood. And if Miller so desired, he could become a naturalized German citizen someday. The Freedmen have no such chance.

Other tribes are just as closed-minded. When I ask Jerry Haney, the Seminole chief who expelled the tribe’s black members in 2000, whether he might reconsider his stance based on DNA tests, he huffs. “They can claim all the Indian they want,” he says, “but they cannot become a member of the Seminole Nation by blood. They’re down there [on the roll] as Freedmen. They’re separate.”

Not all tribal members reject the merits of the Freedmen’s cause. Seventy-year-old John Cornsilk, who is seven-eighths Cherokee, opposed the 1983 decision to rescind Freedmen’s voting rights – which he said happened because many Freedmen were backing a progressive candidate running for chief. Tribal leaders, he says, “colluded and drew up a new set of rules that said only people that could produce one of those cards could be a member. What the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has been doing in regard to disenfranchising the Freedmen is all totally

Cornsilk’s son, David, has taken up his father’s cause. While working in the tribe’s enrollment office in the 1980s, he found that about a third of the Freedmen applications had some documented Native American ancestry. When higher-ups told him that these people could not be enrolled, he became an advocate for the Freedmen from the inside, helping black plaintiffs prepare to file suit in tribal courts. “I came to realize that this was a deep-rooted problem, that racism in my tribe was profound,” he says. “They were perpetrating a genocide, a paper genocide.”

Rick Kittles is one of the last speakers at the Descendants conference. When he steps up to address the crowd, he speaks briefly about the underlying science. He describes how African genealogy is relatively easy to trace because of the population’s high number of polymorphisms – genetic variations unique to a particular group. Then he gets down to business. He shows charts indicating that African ancestry in the 95 Freedmen he tested ranged from 4 to 76 percent, while European ancestry varied from 0 to 62 percent. “Native American was surprising,” Kittles says as he presses the slide clicker to bring up the figures that everyone’s waiting for. The range of Indian blood was from 0 to 30 percent, for an average of just 6 percent – almost identical to an East Coast African-American population.

The chatter in the crowd stops. Kittles is telling attendees that, genetically, they are no more Indian than blacks in New York City or Baltimore. “I expected it to be higher because of the experiences you’ve had,” he admits. Then he offers a consolation. He explains that many Freedmen display high levels of European ancestry, with the group average at 18 percent. He suggests that, ironically, this might be exactly what links them genetically to the Five Civilized Tribes. Indians, he explains, were in contact with white colonists starting in the 17th century, and there has been significant gene flow between the two groups. As a result, many people who identify themselves as Native American have very high percentages of European DNA. East Coast African-Americans show much weaker links to Europe. So the Freedmen’s levels of white genetic material may, in fact, be the very proof of Indian-ness that they’re looking for.

To prove this hypothesis, Kittles tells the attendees that more testing is in order. “If genetics is going to help this cause, we really need to do tests on so-called purebloods, to assess their European ancestry,” he says, theorizing that they, too, will have high levels of European blood. “I think that many of those so-called purebloods aren’t so pure.”

It’s not the definitive result the audience expected. And yet, some find good news in the message. The first woman to raise her hand is an elderly lady in the very last row, wearing a flowing kente cloth dress. She leans forward in her seat. “I just want to thank you,” she says as loudly as she can muster. Her test revealed 11 percent Indian ancestry. “It’s true what my grandmother said, that I did have Native American blood.”

As I wait for the day’s final speaker, Sharon Lindsay Scott stops by my seat to say hello. An attractive woman with light skin and prominent cheekbones, Scott has the sort of face that might have convinced a Dawes clerk to place her on the blood roll. She tells me she’s a descendant of the Perrymans, an illustrious Creek family with a lineage that included a chief in the 1880s, Legus C. Perryman. But for reasons that are lost to time, her ancestors were made Freedmen. “You know, the Dawes Commission would take brothers and sisters and divide them up,” she says. “They went by how you looked, and a lot of the Creeks are darker-skinned. So you might be a full-blood and …” Scott trails off in a sad laugh. “I mean, they had no DNA testing back then.”

With Graham’s assistance, she has pulled together copious documents that attest to her family’s Creek lineage and plans to submit her application for membership soon. The final piece she’d been waiting for was Kittles’ DNA test. Now she has it: 79 percent African-American, 19 percent European, and 2 percent Native American. Which means her Indian DNA results could very well be just the result of genetic noise. The results leave me wondering whether the Freedmen are caught up in a false hope. Will the intersection of Rick Kittles and a group of desperate would-be Indians mark a turning point in their struggle for recognition? Or just another twist in a sad tale? I ask Scott whether she expects her application to be rejected, considering that her percentage of Indian blood is smaller than the test’s margin of error. She seems both surprised and slightly offended: “I don’t see how they can.”

