History Lost and Found
“Life does not include a promise that you get what you earn and deserve. But at least we have ourselves, the things our people said and did and believed in. All I want, right now, is each day for one more person to learn our history.”
Miss Charles Emily Watson (interviewed by Jeff Guinn)
As the United States observes African American History Month each February, the things that black Americans said and did are honored in schools, community centers, and churches. Their tales are told by storytellers, human and electronic, and it is the one time each year, that no matter if you’re in the largest cities or small towns, you can count on finding some explicitly African American cultural celebration. In most of those ceremonies, the focus is on slavery and the civil rights actions of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which leaves amazing gaps in our knowledge of Africans and their descendants in the U.S., who arguably were part of every aspect of the nation’s history.
The part of that history that Miss Charles wants one more person to know is that of her people, the Seminole Negro (pronounced NAY-gro, not NEE-gro). In Our Land Before We Die, Jeff Guinn records the tale of a people who are at the intersection of the two groups most terrorized and abused during American’s colonial and post-colonial history, the indigenous people of North America and African slaves. And though in our politically correct lingua franca all of the original North Americans are known as Native Americans, they were really many tribes with their own territories, customs and languages. Guinn’s text deals with the Seminoles, who were once part of the Creek Tribe, but broke away and inhabited Florida. They owned slaves, though by all accounts their slave system was more benign than the white man’s “peculiar institution.” Which helps explain why runaway black slaves ended up seeking and receiving refuge from the Seminoles. Basically, they were moving up to a lesser evil and an opportunity for a better life.
And for some of the years that the refugees were with the Seminoles, they did indeed have a better life: more autonomy, land to farm and family. They were even encouraged, by the Seminoles and later other groups who needed warriors, to bear arms and fight. This combination of pseudo-free, armed, runaway slaves didn’t sit well with plantation owners in the South. Their ire at the situation, along with whites’ desire to rid Florida of the ‘savages’ led to the Seminoles and their Seminole Negroes being relocated, first to south Florida, then to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Again and again the Seminole Negro were promised their own land and sometimes their freedom in return for relocating. Yet every turn in their history held the threat of being re-captured or re-sold into slavery, since they were considered stolen property. And the Seminoles really thought of them as property as well.
Throughout all the battles, negotiations and betrayals, the Seminole Negro had one desire: “We want our land before we die. Our land. Not the right to live on yours,” said John Horse, who led the Seminole Negro during their time as fighters for hire in Mexico.
As the United States continues to avoid serious discussions of slave reparations and the current administration works to dismantle affirmative action, it is striking to read the documented betrayals of promises to the Seminole Negro. Even in the face of such evidence, race clouds thought on the issue. The current spectrum of race relations in the U.S. is enerally good when it comes to buying, selling and emulating black popular culture, but very bad when talk turns to concrete ways to address continuing disparities in access to employment and education. That’s why when Guinn writes about Seminole Negro descendants’ hopes for monetary reparations, land, a museum or a miniseries, it’s easy to see that a television movie is the more likely outcome.
Guinn, books editor at the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, frames his book with the tale of his search for the Seminole Negro, which included the usual interviews and archival finds as well as losses when he spends too much time away from the project. This device effectively shows how Miss Charles’ and other descendants stories were found and how history is lost as people die before researchers reach them. When Guinn began his research Miss Charles, a griot for the remaining Seminole Negro, was still sharp and able to tell the tales she’d heard from her parents. By the time he finished the book, she had “the Alzheimers” and was unable to relate more stories. Yet she held on long enough to tell it to one more person and fortunately he wrote it down, filling in one of those gaps in Black history.