Songs of the Forest: A “Re-matriation” Gathering in Weelaunee (South River) Forest

My collaborator Rev. Avis Williams and I were delighted to be asked to participate in the recent April 22-23 gathering/conference/songfest/happening/summit called, “Singing ourselves back together: Community in Weelaunee.” The event brought together a range of organizations and movements, united by shared, urgent concern over the fate of the “South River Forest zone” around the headwaters of the South River watershed, in south Atlanta and unincorporated southwestern DeKalb County, Georgia. The gathering centered on the hopes of Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) to engage in a “re-matriation” process, reconnecting to the ancestral homelands of the Muscogee peoples, including this wooded and greenspace terrain.

The “South River Forest” is in many respects an aspirational concept, anchored in an earlier Atlanta city vision plan for contiguous greenspace, including wooded acreage, of about 3,500 acres spanning southwestern DeKalb county and southeastern Fulton county. This zone, which has a long history of landfill, waste disposal, and prison labor sites, could become a beautiful emerald necklace of wooded land, recreation areas, and open fields. Recently, activists and Muscogee Creek ceremonialists have termed this greenspace zone the “Weelaunee” (Ouelvnv), in light of an early history of this indigenous term for the South river, which I reviewed in a previous post.

The threats to the forest and associated greenspace are both long-term and immediate. As emphasized by the South River Watershed Alliance, extensive sewage and toxic run-off impacts the health of Intrenchment Creek and other tributaries of the South River, sometimes reckoned the country’s fourth most endangered river. A core section of the wooded zone has been slated for demolition by the Atlanta Police Foundation, which intends to construct a large training facility for multiple police forces, specializing, opponents have charged in urban paramilitary operations. Dubbed “Cop City” by activists, the proposed training facility is opposed by a coalition of community organizers who seek to pressure the city of Atlanta to suspend or cancel the project.

The South River Watershed Alliance also seeks to prevent a proposed land swap by the private developer Blackhall studios, the largest film production site in the Southeast, which would lead to the deforestation and flattening of Intrenchment Creek Park. They also oppose the construction by Blackhall of more soundstage facilities downstream along the South River. More broadly, the Alliance and its allies are demanding serious investment by DeKalb County and the business community in environmental justice for the entire South River watershed region.

Ceremonial Returns

Creek ceremonialists in November 2021 gathered in this same space, the Intrenchment Creek Trailhead, around a sacred fire, to perform a stomp dance that reproduced rhythms heard and sensed in these forest land centuries ago. Now, Creek and allied scholars and community organizers joined with the forest defenders to consider what a better world might look like, in the forest and beyond, and to re-establish bonds with this sacred space. Guided by friends in the Watershed Alliance and the forest defenders, we took many walks through the forest, including to an old venerable oak, a possible ceremonial gathering site in days of old, which the Muscogee Creek participants named “Puse” (Grandmother).

The Grandmother (Puse) Tree

Tresa Gouge (of the Redbird Smith Ceremonial Grounds in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma) taught those in attendance how to make cedar-based medicine bundles. Dr. Craig Womack, emeritus professor of English and Native American Studies at nearby Emory University, who is Muscogee Creek and a gifted musician, sang Muscogee songs, including laments performed during the Trail of Tears. The first evening, Creek attendees performed stomp dances in the same circle they had gathered in, back in November, reconnecting with the earth and with ancestral presences.

Indigenous Scholarship

The two day event moved back and forth across many modalities, part academic-ish conference, part political rally, part ceremonial performance. We pondered the meanings of “#LandBack” and “re-matriation.” Mekko (traditional chief and spiritual leader ) Chebon Kernell, associated with the Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds, reflected upon the vital necessity of an environmental Indigenous ethic that resists racism, extractive colonial economies and paramilitary law enforcement. Noted Indigenous feminist scholar and community planner Laura Harjo (University of Oklahoma), author of Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity,” facilitated a workshop in which she invited us to dream collectively and individually about our deepest wishes for the future of the forest, as a place of learning, healing, and revived collective care. Drawing and writing on large pieces of paper brought us together in community as we seriously and playfully considered new models for the Intrenchment Creek trailhead and the forested land that is threatened by the planned police training facility. Rev. Dr. Avis Wiliams, who grew up in the African American community of Covington, about 35 miles from the forest, reflected on the ways in which African Americans–during the two centuries following Native removal–have stewarded the lands left behind by Muskogee Creek, with whom Black folks in Georgia continue to sense deep kinship. Preschoolers from Atlanta’s Highlander School, led by the remarkable Rukia Rogers, created lovely pictures about the forest and the dangers it faces, presented as gifts to participants.

Craig Womack and Laura Harjo introduce the planning workshop

Dr. Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi, Muscogee) of Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU) in Lawrence, Kansas, whose book “Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge ” my Boston University students and I recently read, took us on a fascinating journey through foundational principles in Indigenous environmental philosophy. Certain formative precepts, he emphasized, are embodied and enacted through everyday practice: respect yourself, honor yourselves, embody the very change you wish to see in the world, live not in fear but with sensed respect for the power of place and the dynamic reciprocal relations between humans and and our more-than-human relatives, including plants and animals. How, he asked, do we move beyond a “fear-based” ontology, beyond commodified capitalist and alienated relationships with nature and other people, towards an orientation towards the world that is based on gifts, gratitude, and generosity towards all beings? How do we learn not to see the world as made up of resources that are to be extracted and consumed, but as constituted as a living matrix of dynamic relationships among life-giving forces and diverse forms consciousness and energy, that mutually enrich one another? How do we honor the forest as our elder teacher, and reciprocally express our responsibilities to care for the gifts of the forest and life-giving waters, here and everywhere?