Race is a loaded word that genetic testing companies avoid in favor of phrases like biogeographical ancestry. No wonder. For centuries, science has been hijacked to validate racist beliefs. Scientific journals from the 19th century are replete with discussions of cranial capacity and brain weight, measurements used to explain why blacks would never be as intelligent as whites. Then there are eugenics and social Darwinism, used to twist Darwin’s findings and shape Nazi ideology.

But if the young discipline of DNA testing has taught us anything, it’s that the very notion of race is fading, at least from a genetic perspective. The world is populated by mongrels and half-breeds. Even those who base their self-worth on being of “pure” racial stock probably aren’t. Every family tree has a thousand branches. “The technology will show how mixed we are,” Kittles says. “There is no line of distinction you can draw between groups. There will be people who say they have 100 percent African blood. I can show them that they have significant European ancestry, too.”

So far, reams of historical documents and legal briefs have gotten the Freedmen nowhere against a century-old document created by clueless white bureaucrats and enforced by men the Freedmen once considered brothers. The question is whether a tool created by molecular biologists will have any more luck.

There are three types of DNA test designed to pinpoint genetic heritage. Ranging in price from $99 to $299, all three start with a swab of the inner cheek and provide results in two to eight weeks. Here’s what happens along the way.

The Y chromosome method searches for genetic markers on the Y chromosome. A particular polymorphism, or variation, on the DYS199 locus, for example, is unique to those indigenous to the Western hemisphere. So anyone with that polymorphism has Native American ancestry. This test has two problems: It measures only 1.5 percent of the genome – so you may have Indian genes that don’t show up – and it works only on males.

To determine maternal lineage, the mitochondrial DNA test looks for polymorphisms in mitochondrial DNA. All humans have mtDNA, which is inherited from the mother, so anyone can take the test. But since it measures just 0.005 percent of the genome, false negatives are a big problem. Also, mtDNA results will show the presence of, say, European and Native American genes along the maternal line, but not the percentages of each.

The genome-wide technique scours the entire genome for “ancestry informative markers” that indicate “biogeographical ancestry.” Statistical software then analyzes the data to determine what percentage of genes comes from where. This is the test of choice for the Freedmen. The good news is that it’s exhaustive. But it’s also the most expensive option, and it still can’t trace a Native American’s roots back to a particular tribe.”


“There are three types of DNA test designed to pinpoint genetic heritage. Ranging in price from $99 to $299, all three start with a swab of the inner cheek and provide results in two to eight weeks. Here’s what happens along the way. The Y chromosome method searches for genetic markers on the Y chromosome. A particular polymorphism, or variation, on the DYS199 locus, for example, is unique to those indigenous to the Western hemisphere. So anyone with that polymorphism has Native American ancestry. This test has two problems: It measures only 1.5 percent of the genome – so you may have Indian genes that don’t show up – and it works only on males.

To determine maternal lineage, the mitochondrial DNA test looks for polymorphisms in mitochondrial DNA. All humans have mtDNA, which is inherited from the mother, so anyone can take the test. But since it measures just 0.005 percent of the genome, false negatives are a big problem. Also, mtDNA results will show the presence of, say, European and Native American genes along the maternal line, but not the percentages of each.

The genome-wide technique scours the entire genome for “ancestry informative markers” that indicate “biogeographical ancestry.” Statistical software then analyzes the data to determine what percentage of genes comes from where. This is the test of choice for the Freedmen. The good news is that it’s exhaustive. But it’s also the most expensive option, and it still can’t trace a Native American’s roots back to a particular tribe.”




the VIEW from 1921
The Eruption of Tulsa
by Walter F. White  /  June 29, 1921

“A hysterical white girl related that a nineteen-year-old colored boy attempted to assault her in the public elevator of a public office building of a thriving town of 100,000 in open daylight. Without pausing to find out whether or not the story was true, without bothering with the slight detail of investigating the character of the woman who made the outcry (as a matter of fact, she was of exceedingly doubtful reputation), a mob of 100-per-cent Americans set forth on a wild rampage that cost the lives of fifty white men; of between 150 and 200 colored men, women and children; the destruction by fire of $1,500,000 worth of property; the looting of many homes; and everlasting damage to the reputation of the city of Tulsa and the
State of Oklahoma.

This, in brief, is the story of the eruption of Tulsa on the night of May 31 and the morning of June 1. One could travel far and find few cities where the likelihood of trouble between the races was as little thought of as in Tulsa. Her reign of terror stands as a grim reminder of the grip mob violence has on the throat of America, and the ever-present possibility of devastating race conflicts where least expected.

