About 20 attendees gathered in the Humanities building on Tuesday to hear “Passing for Black in an Indian Country: A Family History of Freedom’s First Generation,” a lecture held by Professor Kendra Field of Tufts University.
The lecture was held by Stony Brook’s Humanities Institute as part of its “Race Matters” lecture series.
This series looks at racial issues through the work of scholars, performers, and activists who site politics and strive to keep structural and historical inequities from becoming cultural weapons.
This lecture centered primarily on the stories of Elic Davis, Thomas Jefferson Brown and Monroe Coleman, three mixed-race men who were ex-slaves.
These freed slaves, whom Field calls “Freedom’s First Generation,” had left the South following the Civil War to move to Native American land in present-day Oklahoma.
“I think it’s interesting to melt African-American history and Native American history,” Ph.D. student Matt Ford said. I study indigenous people myself so this was very interesting for me.”
At this time, there were several all-black towns in Oklahoma.
African-Americans were united despite many internal differences within their own community.
In fact, the idea of an all-black state was something that was considered by President Benjamin Harrison in the late 19th century.
“Black towns were an alternative to a black state or even a black nation,” Field said. “So I think people were just trying things out and experimenting with them.”
However, once Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Jim Crow laws began to be implemented, hindering much of the racial progress.
African-Americans from these areas dispersed; some raised money to buy ships destined for Africa as part of the “Back to Africa” movement.
They never actually ended up going to Africa due to the outbreak of World War I.
What does it mean to be an all-black town in a place that prohibits us from purchasing land or voting?
The stories of these men, who are actually ancestors of Field, were told as a means of microhistory.
This is a historical study focused on a very well-defined field, oftentimes the stories of just a few people, as was the case on Tuesday.
“The field has been emerging over the last few decades, especially in African-American history,” Field said.
Field was first able to get many of the documents she used from family reunions and interviewed several family members as part of her studies.