Mekko Chebon Kernell at the Grandmother tree (Puce)

Up in the Canopy

Some of the most memorable encounters during our time in Weelaunee were with the forest defenders, many of whom are occupying forested spaces that are threatened with bulldozers and clear-cutting plans by the Atlanta Police Foundation, as a prelude to constructing the planned police training facility. These activists, living communally in the forest, enact the principles articulated by Daniel Wildcat, embodying, in ways large and small, the changes they wish to see in the world. Some reside for days at a time up in the canopy, in small treehouses lashed to the tree crowns, like latter-day pirates in crows’ nests keeping an eagle eye open for danger, even as they revel in intimate proximity to squirrels, birds, and other citizens of the forest. The defenders are painfully aware of the irony that “Cop City” is slated to be built on the grounds of one of south Atlanta’s notorious prison farms, where so many convicts suffered unjust imprisonment, brutal physical punishment, and solitary confinement from the 1920s into the 1960s and beyond.

Map of the proposed South River Forest, suspended between two trees

A former activist encampment, just up the hill from the Grandmother Oak, sports a beautiful contour drawing of the South River Forest, suspended between two trees. An enigmatic memorial sculpture consists of poles arranged in a pyramid, that might recall an indigenous home or the sacred mounds of Mississippian civilization. Playful assemblages abound. I was especially struck by a stone fragment on which is inscribed the word “Virgil,” evidently from the disposed facade of the old Carnegie Atlanta Public Library, positioned along a significant forest path. This is I took to be a clever allusion to the opening sequence of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as the narrator wanders lost in the forest, until he encounters Virgil, ready to serve as guide on his first journey towards knowledge of the cosmos. (To be sure, these forest defenders don’t share the classical European understanding of forests as sites of moral confusion: rather, for them, the forest is itself a generative site of wisdom and enlightenment.)

Enslavement Histories

These forest trees are also witness to older tragedies. Muscogee Creek people were expelled from millions of acres in the US Southeast in the early decades of the 19th century. As Rev. Avis and I noted in our remarks Saturday morning, the lands of the proposed South River Forest were stolen from Muscogee people and distributed to white settlers in the Fourth Georgia land lottery of 1821, which made available land lots of 202.5 acres. Many of these white settlers established slave-based plantations on which cotton and other crops were produced through slave labor. Through archival research, we have been able to identify by name, as of this writing, at least 35 enslaved persons held on these lands, across about 12 plantations, from the 1840s until 1865. In a moving ceremony on Saturday morning, a group of us were able to read these names aloud, and pay witness to the lives of these individuals, whose stories have for far too long been relegated to the shadows.

1860 Slave Schedule. The year before his death, Lochlin Johnson owned 11 slaves residing in 3 dwellings (near South River/Conley Creek confluence)

We are less certain of the specific histories on these lands of enslaved African and African-descended peoples, held as human property by Lower Creek slaveowners, during the period from the mid-18th century until the 1820s, when Creek were forced off of these ancestral homelands. The most famous, or infamous, Creek-owned slave-based plantation in Georgia was Chief William McIntosh’s plantation Acorn Bluff [Lockchau Talofau] in present day Carroll county, Georgia ( a site now known as the McIntosh Reserve park). This is the site where McIntosh was executed in 1825 by a Creek warrior squad for having signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, at another property of his, in Butts County). Numerous enslaved people owned by Chief McIntosh and his associates were confiscated by the attacking forces, and then later distributed, under terms of the Treaty of Washington, to McIntosh’s heirs. These enslaved persons were moved west after 1827, to Fort Gibson and then deeper into the Arkansas Valley’s Indian Territory, later known as Oklahoma.

Rev. Avis and I touched on the fascinating story of Sarah Davis (1799-1886), as reconstructed by Gary Zellar in his book African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation. She was as at one point owned by the daughter of William McIntosh, Rebecca McIntosh, who in 1831 married Benjamin Hawkins, an educated, “mixed-blood” Creek and associate of Sam Houston. After Chief McIntosh was executed by Creek warriors in 1825, the enslaved Sarah was part of the forced emigration party led by Ben Hawkins and John Sells to Arkansas Indian Territory in 1830.

When Rebeca Hawkins left Indian Territory for Texas, she sold Sarah to her brother Daniel Newnan (D.N.) McIntosh, who later served as a colonel in the Confederate States Army. Sarah worked as an enslaved domestic servant for him, and around 1853 purchased her freedom and became a free African Creek merchant who lived in the Creek Agency settlement, west of present day Muskogee before (and after) the Civil War. She ran an inn that served meals and was a major force in the community. Her grandson was Joseph Davison, an important Creek African Freedman political leader. Many of their descendants continue to reside in the Muscogee area and elsewhere in Oklahoma.

Sarah Davis and many other members of her family are buried in the Old Creek Agency cemetery near Muscogee OK, in which an estimated 1,000 African Creek individuals are interred. The cemetery, on private land, is currently unavailable to visits by loved ones and descendants. We noted that as we honor the endangered South River forest, a site of so much tragedy, we should also reflect upon that distant forested cemetery in Oklahoma, which remains a site of great injustice, compounded by the fact that most Freedmen descendants were in the 1970s stripped of tribal citizenship and remain legally outside of the Muscogee Creek Nation (MCN).

Tragedy and Hope

The South River (Weelaunee) Forest and the associated South River watershed has seen multiple injustices across the generations, including decades of enslavement and post-slavery sharecropping, as well as a convict lease system that Douglas A. Blackmon has aptly termed “slavery by another name.” We are well aware that the forest zone almost certainly contains unmarked graves of those who died on plantations during slavery times and on multiple prison labor farms in the region across the 20th century. A little further downstream, the Flat Rock African American community emerged after the Civil War as a remarkable site of black economic opportunity, religious faith, and cultural expressiveness. (I urge everyone to see a first rate exhibition on this community at the DeKalb History Center in downtown Decatur). Yet, as we were reminded by Dr. Jacqueline Echols, President of the Board of the South River Watershed Alliance, the predominantly black and brown households of south DeKalb County, who reside within the South River watershed, remain particularly at risk from toxic sewage contamination of the river system, due primarily to storm water run off. A flawed Consent Decree between the EPA, the Department of Justice and DeKalb County has failed to achieve the goals set for in the Clean Water Act, and is currently subject to litigation by the Alliance.