Tulsa is a thriving, bustling, enormously wealthy town of between 90,000 and 100,000. In 1910 it was the home of 18,182 souls, a dead and hopeless outlook ahead. Then oil was discovered. The town grew amazingly. On December 29, 1920, it had bank deposits totaling $65,449,985.90; almost $1,000 per capita when compared with the Federal Census figures of 1920, which gave Tulsa 72,075. The town lies in the center of the oil region and many are the stories told of the making of fabulous fortunes by men who were operating on a shoe-string. Some of the stories rival those of the “forty-niners” in California. The town has a number of modern office buildings, many beautiful homes, miles of clean, well-paved streets, and aggressive and progressive businessmen who well exemplify Tulsa’s motto of “The City with a Personality.”

So much for the setting. What are the causes of the race riot that occurred in such a place? First, the Negro in Oklahoma has shared in the sudden prosperity that has come to many of his white brothers, and there are some colored men there who are wealthy. This fact has caused a bitter resentment on the part of the lower order of whites, who feel that these colored men, members of an “inferior race,” are exceedingly presumptuous in achieving greater economic prosperity than they who are members of a divinely ordered superior race. There are at least three colored persons in Oklahoma who are worth a million dollars each; J.W. Thompson of Clearview is worth $500,000; there are a number of men and women worth $100,000; and many whose possessions are valued at $25,000 and $50,000 each. This was particularly true of Tulsa, where there were two colored men worth $150,000 each; two worth $100,000; three $50,000; and four who were assessed at $25,000. In one case where a colored man owned and operated a printing plant with $25,000 worth of printing machinery in it, the leader of a mob that set fire to and destroyed the plant was a linotype operator employed for years by the colored owner at $48 per week. The white man was killed while attacking the plant. Oklahoma is largely populated by pioneers from other States. Some of the white pioneers are former residents of Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and other States more typically Southern than Oklahoma. These have brought with them their anti-Negro prejudices. Lethargic and unprogressive by nature, it sorely irks them to see Negroes making greater progress than they themselves are achieving.

One of the charges made against the colored men in Tulsa is that they were “radical.” Questioning the whites more closely regarding the nature of this radicalism, I found it means that Negroes were uncompromisingly denouncing “Jim-Crow” cars, lynching, peonage; in short, were asking that the Federal constitutional guaranties of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” be given regardless of color. The Negroes of Tulsa and other Oklahoma cities are pioneers; men and women who have dared, men and women who have had the initiative and the courage to pull up stakes in other less-favored States and face hardship in a newer one for the sake of eventual progress. That type is ever less ready to submit to insult. Those of the whites who seek to maintain the old white group control naturally do not relish seeing Negroes emancipating themselves from the old system.

A third cause was the rotten political conditions in Tulsa. A vice ring was in control of the city, allowing open operation of houses of ill fame, of gambling joints, the illegal sale of whiskey, the robbing of banks and stores, with hardly a slight possibility of the arrest of the criminals, and even less of their conviction. For fourteen years Tulsa has been in the absolute control of this element. Most of the better element, and there is a large percentage of Tulsans who can properly be classed as such, are interested in making money and getting away. They have taken little or no interest in the election of city or county officials, leaving it to those whose interest it was to secure officials who would protect them in their vice operations. About two months ago the State legislature assigned two additional judges to Tulsa County to aid the present two in clearing the badly clogged dockets. These judges found more than six thousand cases awaiting trial. Thus in a county of approximately 100,000 population, six out of every hundred citizens were under indictment for some sort of crime, with little likelihood of trial in any of them.

Last July a white man by the name of Roy Belton, accused of murdering a taxicab driver, was taken from the county jail and lynched. According to the statements of many prominent Tulsans, local police officers directed traffic at the scene of the lynching, trying to afford every person present an equal chance to view the event. Insurance companies refuse to give Tulsa merchants insurance on their stocks; the risk is too great. There have been so many automobile thefts that a number of companies have canceled all policies on cars in Tulsa. The net result of these conditions was that practically none of the citizens of the town, white or colored, had very much respect for the law.

So much for the general causes. What was the spark that set off the blaze? On Monday, May 30, a white girl by the name of Sarah Page, operating an elevator in the Drexel Building, stated that Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old colored boy, had attempted criminally to assault her. Her second story was that the boy had seized her arm as he entered the elevator. She screamed. He ran. It was found afterwards that the boy had stepped by accident on her foot. It seems never to have occurred to the citizens of Tulsa that any sane person attempting criminally to assault a woman would have picked any place in the world rather than an open elevator in a public building with scores of people within calling distance. The story of the alleged assault was published Tuesday afternoon by the Tulsa Tribune, one of the two local newspapers. At four o’clock Commissioner of Police J.M. Adkison reported to Sheriff McCullough that there was talk of lynching Rowland that night. Chief of Police John A. Gustafson, Captain Wilkerson of the Police Department, Edwin F. Barnett, managing editor of the Tulsa Tribune, and numerous other citizens all stated that there was talk Tuesday of lynching the boy.

