Reflections on Creek Freedmen and Legacies of Enslavement at Emory University

Recently, I gave an invited presentation at the symposium “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession: Emory, Racism, and the Journey Towards Restorative Justice” (September 29-October 1, 2021) at Emory University. The gathering sought to draw attention to two critical aspects of Emory’s early history, the enslavement of African Americans, whose coerced labor enabled the first three decades of Emory’s College existence, and the coerced alienation of indigenous lands, upon which Emory College and its environs were constructed from 1836 onwards, and upon which the Atlanta (Clifton Road) Emory campus was constructed from 1915 onwards.

The panels and presentations were fascinating and illuminating, highlighting the unresolved legacies of the removal of Muscogee (Creek) communities from the lands that later became Newton and DeKalb counties, where Emory’s Oxford and Atlanta campuses are now located, as well as the historical implications of enslavement, and the long-term disavowals of slavery, on the Emory campuses. The conference keynote address, “Universities as Instruments of Colonialism,” by Craig Steven Wilder (MIT) brilliantly articulated the fundamental bond between enslavement and indigenous land dispossession in the foundational histories of American universities prior to the Civil War.

My presentation, “Families Divided: The Human Costs of Enslavement at Emory”, developed themes in my 2011 book, The Accidental Slaveowner, and my more recent research on enslavement on the Atlanta Emory university grounds. I concentrated on the enslaved families associated with Emory who were torn apart through slave sales, estate distributions, gifts, and sexual violence. (See the presentation on YouTube at

(The whole symposium is accessible at

As part of my talk, i emphasized that the Oxford African American community, whose ancestors had been enslaved at and around Emory College, has remained deeply interested in the stories of their indigenous ancestors. Many trace their lineages in Oxford back to enslaved Native American individuals held by Emory’s leaders, including Cornelius Robinson, owned by Emory’s president Alexander Means, and Angeline Sims, owned by Richard Sims, a founding member of the Emory Board of Trustees. Elderly community members recall that Afro-indigenous communities, related to these enslaved indigenous persons, continued to reside in Newton County, along the Alcovy River and Turner Lake, into the early 20th century, until they were forced off their lands by the county’s white leadership.

I further noted that black elders in Newton County have long been deeply interested in the fate of the Creek Freedmen, descendants of persons of African descent who were enslaved by Muscogee (Creek) slaveowners, within Georgia and Alabama, and then later transported along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s to Indian Territory, later known as Oklahoma. As chronicled in Gary Zellar’s 2007 monograph, African Creeks, and many other studies, Muscogee Creek communities were deeply divided between Union and Confederate partisans during the Civil War, although the Creek Nation itself was formally allied with the Confederacy, as were the other “Civilized Nations.” Slavery in the Creek Nation only ended in 1866, with the arrival of the U.S. Army in the region. When the Creek Nation signed a treaty with the United States in 1866, those individuals of African descent who had been enslaved by Muscogee, known as the Creek Freedmen, were guaranteed citizenship within the Creek Nation. Then, in 1979, the Creek leadership effectively expelled or dis-enrolled nearly all of those persons of African or enslaved descent. The Creek Freedmen for the past four decades have been struggling for the treaty to be honored, and for their citizenship status within the Creek Nation to be restored.

This issue has again risen to national prominence, in the wake of the 2020 McGirt Decision, which is anchored in the 1866 Treaty. Many Freedmen note that many Creek leaders have strongly supported the decision, which among other things holds that tribal reservations in Oklahoma were never de-established, and that native sovereignty must be reasserted in multiple domains, yet these same leaders have argued that other parts of the treaty, establishing the tribal citizenship rights of Creek Freedmen, as tribal members of African descent, can be ignored. Partly in light of McGift, Deb Haaland, the Secretary of Interior, has publicly spoken on the profound racial injustice of denying tribal citizenship rights to the Freedmen. The House Financial Affairs committee, chaired by Maxine Waters (D-CA) is likely to specify in the reauthorized Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA), that tribes must guarantee full tribal citizenship rights to Freedmen before federal housing assistance can be disbursed.