Yet, for all these important sober reminders, the dominant tenor of the two day gathering in Weelaunee was exultation and optimism. It was delightful to meet so many of the Forest Defenders, who each day and night are putting their bodies on the line to safeguard this beautiful, fragile ecosystem. Volunteers (coordinated in part by Christine Ristaino of Emory) organized and served delicious, healthy food throughout the two days. The Mvskoke songs and dances, honoring the power of places from which Indigenous peoples had been excluded for two centuries, brought tears of joy to many eyes.

For me and Rev. Avis, the most memorable moment of the gathering came during the final panel, when Craig Womack reflected on the profound injustices committed against the Mvskoke Estelvste, the African Creek Freedmen who are descended, in many instances, from persons of African descent who had been enslaved by the Creek slave-owning elites in Alabama, Georgia, and Indian Territory. African Creek Freedmen and their descendants were guaranteed perpetual citizenship in the Creek nation under the terms of the 1866 Treaty through which the Muscogee Creek Nation, which had been allied to the Confederacy during the Civil War, was re-admitted into the United States. Yet, the Freedmen (descendants of those identified as Creek “Freedmen” in the early 20th century Dawes roll census) were deprived for tribal citizenship in the late 1970s. Craig spoke of this de-citizenship process as the lowest point in all of Creek history, a tragic and foolish decision that has caused immeasurable human suffering during the past four decades. Among other things, as he noted, de-citizenship has deprived African Creek Freedmen of access to tribal-funded medical care and higher education. Members of the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band, listening to the proceedings digitally from a great distance, were profoundly moved by Craig’s unconditional and compassionate statement of solidarity.

Perhaps, at a future gathering in this beautiful and imperiled forest, representatives of the Muscogee Creek Freedmen will join with their Mvskoke brothers and sisters, the forest defenders, and their many allies, in shared celebration and remembrance, reflecting on all that these trees have seen and all that might emerge here in the future. Attuned to the healing currents of wind and water, the gentle swaying of the trees, the musicality of the birds, we might raise our voices together. And in that way, we just might be able, at long last, to sing ourselves back together.

Note: Some of the April 22-23 presentations are audible on a loop through WRFG Atlanta 89.3 FM:


For Further Reading

Mark Auslander and Avis Williams. Along the Ulcofauhatche: Of Sorrow Songs and “Dried Indian Creek” Southern Spaces, 18 February 2022.

Laura Harjo. “Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity,” University of Arizon Press. 2019

Daniel Wildcat. “Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge ” Fulcrum Publishing, 2009.

Craig Womack. Aestheticizing a Political Debate: Can the Creek Confederacy Be Sung Back Together? Southern Spaces. 2007.

Gary Zellar, African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation. University of Oklahoma Press 2007 (2021)

In Search of the “Welaunee” (South River, Georgia)

Rev. Avis Williams and I recently published an essay an contested Afro-indigenous and white historical narratives of the watercourse known as “Dried Indian Creek,” which runs through Newton County, Georgia. In local African American memory, this disturbing term was derived from the early lynching of a Native American leader by white settlers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries (See:
“Along the Ulcofauhatche: Of Sorrow Songs and ‘Dried Indian Creek.’“ Southern Spaces. February 18, 2022. (Mark Auslander and Avis Wiliams)
In recent months, we have become increasingly fascinated by the Afro-Indigenous histories of the South River Forest, a zone of about 3.500 acres in South Atlanta (within unceded Muscogee homelands) that has the potential to become the nation’s largest urban forested conservation area. The forest is being re-visited by Muscogee community members in April 2022, who are committed to helping safeguard and remediate the river system and the lands, plants, and animals it nurtures. (See a fundraising drive for these visits of return and reconnection.)

This imperiled ecosystem has a history that spans thousands of years of indigenous presence, up until the 1821 Creek cession, after which Muscogee (Creek) were forced westwards into Alabama and then into Indian Territory (subsequently known as Oklahoma). Following the 1821 Georgia Land Lottery, these confiscated indigenous lands were divided into lots of 202.5 acres each and acquired by white settlers, in what was then Dooly, Fayette, Henry, Houston, and Monroe counties. (DeKalb County, created out of part of Henry County, was established the next year, in 1822.) Many of these settlers established farms worked by enslaved people, whom Rev. Avis and I are working to identify and whose descendants we hope in time to trace.

We have been curious about the earlier, indigenous term or terms used for the South River, from which the South River Forest takes its name. Originating out of underground springs in the heart of what is now Atlanta, the river’s initial stretch is confined nowadays to piping and culverts. The watercourse emerges above ground at Norman Berry Drive, in East Point, north of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and flows about sixty miles southeast to its confluence with the Alcovy and Yellow rivers (now inundated under Jackson Lake), forming the Ocmulgee River, the major western tributary of the Altamaha River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

The authoritative Georgia Place Names, by Kenneth K. Krakow (3rd Edition, 1999) asserts that, “In early days [the river] was known as South Branch, Ocmulgee River, before the name was shortened to “South River.” Krakow does not list an indigenous term for the watercourse, yet several sources identify the South River as having born the name, “Welaunee” or “Weelaunee.” According to Martin and Mauldin, A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, “welawnee” means “green/brown/yellow” water.” RaeLynn Butler, Manager of the Historic and Cultural Preservation Department of the the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, explains (personal communication) that the term “Lane’ (law-nee) is Mvskoke for the color green, brown, or yellow, She also notes that the Mvskoke term, ‘Ue’ meaning water. is rendered n English as ‘we’

The U.S. Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1816), who lived and worked extensively among the Muscogee Creek in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, identifies the indigenous settlement of Big Sawokli as being on the “Welaaunee Creek,” in what is now eastern Alabama (see Hawkins, Benjamin, A Sketch of the Creek Country in the Years 1798 and 1799. [The Reprint Company, Spartanburg, S.C 1982; Originally published in 1848 as vol. 3, part 1 of the Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Savannah.] Several sites in eastern Alabama and northern Florida bear the name. Wylaunee Creek in far eastern Barbour County, Alabama flows into Lake Eufala. A northern Florida slave-based cotton plantation, known as “Welaunee,” was established in 1826 by the Gamble family in Jefferson County, Florida; a modern quail hunting establishment, Welaunee Plantation, is located in Leon County, Florida.