In the meantime the news of the threatened lynching reached the colored settlement where Tulsa’s 15,000 colored citizens lived. Remembering how a white man had been lynched after being taken from the same jail where the colored boy was now confined, they feared that Rowland was in danger. A group of colored men telephoned the sheriff and proffered their services in protecting the jail from attack. The sheriff told them that they would be called upon if needed. About nine o’clock that night a crowd of white men gathered around the jail, numbering about 400 according to Sheriff McCullough. At 9:15 the report reached “Little Africa” that the mob had stormed the jail. A crowd of twenty-five armed Negroes set out immediately, but on reaching the jail found the report untrue. The sheriff talked with them, assured them that the boy would not be harmed, and urged them to return to their homes. They left, later returning, 75 strong. The sheriff persuaded them to leave. As they complied, a white man attempted to disarm one of the colored men. A shot was fired, and then–in the words of the sheriff–“all hell broke loose.” There was a fusillade of shots from both sides and twelve men fell dead–two of them colored, ten white. The fighting continued until midnight when the colored men, greatly outnumbered, were forced back to their section of the town.

Around five o’clock Wednesday morning the mob, now numbering more than 10,000, made a mass attack on Little Africa. Machine-guns were brought into use; eight aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section. All that was lacking to make the scene a replica of modern “Christian” warfare was poison gas. The colored men and women fought gamely in defense of their homes, but the odds were too great. According to the statements of onlookers, men in uniform, either home guards or ex-service men or both, carried cans of oil into Little Africa, and, after looting the homes, set fire to them. Many are the stories of horror told to me–not by colored people–but by white residents. One was that of an aged colored couple, saying their evening prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Avenue. A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.

Another was that of the death of Dr. A.C. Jackson, a colored physician. Dr. Jackson was worth $100,000; had been described by the Mayo brothers as “the most able Negro surgeon in America”; was respected by white and colored people alike, and was in every sense a good citizen. A mob attacked Dr. Jackson’s home. He fought in defense of it, his wife and children and himself. An officer of the home guards who knew Dr. Jackson came up at that time and assured him that if he would surrender he would be protected. This Dr. Jackson did. The officer sent him under guard to Convention Hall, where colored people were being placed for protection. En route to the hall, disarmed, Dr. Jackson was shot and killed in cold blood. The officer who had assured Dr. Jackson of protection stated to me, “Dr. Jackson was an able, clean-cut man. He did only what any red-blooded man would have done under similar circumstances in defending his home. Dr. Jackson was murdered by white ruffians.”

It is highly doubtful if the exact number of casualties will ever be known. The figures originally given in the press estimate the number at 100. The number buried by local undertakers and given out by city officials is ten white and twenty-one colored. For obvious reasons these officials wish to keep the number published as low as possible, but the figures obtained in Tulsa are far higher. Fifty whites and between 150 and 200 Negroes is much nearer the actual number of deaths. Ten whites were killed during the first hour of fighting on Tuesday night. Six white men drove into the colored section in a car on Wednesday morning and never came out. Thirteen whites were killed between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. O.T. Johnson,commandant of the Tulsa Citadel of the Salvation Army, stated that on Wednesday and Thursday the Salvation Army fed thirty-seven Negroes employed as grave diggers and twenty on Friday and Saturday. During the first two days these men dug 120 graves in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No coffins were used. The bodies were dumped into the holes and covered over with dirt. Added to the number accounted for were numbers of others–men, women, and children–who were incinerated in the burning houses in the Negro settlement. One story was told me by an eye-witness of five colored men trapped in a burning house. Four burned to death. A fifth attempted to flee, was shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and his body was thrown back into the flames. There was an unconfirmed rumor afloat in Tulsa of two truck loads of dead Negroes being dumped into the Arkansas River, but that story could not be confirmed.

What is America going to do after such a horrible carnage–one that for sheer brutality and murderous anarchy cannot be surpassed by any of the crimes now being charged to the Bolsheviki in Russia? How much longer will America allow these pogroms to continue unchecked? There is a lesson in the Tulsa affair for every American who fatuously believes that Negroes will always be the meek and submissive creatures that circumstances have forced them to be during the past three hundred years. Dick Rowland was only an ordinary bootblack with no standing in the community. But when his life was threatened by a mob of whites, every one of the 15,000 Negroes of Tulsa, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, was willing to die to protect Dick Rowland. Perhaps America is waiting for a nationwide Tulsa to wake her. Who knows?”

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