I was thus perplexed that there was little discussion of the Creek Freedmen issue at the Emory symposium. Muscogee (Creek) representatives were invited to participate in the conference, offering blessings and sharing accounts of educational initiatives at the College of the Muscogee Nation. The African American Oxford descendants and I were deeply moved by the blessings offered by the Creek Mekko (ritual specialist and ordained elder ) Chebon Kernell during the conference. Yet sadly. no Creek Freedmen, however, were invited to participate. In their opening and closing framing remarks, the symposium’s organizers did not address the continued injustice of racial apartheid within the Creek Nation, or the painful legacies of enslavement within Muscogee (Creek) communities. As a prominent Creek Freedman activist later noted, the university leadership vigorously opposed apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s; why is the same university’s leadership not protesting, or even acknowledging, structures of racial injustice within the Creek Nation, as the university seeks to nurture long-term connections with tribal actors and institutions?

This silence is all the more surprising given that in March 2021 Emory’s Carlos Museum hosted a remarkably penetrating forum on Creek Freedmen rights, in the wake of the McGirt Decision: https://carlos.emory.edu/freedmen-claims-relation-mcgirt-vs-oklahoma The panel, organized by Craig Womack (then Emory Professor of English), included the prominent Five Nations Freedmen representative Marilyn Vann; Eli Grayson (an activist for Creek freedmen rights, who is descended from both non-African Creeks and Creek Freedmen) and attorney John Parris, who has diligently pursued Freedmen legal rights in the courts. The Emory community and symposium organizers have been well aware of the Freedmen’s struggles. Why were they, in effect, sidelined during the symposium?

I appreciate that all involved seek to honor native sovereignty and are mindful of the profound historical injustices of force indigenous removal and land alienation, which were key to the foundation of Emory, and virtually all other institutions of higher education in North America. It is vital that universities advocate for the upholding of treaty rights, which have so often been abrogated by the Federal government across the decades. Yet in this instance, the rights of the Freedmen are clearly guaranteed within the foundational 1866 treaty, so defense of the treaty (and, by extension, of McGirt) logically calls for honoring Freedmen’s tribal citizenship claims. The university, it strikes many of us, is well situated to help encourage productive dialogue between Creek leadership and Creek Freedmen, continuing in the spirit of Craig Womack’s visionary work. Craig and others have emphasized that this is a critical moment, in which the university can exercise profound ethical influence in dialogue with progressive voices within the Muscogee Creek Nation.

It is my hope that as Emory University continues to explore forms of restorative justice, in the shadow of historical crimes against enlaved and indigenous peoples, that the predicament of the Creek Freedmen is not sidelined, but is rather kept front and center as all involved seek to right historical wrongs and build, collaboratively, the beloved community.

For further reading

Text

Chaudhuri, Jean and Joyotpaul Chaudhuri. A Sacred Path: The Way of the Muscogee Creeks. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 2001.

Womack, Craig S. Art as Performance, Story as Criticism: Reflections on Native Literary Aesthetics. Norman: Oklahoma University Press. 2009. (see especially his discussion of the cultural politics of the Creek Freedmen issue, pp. 95-114.)

Zellar, Gary. African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation. Norman: Oklahoma University Press. 2007.

Web Resources

Austa Somvichian-Clausen. The Creek Freedmen push for indigenous rights decades after being disenfranchised. The Hill. December 7, 2020 https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/529047-the-creek-freedmen-push-for-indigenous-tribal-rights

Freedmen Claims in Relation to McGirt vs. Oklahoma/ A panel discussion on the historic 2020 Supreme Court decision. Michael G. Carlos Museum, Emory University. (Craig Womack, Marilyn Vann, Eli Grayson, John Parris). 2021
https://carlos.emory.edu/freedmen-claims-relation-mcgirt-vs-oklahoma

Creek Freedmen
http://www.thecreekfreedmen.com\

Craig Womack. Aestheticizing a Political Debate: Can the Creek Confederacy Be Sung Back Together? November 20, 2007, Southern Spaces
https://southernspaces.org/2007/aestheticizing-political-debate-can-creek-confederacy-be-sung-back-together/

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