Principal Sources on the Weelaunee in Georgia

According to Vivian Price (1997). The History of DeKalb County, Georgia 1822-1900. Wolfe Publishing Company. (p. 36) the term “Weelaunee” was the indigenous term used for Georgia’s South River.

Detail showing “Weelaunee” River in Henry County, Henry Shenck Tanner, Map of Georgia and Alabama, 1823.

Price’s assertion is supported by several sources. Henry Schenk Tanner’s 1823 “Map of Georgia and Alabama” (from his New American Atlas project, often considered the pinnacle of antebellum American cartography) depicts the eastern extension of what is now the South River, forming the boundary between Newton County and Henry County, as the “Weelaunee R.” Tanner’s map does not depict the headwaters or western course of the river, within DeKalb County or what was then Gwinnett County (before the establishment of Rockdale County); these sections had presumably not been charted at the time of the map’s publication. The map does depict in detail indigenous communities then under the governance of Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw nations, primarily to the west of the Flint and Chatahoochee rivers. (At the time of the map’s publication, DeKalb County, bordered to the west by the Chataahoochee, was the westernmost extension of the white-governed state of Georgia.)

This same map is perhaps referenced in an 1884 entry in the Covington Enterprise [Newton County, GA): “The Georgia Railroad, desiring to name some palace cars after the, Indian names of our three rivers, asked Judge T. M. Meriwether to get them up. After diligent search the Judge found an old map and the following names were given: Yellow river—Coo-lau-poo-chee; South river— We-lau-nee; Alcova river— Ulco-fau hatchee.” (Reprinted in the Savannah morning news. (Savannah, Ga.), March 22, 1884, p. 1, column 3.)

Fifteen years later, in 1899, several Georgia newspapers published an elegiac commentary on the South River by Lynda (or Linda) Lee, entitled “Welaunee; Indian Legend of the South River, on whose banks several notable Georgians were born. ” She writes, “South River, the pale face called it, but the red man, with poetic tongue, gave to it the melody of music, the beauty of legend, when he whispered lovingly, “Welaunee.” (see The Sunny South. (Atlanta, Ga.) 1875-1907, April 22, 1899, p.3, column 1; also see The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia). 26 Mar 1899, Page 5, column 4.)

“Welaunee” was also adopted around 1920 as the name of a mill in Porterdale, Newton County, Georgia, along the south bank of the Yellow River, replacing the older Phillips Mill.

The only current Georgia location I know of that bears the name is “Weelaunee Road” in Ellenwood, Georgia (south DeKalb County) which extends south from the South River about a half mile, due south of the Snapfinger Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

We are eager to learn if any Muscogee (Creek) documentary sources from the late 18th or early 19th centuries reference the rivercourse now known as the South River as the Welauneee or Weelaunee. We appreciate that in indigenous usage waterways may not have been known by a singular, fixed term and that the concept of “yellow, green or brown water” may have applied, at various times, to multiple rivers and riparian landscapes. Perhaps future collaborative inquires will cast more light on saliet toponymic practices in the region.

Acknowledgments: We are grateful to Hendry Miller, Georgia State Archives. for guidance on early uses of the term “Welaunee” in Georgia.

Czernowitz Art in Peril: The Mosaic Mural of Joseph Lang

The noted curator and art historian Tetyana Dugaeva has been attempting to call global attention to the unthinkable threats posed to the artistic treasures, cultural heritage, and peoples of her beloved city of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) in southwestern Ukraine, in the face of the unfolding Russian invasion. She recently updated her Facebook home page image to display a striking art work designed by the Art Nouveau artist Joseph Adolph Lang (1873-1936), displayed as a ceramic glazed “majolika panel” on the outer wall of the imperiled Chernivtsi Art Museum.

Joseph Adolf Lang, Detail, Mural of the provinces. Chernivisiti Art Museum.

I find myself speculating why Tetyana has chosen this particular image, of all the wonderful works of art in Czernowitz, to represent the city and the Bukovina region at this moment of supreme danger. (It is difficult to be in touch at the moment with all our Czernowitz friends and colleagues; I would of course welcome corrections and further interpretations from those who are able to reach out at this terrible time.)

The image is drawn from the large ceramic Majolika glazed mural on the outer facade of the former Bukowiner Sparkasse, the head office of the Bukovina Savings Bank, now the city’s beloved art museum. The building, constructed 1900-1901, is considered a masterpiece of Austro-Hungarian architecture, and is closely associated with the Vienna Secession movement. Tetyana’s persistent “detective work” some years ago identified Lang as the artist of this famous composition. The majolica panel itself was produced, she notes, at the Zsolnay Ceramic factory in Hungary. (See: The title of the panel, installed above the third floor windows of the building, is “Allegory of honoring Bukovina on the occasion of the anniversary of the adoption of the constitution and receiving the coat of arms of the region.”

A dozen classical gods, depicted in the Art Nouveau/Secession style, allegorically evoke the twelve provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (at times referenced at the Dual Monarchy).

