For nearly fifty years, Mid-America Arts Alliance has been sharing and advancing the work of artists and scholars in communities large and small. This work has included efforts to nurture the next generation of leading artists whose creative expression is grounded in authentic historic narrative. Voices of Our Region tells their stories. This online resource further acknowledges the contributions of M-AAA’s region by sharing the voices and stories of the artists, tradition bearers, scholars, and historians of our six-state service area (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas). These essential voices reflect the cultural, racial, ethnic, and lived experience of the artists and storytellers of our richly diverse region. Read the first article the series below.
Midwest History: The (My) Black Native Experience
by kYmberly Keeton, M.L.S., C.A.
I am a native of Fort Worth, Texas. Driving through Missouri and Oklahoma has always intrigued me with Black Native and African American history in the Midwest. As a former faculty librarian and professor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri for three years, I learned a great deal about the region. Multiple stories fit into the narrative about the history of African Americans in the Midwest the Trail of Tears, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, and the Dred Scott Case. Traveling and experiencing history, reading archives and essays, and watching documentaries are the guides that provided an understanding of the lived experiences of Black people in the Midwest. You would never think that the Midwest is a cultural mecca that offers an experience that will have you wanting to come back for more, but it is one of the major areas to visit about Black history and culture.
African slaves and enslaved mixed-race individuals have a long history and cultural exchange with certain Native American tribes. European American colonists considered both races inferior and divided them by convincing Native Americans that Africans worked against their interests. Five tribes in the Southeastern region (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Nations) took on the European and European American model of African chattel slavery. Per the United States’ Indian Removal Act of 1830, the same tribes and their slaves were forced to leave their territories for the expansion of the United States. The forced gentrification of 60,000 Native Americans from the five tribes, their Black slaves, and Freedmen were integrated into what is known today as the Trail of Tears.
Native Americans and their slaves were led to present-day Oklahoma and ironically given free rein to build new environments without interference from 1894–1910, according to the US Census. The Black population of the Indian Territory increased from 19,000 to 80,000 between 1890 and 1907. (The state of Oklahoma was formed in 1907.) After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, African American slaves were free. The city of Tulsa was exclusively available to whites at that time and African American people were subjected to a section of the city. Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, thrived as a business and cultural community from 1865–1921. In 1921, the African American town was burned down because a white mob assumed a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. The race relations between African Americans and white people would never be the same in the state of Oklahoma.
In Missouri, the Dred Scott case is one of the defining factors in history that is a part of this experience. As the story goes, Dred Scott traveled with his slave-master from Missouri—a slave state, to Illinois—a free state. They then traveled to Wisconsin—a free state, and settled there. The death of his owner led his widow to move, and Dred Scott and his family found themselves back in Missouri. While there and with the possibility of being sold, Dred Scott decided to petition for his freedom in 1846 with the Missouri lower courts, based upon traveling through two free states and living in one for most of his life. In 1850, the Missouri (lower) courts awarded Dred Scott and his family their freedom. The case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and overturned, and taken up by the United States Supreme Court. The final decision, in this case, was made in 1857, declaring that African Americans were not considered United States citizens. With this rhetoric emerged the Missouri Compromise and the igniting of a flame that resulted in the Civil War.
Now that I have studied the history of the Midwest more in depth, I understand why I felt those emotions that always crept up while driving through Missouri and Oklahoma. Black Native and African American people and their experiences from the 1850s to 1970 in the Midwest were never-ending battles to survive and be treated as human beings, and still today that fight continues. With this much history taking place in the Midwest, what does the Black experience look like today, in the twenty-first century? Through all my explorations, I found the Amtrak train to be one of the best forms of traveling to think for a while about the plight of Black people in the Midwest. A plethora of experiences and history are readily available to residents and tourists.
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City has a wealth of information about Bass Reeves, the first African American US Marshall. Three Historically Black Colleges and Universities that I visited in the Midwest: Harris-Stowe State University (1857), Lincoln University Missouri (1866), and Langston University (1897). As a librarian, I was very intrigued to learn and visit two African American libraries in the state of Missouri: Inman E. Page Library in Jefferson City and the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library in Sedalia. The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis, the George Washington Carver National Monument just west of Diamond, Missouri, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City provide archival collections and are landmarks open to the public for research. Having the opportunity to visit these institutions and cultural spaces, I still have places that I want to visit and learn more about that have to do with my family history in the Midwest; this is just a glimpse of what I have seen thus far.
Now some years later, I have learned that I have ancestors who are from and lived in the Midwest through this cultural experience. Langston Hughes wrote, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”
Traveling through the Midwest puts these words in perspective about experiencing its culture and history. In hindsight, I ask of you: What do you know about your genealogical rivers in the Midwest?
Anonymous. (2021, February 15). The Relevance of Native America to Black History [Text]. Field Museum. https://www.fieldmuseum.org/blog/relevance-native-america-black-history
Commemorating the Tulsa Massacre and Black-Native History | National Council on Public History. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://ncph.org/history-at-work/commemorating-tulsa-massacre/
Essay 34 – May 28, 1830: President Andrew Jackson Signs the Indian Removal Act by James S. Humphreys. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/13825040/height/90/theme/custom/thumbnail/yes/direction/backward/render-playlist/no/custom-color/87A93A/
Fain, K. (2017, July 5). The Devastation of Black Wall Street. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/the-devastation-of-black-wall-street/
Missouri Digital Heritage: Dred Scott Case, 1846-1857. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/resources/africanamerican/scott/scott.asp
The Revised Dred Scott Case Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from http://digital.wustl.edu/dredscott/history.html
Trail of Tears | Facts, Map, & Significance | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Trail-of-Tears
Image: Lot 67: THOMAS HART BENTON 1889-1975