Find of a Lifetime: A 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 :


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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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

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

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.

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-

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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 1,” Leslie Ross says, “and my DNA test said I’m 3 or 4

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

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

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

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

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 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

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

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

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    6.25 percent

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