Joseph Lang allegoral panell Edward Tur photo, 2009. Source:

The female figure, fourth from the left, in white and bearing green branches, signifies the province of Bukovina, for which Czernowitz served as capital. (The southern section of Bukovina now fall within Romania.) Appropriately, she wears at her breast Bukovina’s Coat of Arms. She is partially sheltered by the left wing of a great angel in an orange robe, who, Iosif Vaisman explain, allegorically represents the Hapsburg monarchy. The angel grasps a gleaming metal broadsword, referencing the monarchy’s maintenance of order throughout the Empire.

Joseph Lang Mural. Facade of former Bukowiner Skaprkasse Bank, Chernivisti Art Museum

The appropriateness of the front facade of the art museum for symbolizing the art and cultural heritage of the entire city is clear. The Secession movement, especially in hindsight, evokes the genius of fin de siecle Vienna, and by extension the cultural sophistication of Czernowitz, which was closely linked to Vienna in the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Joseph Lang, who practiced as an artist in Germany and Austria, exemplifies Czernowitz’s cosmopolitanism in history and memory.

It is noteworthy that the detail selected by Tetyana depicts a nymph-like nude female figure, who has draped over her arm a blue cloth with interlinked yellow heraldic shields, and holds in her hand a golden ball, on which is balanced a blue statuette of a winged Nike, under the sheltering expanse of the angel’s great wing. Although these motifs presumably meant something very different at the dawn of Twentieth Century, at the current moment of crisis it is hard not to think of Ukraine herself, symbolized by the colors of blue and gold, uplifted by the visage of Nike, goddess of victory. At this time of mortal peril for the peoples of Ukraine, as missiles and massed artillery fire rain down mercilessly upon the nation’s civilians, who among us cannot pray for the sheltering protection of an angel’s wing?

Chernivisit Art museum facade. Joseph Lang mural above third floor windows.

As I write this, Joseph Lang’s outdoor lyrical mosaic mural is unbearably vulnerable, easy prey for a single tank round or strafing run from the air. Its twelve beautiful figures, redolent of a lost golden age, are emblematic of this venerable, endangered city, of its stunning art treasures, and of millions of Ukrainians now at risk. As impossible as it now seems, may this striking image, now glimpsed on line around the world, help awaken humanity’s better angels, and urgently call forth the forces of compassion and rescue.


Many thanks to Iosif Vaisman and Tetyana Dugaeva for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post. A higher resolution of the mural panel is visible at:

For those who read Ukranian, Tetyana Dugaeva’s detailed articles on Joseph Lang’s work and career are accessible via:

For more on the arts of Czernowitz, see the Czernowitz art album by Tetyana Dugaeva and Sergij Osatschuk:

Setting a Dream in Motion: Reflections on The 2021 “Red Road” National Story Pole Journey

Carving is the result of dream, a vision, or a spiritual message”
-Pauline Hillaire, Lummi historian and story-teller

In July 2021 the “Red Road to DC” project traveled across the country to present the Biden Administration with a twenty-four foot carved story pole created by members of House of Tears carvers of the Lummi Nation. Visiting sacred Native sites and environmentally endangered locales, from Bears Ears National Monument to the point where the Dakota Access Pipeline crosses the Missouri River, the pole was greeted and touched by hundreds of Native and non-Native supporters. Their combined energies, charging and recharging this object, helped, we hope, to remind the administration of its sacred obligations to honor treaty rights with tribal nations, to safeguard biodiversity and environmental sustainability here and abroad, and to uphold human rights.

(A brief video on the Red Road journey is visible at:

Of the many extraordinary things about this pole, I am most fascinated by a dream that it carried within it.

For the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, carving has long been bound up with dreams and revelatory visions. Animals and spiritual beings carved in masks and story poles (sometimes known as “totem poles”) are often inspired by dream-visions given to the carver, a gift from the ancestors or other spiritual beings. Through the carved object, the dream is allowed to flourish and enter into the minds and souls of other persons, near and far, through masked performances, through towering story poles, and through gifts presented in potlatch or other ceremonial events. Perhaps a dream-gift most fully realizes its potential when it is shared and made accessible to many other people, binding them to one another, to nature’s beings, and to the mysterious forces of the invisible world. Dream images thus may inspire and generate further dream visions, which are given form through more acts of creation, imagination, and reciprocal exchange. Carving, in effect, helps set dreams in motion and in so doing helps transform people’s minds and hearts as it builds community between living people, the ancestors, and the spiritual energies coursing through the natural world.

Many visionary dreams were evoked in the Red Road pole, which journeyed from the Lummi lands in northwestern Washington state to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. At its is base we behold the waters that sustain life for all things, the very waters that are imperiled by extractive fossil fuel industries and associated petrochemical complexes, The figure of Peyote Woman reminds us of the visionary quests enabled by the sacred plant of peyote, which can help heal wounded psyches and communities. Peyote Woman is flanked by seven carved tears that bear testimony to the seven generations during which Native peoples have suffered under the depredations of settler colonialism. We glimpse some of the current nightmares that emerge from this long, painful history, including traces of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the predicament of detained children, many of Mesoamerican indigenous heritage, held in immigration cells. We also see important animal spirits that are at times glimpsed in dream vision, including a climbing bear and the great head of a diving eagle. At the pole’s apex is a spherical rendition of the full moon, within which is seen a crouching Native American man in front of a sacred fire, perhaps embarking on a vision quest that will yield further dream images.

