In Search of a More Free Place

Historian Kendra Field tells the story of the post-Civil War migration by African Americans to Indian Territory
Monroe Coleman and his family in Oklahoma circa 1910
The Coleman homestead near Weleetka, Oklahoma, c. 1910 with Monroe and Ida Coleman, seated, and their children. Monroe Coleman’s life highlights the complexities of class and color in a multiracial South, said Kendra Field. Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Field
February 15, 2018

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When Kendra Field was growing up in New Jersey, her grandmother told her stories about her own grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Brown, an African American who migrated from the U.S. South to Indian Territory—current-day Oklahoma—in 1870 in search of a more free place.

Having experienced the violent backlash to Emancipation and Reconstruction in Arkansas, Brown headed to the Territory to stake his claim in a setting where white Americans were few and freedom more tangible. Together with his wife, whose African Creek heritage made it possible to acquire land, Brown established a settlement known as Brownsville, complete with church, school, and post office.

Intrigued by her grandmother’s story about Brown and other relatives who were part of this movement to Indian Territory, Field, an assistant professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, made their story and the history of that migration the core of her Ph.D. dissertation at New York University. She now brings it to a wider audience in a new book, Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War (Yale University Press).

In it, Field uses the stories of extended family members to show a chapter of African American history that was, until recently, largely hidden from view. Between 1890 and 1910, Field noted, more than 100,000 African-descended Southerners migrated to Indian Territory, which became part of the new state of Oklahoma in 1907. In the early twentieth century, Oklahoma claimed more than fifty black towns and settlements. 

African American women and men moved in response “to the stunning violence and exclusion of the post-Reconstruction South,” Field writes in the book. That period stood in stark contrast to the immediate post-Civil War era, when the “political gains were so palpable,” said Field. “To see 2,000 African Americans elected to local, state, and federal offices, many of them formerly enslaved men—that was a tremendous change. The combination of the rising aspirations of Reconstruction, and the sudden reversals of the years that followed, produced this wave of social movements.”

Reconstructing the lives of her ancestors and their contemporaries in Indian Territory, Kendra Field said, shows something important about the nuances of history. “There are not obvious heroes and villains,” she said, “but much more complex stories.” Photo: Alonso NicholsTo reconstruct the history of this migration, Field collected descendants’ stories, delved into archives, and visited home-places and gravesites across Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas, “searching for the resting places of any possible ancestors, whether designated Creek, black, white, or not at all,” she writes in the book.

Some African Americans and black Indians resided in Indian Territory as early as the 1830s, having been driven from their ancestral homes in the Southeast by forced Indian removal. Some were enslaved by members of the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations. In the post-Civil War decades, some of those newly freed African Americans and black Indians gained a foothold in Indian Territory, forming early black and black Indian towns.

At the same time, in the 1870s, African American migrants from the U.S. South, like Thomas Jefferson Brown, began trickling into the Territory, followed by a much larger wave of migrants at the turn of the twentieth century “as Reconstruction was fully undone,” Field said, and discriminatory Jim Crow laws were imposed.

Monroe Coleman, circa 1900. Photo: Courtesy of Kendra FieldTaking part in that later migration were Field’s ancestors Monroe Coleman and Alexander “Elic” Davis. Coleman, Field’s great-great-grandfather, was categorized as “mulatto” by census takers in post-Reconstruction Mississippi, “amid rumors of white parentage,” Field writes. His life also highlights the complexities of class and color in a multiracial South. “Connections to this white planter family—and his ability to ‘pass’ for white or Indian, according to his grandchildren—may have shaped his opportunity to buy and farm a land allotment adjacent to Brownsville,” said Field. By contrast, Davis, Coleman’s first cousin, had to scrape by for much of his life.

In the early years of this migration, many African American women and men who moved to the Territory experienced a taste of real freedom “in this multiracial, multinational setting,” said Field. For a time, “Native American and African-descended men, women, and children worked out their communities and resources for several decades in the absence of white Americans,” she added.

Field discovered some details within her family stories were at odds with what she found in the archives. “It was remembered as Grandpa Brown’s land, when in fact he never owned any land—it belonged to his African Creek wife, Julia Simon, and to her children,” said Field. That, it turned out, was part of the transition from matrilineal Creek landowning to a patrilineal American system.

Field had also heard that Monroe Coleman had gone “back to Africa” with pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.  But Field eventually learned that Garvey had never made it to Africa. The real story of her ancestors’ journey had been obscured by the memory of the much larger Garvey movement. In the aftermath of Oklahoma statehood, white settlers and oil speculators flocked to the former Indian Territory and bought up land using often dubious means. At the same time, Jim Crow laws and practices effectively prohibited African Americans from voting there after 1910.  Many African Americans and black Indians lost their land, and began forming emigration clubs, preparing to leave the state.

Around this time, a West African named Chief Alfred Charles Sam was attempting to build trade and missionary relationships between the U.S. and his homeland—the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Several of Coleman’s neighbors wrote to Sam, asking if there was land available for settling. Together, Alfred Charles Sam and hundreds of black Oklahomans built an African emigration movement in 1913, several years before Marcus Garvey founded his Back-to-Africa movement.

Monroe and Ida Carrell Coleman. Photo: Courtesy of Kendra FieldAfter much travail, in 1914, Coleman and several of his family members made it to the Gold Coast; they were part of a delegation of about sixty black Oklahomans traveling on behalf of the larger movement.  However, the consequences of the World War I, British opposition, and an outbreak of influenza soon caused the rapid dissolution of the movement, including significant illness and death. Coleman and his family returned to the U.S. in 1915.  Davis, who had not made the first trip, nevertheless traveled to West Africa on his own several years later. His last letter written to his daughter was a plea for funds to bring him home. She believed that he died in Liberia around 1923.

While family history has a long trajectory in the United States, when Field first set out using familial sources and lore to tell the story of African American migration to Indian Territory, few historians had made such a choice for a doctoral dissertation. Since then, other historians have begun to use related methodologies and kinds of familial sources, helping to shine light on aspects of America’s history that have been long hidden.

Reconstructing the lives of her ancestors and their contemporaries in Indian Territory, she said, shows something important about the nuances of history. “There are not obvious heroes and villains,” she said, “but much more complex stories.”

Kendra Field will be speaking about Growing Up with the Country on February 20 at the Massachusetts Historical Society and on February 21 at 4:30 p.m. in the Rabb Room at Tisch College at a Center for the Humanities at Tufts event. For more public events, please go here.   

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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