Angela Walton-Raji has been researching African-Native American genealogy for nearly 20 years and is the author of the book Black Indian Genealogy Research: African-American Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes. She recently presented a series of genealogy workshops at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the exhibit IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas. Walton-Raji’s ancestors are Freedmen, African-Americans who were slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Nations – in Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma in 1907. The Cherokee freed their slaves in 1863, and after the Civil War, the other tribes did the same. All but the Chickasaw eventually granted Freedmen full citizenship in their tribe. In preparation for Oklahoma statehood, the U.S. Congress created the Dawes Commission, which was charged with dissolving collective tribal land ownership and allotting land to individual tribal members. Thousands of Freedmen came before the commission to prove their tribal membership and their right to a share of land. I spoke with Walton-Raji about her research.
From This Story
What spurred you to start researching African-Native American history and genealogy?
I was inspired to begin the research because it’s part of my family history. I’m originally from western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, right there on the border. My great-grandmother Sallie Walton was born in Indian Territory, in the Choctaw Nation. She died in 1961 – I knew her very well. She was my babysitter until I went to kindergarten. [Her Choctaw heritage] was widely known in terms of family history. And growing up in a city such as Fort Smith, Arkansas … if you’re on the north side of the city, you can look at the Cherokee Nation, and if you’re on the south of the city, the bordering community is the Choctaw Nation.
I did have in my possession some family papers – a small land allotment record from [Sallie] that she had obtained from the Dawes Commission. I had been doing genealogy for many years but was curious, “Gee, is there more information out there to be found?” I really didn’t know what there was to find. So when I moved to the Washington, D.C., area and had access to the National Archives … I went and started looking and found family records, and I was just amazed.
What did you find?
I found a [Choctaw Nation] enrollment card for Samuel and Sallie Walton, my great-grandparents. And then my grandfather, Sam, Jr., was recorded there, my Uncle Houston’s name was there, my Aunt Louisa’s name. I was like, “Wow, I didn’t realize there was a document that reflected this!” On the reverse side of that same card, which was the next exposure on microfilm, was information about [Sam and Sallie’s] parents. Here was additional information about his mother, his father and her mother and her father – there were four new ancestors! But beyond that, I also found an interview with my great-grandmother and great-grandfather about their life in the Choctaw Nation. I had known of Samuel Walton but did not realize he was originally born in Arkansas and had later been sold as a slave to someone in the Choctaw Nation. I also began to recognize surnames of people whom I had grown up around. I realized, here’s an entire record set reflecting people who had been slaves of Choctaw Indians, many of whom had Choctaw blood … an entire record set of African-American people that had never been talked about.
You’ve said the Freedmen have been “deleted” from American history in the past. What do you mean?
One hears, for example, about the forced migration of native people. One does not hear about the 1,200 slaves that were taken west with the Cherokee Nation. One does not read in history books that many people who were Choctaws – and the Choctaws were actually the first group that migrated, in the winter of 1830 and 1831 – sold personal property to be able to purchase slaves to take with them to Indian Territory. Pull up any history book or just Google “map reflecting slavery,” and you’ll always see the map of what is called “the South” and you see that empty spot that [would be] Oklahoma, and it looks as if there was no slavery taking place there. When the treaty of 1866 finally abolished slavery in Indian Territory, the fact is that a community thrived – a community of people who were not slaves of the United States, and they were Freedmen.
What have you found in your research about how blended families – those with native, African and Anglo roots – historically identified themselves? Obviously there were limitations on what box they could check on the census form, for example.
And they weren’t allowed to check – it was somebody else checking the box.