One dream associated with the pole is particularly rich and moving. In his artist’s statement, master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James’s describes a dream he experienced late in the production process of this remarkable object:

I was with my maternal-side cousin, we were traveling in his truck, and making a short stop. I was sitting in the passenger seat, looking out the window and could see it was windy. As dreams are, I could see the waves of the wind. At that moment, a single Eagle Feather came traveling, upright, in the wind, like it was dancing. My cousin said, take it. It danced right to my window and I was getting ready to take it from the wind, as my cousin said, “Open your window and take it!” I replied, “I am trying to get the window down now.” I woke up. I call this dream, “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather.” At this time, all the totem pole figures were completely added to the Sacred Sites Totem Pole. But, there was one small, mid-section site on the pole (right side), that was sanded but not carved (not even gouged like the same spot on the opposite side) in any fashion. This “feather with the visible wind waves” was carved in that spot. To me, this will always be the “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather” Totem Pole.”

The dream in the truck would seem to be anticipatory, a kind of dress rehearsal for the great cross-continental journey the pole was about to embark upon. The Lummi are people of the sea, deeply attuned to the waves, winds, and currents of the Salish Sea, in which reside the orcas, their “relatives under the waters.” Thus, it seems appropriate that the dreamer apprehends within the wind the pulsating energies of waves. From this wind, as he prepares to set forth with his great gift of the pole, the dreamer himself receives a gift, a single dancing feather. Not coincidentally, this is the feather of an eagle, which bears great significance in Native American spirituality. The Eagle, of course, also appears on the Great Seal of the United States, and is thus an appropriate emissary in a mission that moves from Native America to the U.S. Government.

It seems all the more fitting that a space was left empty for the carved feather mid- way along the pole, on the right side. Like all significant gifts, the pole contains within itself the relationship between giver and receiver, in this instance between Native peoples and the Federal Government. What better mediator, halfway between the pole’s base and apex, than the feather of a bird that is sacred to both donor and recipient, carved into the right side, a side associated for Lummi peoples with life and enduring vitality?

The wind and wave energies that power the light feather, gifted in the dream, perhaps helped launch the large pole on its journey from one coast to another, as the carved object prepared to take wing across the continent, traversing a multitude of sacred places and encountering many Native and non-Native supporters, who would bless the pole by touching it. High-flying eagles, gifted with extraordinary vision, perceive no borders on the land below them; perhaps the single, solitary feather, imbued with the forces of wind and eagle, will help convey to its intended recipient the gift of seeing a borderless world, a vast web of life in all its infinite interconnections.

I can’t help but speculate about the fact that the truck was being driven by the carver’s maternal cousin. Traditionally, men of the Lummi and other indigenous peoples of the northwest coast at times marry women who come from their mother’s side of the family.. Might the feather dancing down from the wind towards the maternal cousin’s truck thus be a kind of “spirit-wife” for the dreamer, the very essence of gifting itself, coming from the invisible world into the visible world? What better thing, as an ephemeral bond between the spirit world and the mortal world, and between Mother Earth to her children? What better gift to enliven the story pole in the very final moments of its creation, as it becomes a shining beacon, destined to blaze the path, the Red Road, from sea to shining sea?

Opening the Window

A final thought. We are often strangely paralyzed in dreams, knowing we ought to do something but incapable of fulfilling that imperative. So I suspect we all recognize the dreamer’s frustrating predicament, being told by his cousin to open the truck window to receive the gift, but not quite being able to roll the window down. Like the truck, the dream too is stopped in place, and he simply can’t grasp the offered feather, which is tantalizingly close.

It isn’t easy to receive a gift, especially one of spiritual and artistic inspiration. Perhaps that is the point: the dreamer can’t at this moment seize the feather, because it isn’t yet his to take. He can only come to grasp it later, after he has awakened and carved it on the pole, completing the sacred object. Until that moment, there is something standing between him and the alluring image of the feather dancing in the wind waves. The window can only be opened, and the feather can only be properly held, once the dreamer awakes, and undertakes the inspired act of artistic creation, finally bringing out a shape whose energies may have been incipient in the western cedar log all along.

There’s another thing about vehicle windows, in our strange era. For nearly two years, air, which ought to be experienced as the unequivocal gift of breath and life, has become a source of persistent anxiety for all of us. How many times since March 2020, have we wondered about whether or not to roll down a car window when people are standing or walking nearby: do we risk breathing in the virus, or panicking them that they might catch something from us? We have all been prisoners in one way or another, condemned for an indefinite sentence to view the world through windows, longing to embrace fully the great world beyond, as we mourn the many thousands gone. (As the Red Road to DC was being planned in spring 2021, we all anticipated a grand opening up of the world; after successive waves and variants, this initial optimism has of course been tempered.)

The Red Road was, to be sure, an emergency mission, a journey to help save Mother Earth at what might be the moment of her greatest peril. It is serious business, and as the seven tears carved in the pole remind us, there is a long history of dispossession and injustice being witnessed here. Yet the Red Road was also an occasion of extraordinary exhilaration, opening up all of us to re-connection with other people, other places, the glories of nature’s beings and landscape, and the rich spiritual traditions of Native America. The pole carried with it, as well, the promise of a new administration and the delight and pride in knowing that Debra Haalland had been confirmed as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. Like all great gifts, the pole traversing the Red Road blazed a path to a new future. Many dreams may finally be brought to life. After a long period of confinement, of only knowing the world through TV screens, computer screens, smart phone windows, windows, and windshields, the activists sought to travel out and through the world, to grasp and breath in physical substance, to experience once more the authentic and the unexpected. We finally get to roll down the windows, and race down the highway, waves of wind blowing over us, our faces streaked with tears—tears that just might, be in this long-dreamt of moment, our shared tears of joy.

Race and Gender in de Benabarre’s Saint Michael Angel (c. 1470)

Recently my Decolonizing Museums seminar (Boston University) had a fascinating visit with the interpretive staff at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The team shared their innovative approach to engaging visitors with Pedro García de Benabarre’s magnificent painting Saint Michael Archangel (c. 1470), which hangs over a large fireplace in the second floor Tapestry Room. I must admit that I had never really looked closely at this startling and compelling work.

Pedro García de Benabarre (active Catalonia, 1455 – 1480)
Saint Michael Archangel, about 1470

In their excellent website text and online audio guide, the Gardner’s interpretive team offers a layered approach to the painting, starting with a conventional art historical appreciation, explaining the various elements of the image: Archangel Michael seated on a throne in Heaven weighs souls (two white clothed small beings on scales) and subdues with his lance two-faced Lucifer, who lays prostrate on the tiled floor. (The catalogue notes, “This painting was originally a side panel of a large altarpiece dedicated to John the Baptist, installed in the church of Sant Joan del Mercat in Lleida, Catalonia.:)

The visitor next accesses a thoughtful extended audio commentary by multimedia artist Elisa Hamilton, part of her 2019 recorded artist’s walk through the Palace galleries. Hamilton begins by noting that she has long been drawn to the painting; towards the end she notes that as she came to learn more about the work, she was troubled, especially as a person of color, by the work’s “ugly historical trope,” associating evil with black skin

Following our class discussion of the image, I have been pondering the imagery of Lucifer as multi-faced and black-skinned. Dante’s The Inferno, although written around 1320, was first published in 1472, so it is possible that de Benabarre was influenced by Dante’s vision of the Devil as possessing three mouths of sharp teeth devoted to chewing on sinners. The association of the demonic with blackness or darkness can be traced back to antiquity. In the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 contrasts the lightness of Christ with the darkness of the demon Belial (at times taken as a synonym for Satan). Fra Angelico’s painting The Last Judgement, created in 1431, four decades before the de Benabarre image, depicts the Devil as black skinned, with white horns, munching on his victims in a boiling cauldron.

Africa Connections?

Having said that, it seems likely that the specific figuration of Satan by de Benabarre is related to the Iberian peninsula’s complex relationship with African-descent populations across the centuries. John Thornton notes that under the Almoravids, West Africans from the polities of Tarkur and Ghana (corresponding, roughly speaking, to the area of modern Senegal) were incorporated into Muslim armies in Iberia. Israel Burshatin (1985) in his exploration of the often subtle and complex depictions of Moors in Medieval Iberian letters, references the overt equation of Moorishness, blackness, and the Devil in the 13th century Castillian epic poem, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez (written c, 1250-1266), which recounts the Count of Castille Fernán González’s campaign against Moorish adversaries, described as: “Uglier than Satan and his conventicle [coven] combined / When he comes out of hell, dirty sooty”” (Footnote 1)

By 1462, Portuguese slave traders were established in Seville, and by the 1470s, when de Benabarre created the work, African slaves were increasingly common throughout Christian Spanish realms. In 1460, Portuguese had landed on the shores of what is now Sierra Leone. By 1471, the Portuguese had a presence between the mouths of the Ankobra and Volta rivers, a region they termed A Mina (“the mine”), today’s Elmina, in the area that would be known as the Gold Coast, now Ghana; the next year, Fernão do Pó landed on the island that would bear his name, now known as Bioko in the vicinity of modern day Cameroon. It seems likely that de Benabarre had heard or read reports of extremely dark skinned African people, even if he had not met any directly. Satan’s upward thrusting fangs, perhaps modeled on the tusks of a wild boar, his webbed feet, tiny tail, and sharp talons presumably signal the imputed animality of Africans in Christian Iberian imagination of the period.

It would appear that de Benabarre has chosen to depict Lucifer in a rather sexually ambiguous manner, with curving, alluring hips, perhaps all the better to seduced wayward souls. In contrast, Michael’s elongated phallic lance plunges from between his legs towards Satan’s midsection, in a way that might signal both domination over and disambiguation of an inter-sexed being. All of this would be consistent with emerging 15th century Christian conceptions of reimposing gendered dichotomies on the ostensibly sexually ambiguous bodies of non Christians, on the eve of the completion of the Reconquista and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

I am equally fascinated by Satan’s second face, a large orange visage that stretches from the demon’s upper torso to his groin area. Speculatively, might the image have been inspired by a masked form of a West African masquerade, potentially encountered by Portuguese explorers in coastal regions? I am reminded a bit of Temne masks, from the region that is now northwestern Sierra Leone, where Portuguese sailors did in fact land during the 1470s. It is also possible that the principal inspiration is from grimacing Catalan and other Iberian festival masks (which may themselves have emerged out a long history of trans-Mediterranean cultural exchanges.)

In any event, I do wonder if the visual organization of the painting, with the triumphant white Archangel high above the prone dark Devil, might have geographic referents, evoking growing (or hoped for) Christian Iberian economic and military power over Muslim states and over African polities. It is possible that the curving shape of Lucifer’s body was inspired by the North African coastline, which was depicted in early maps of period, such Grazioso Benincasa’s 1482 chart (below). Alternately. Satan’s body might signal the West African coastline north of the equator, with which Christian Iberians in the 1470s were increasingly familiar. Perhaps the gold with which Michael’s breastplate is adorned signals the gold wealth of the Akan region, with which Portuguese and Spaniards of the 1470s were deeply fascinated. In that sense, this image of a resplendent white Christian saint directing a lance towards the dark figure below, may be said to anticipate the coming era of vast Iberian extraction of mineral and agricultural wealth as well as human capital, from West and Central Africa.

Grazioso Benincasa. Biblioteca Universitaria, Bolonia.1482.


1, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez, ed. C. Carroll Marden [Baltimore, 1904], p. 56, st. 11. 3-4., quoted in Burshatin 1985: fn26. Burshatin suggests that the the imagery in the Poema, unusual for Iberian writing of the period, echoes the racialist figurations of the French epic poem Chanson de Roland.


Israel Burshatin,1985, The Moor in the Text: Metaphor, Emblem, and Silence Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12, No. 1, “Race,” Writing, and Difference. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 98-118.

For an overview of emerging Medieval depictions of Satan, see Marina Montesano, Horns, Hooves, and Hell: Images of the Devil in Medieval Times. National Geographic, 2 November 2018.

Panegyric Imagery in Zanele Muholi’s “Somnyama Ngonyama”

Zanele Muholi’s photographic series of digitally altered self-portraits “Somnyama Ngonyama” (translated by the artist as “Hail, the Dark Lioness”) consists of carefully posed images taken in locations around the world, through which the artist-activist gives voice to a vast number of black South Africans, primarily LGBTQ, long relegated by dominant social institutions to the shadows and the depredations of violence.

The works, exhibited in numerous galleries and collected in a striking monograph, have received extensive critical and scholarly attention. I have been especially impressed by Nomusa Makhubu’s essay “Performing Blackface: Reflections on Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama,” (OnCurating v.49 ) which perceptively unpacks elements of parodic inversion and queer critique of colonial racialist minstrelsy imagery in these compelling, disturbing images.

In this post, I’d like to build on Makhuba’s discussion in light of my interest in ritual poetics among Nguni-speaking speaking peoples. I am particularly fascinated by the ways in which Muholi’s creatively plays on the symbolic repertoire of izibongo royal praise poetry in isiZulu and other Nguni languages.

As Makhuba notes, the title of the series, “Somnyama Ngonyama” could be literally translated from isiZulu as “Dark Lion.” Why does the artist insist on the English translation, “Hail, the Dark Lioness,” emphasizing praise and rendering the noun female? David Coplan notes that in contemporary Zulu networks, the term “hail” is at times used to signal gender and queer inclusivity. Beyond this, the term “hail” would appear to index the long tradition of royal praise poetry in Nguni-speaking societies, in which the sovereign is at times characterized as a lion, with the royal-coded term “Ngonyama” favored over the ordinary isiZulu term for lion, “ibhubesi. ” Hence, the izibongo praise poem of King Shaka: “UyiSilo! UyiNgwe! UyiNgonyama!” (You are a wild animal! A leopard! A lion!) (Cope 1968, 108-9, also quoted in Gunner 1984: 289). The term is also used in one of the most widely heard (if not universally understood) lyrics in the world, the first line of “The Circle of Life, “ the opening number of The Lion King, “ Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba”, to which the chorus responds, “Sithi uhm ingonyama”, a call-response sequence which may be translated as “Behold, a lion [king]’ is coming, father/Oh yes, it is a lion [king].”

During my fieldwork in Ngoni communities in eastern Zambia, royal praise singers (iizimbongi) with whom I consulted often emphasized that their work was “heavy” and ritually dangerous. The pangyerics that they perform in rapid, fierce, staccato rhythms metaphorically model the king as a lion or leopard, who pounces upon, tears apart and “stabs” at is victims. Explained one senior poet, “When I sing this way, I become like the king, but I can be a victim at any moment of his rage, and of the anger of all the kings who came before him.” Another explained, “When I speak, I feel every wound that pierced the king and his forefathers, but I am unbowed and so we rise to victory.” To call up the most potent aspects of the sovereign is to unleash violent energies, that condense and make visible the king’s multidimensional status, hated and stalked by his enemies, even as he rises as a predatory war leader who sheds his blood on behalf of his people, striking down external and internal adversaries, seen and unseen.

The Nguni sovereign traverses the ambiguous terrain between this world and the other world of the shades, in ways that are necessary for cosmological reproduction yet tinged with destructive potential. At the climactic moment of the Swazi incwala ceremony of first fruits, the monarch manifest himself as the monstrous creature of the bush, “Silo,” who bites (luma) and tosses a first fruit so as to expel the pollution of the previous year, paving the way for safe consumption of the new year’s produce by the entire polity. At an early moment of the ceremony, a bovine is ritually slaughtered on the sovereign’s behalf, allowing him to enter into a “dark” phase of existence, from which he and the kingdom may be triumphantly reborn anew. Praise singers, it is said, embody these dangerous transitions, moving across thresholds between life and death, between being predators and being themselves predated upon.

Speculatively, Zanele Muholi moves across a comparably ambiguous terrain in this series. The artist embraces deep blackness with defiant pride, with full knowledge of the enormous dangers posed to persons of color in general and queer persons of color in particular. Rather like a royal praise singer, Muholi fully embodies the position of the exalted being they seek to honor, in all of its rich contradictions, as a locus of danger and assertiveness, even while, as a witness to that glory, they assume positions of intense vulnerability.

The artist’s translation of Ngonyama as “Lioness” may also emerge, in part, out of the deep cosmological structure of Nguni kingship. There’s considerable evidence that precolonial Nguni sovereignty was “diarchic,” founded on complex co-rule between the (often secluded) Queen Mother and the more visible male king, with the female sovereign responsible for the periodic rebirth and growth of the land, and the male monarch especially associated with war, conquest, and blood-letting in sacrifice, hunting, and the upholding of legal principles. Among the best known queen mothers in Nguni history was Ntombasi of the Ndandwe kingdom, who appears to have been a predominant co-ruler with her son Zwide, before the kingdom was routed by the forces of Shaka Zulu, whose mother Nandi herself wielded considerable influence prior to her death.

It may be that in the Somnyama Ngonyama series, Zanele Muholi is similarly embodying a diarchic or multi-gendered continuum of sovereignty, which like the moon itself waxes and wanes over the course of the annual cycle. For a year, the photographer shot a self portrait each day, depicting the great range of dangers facing black South Africans and queer persons, across a range of gendered positions. (The series is ongoing.) “Phindile I” (Paris, 2014) shows their body arranged in the odalisque postion classically used to depict inmates of a royal seraglio. “ Somnyama I, (Paris, 2014),” seems to depict the figured associated with high ranking warrior status. In “Zamile (KwaThema, 2016O,” Muholi appears as a male novice undergoing initiation, wrapped in a blanket. In “Thulani II (Parktown, 2015)” they wear headgear reminiscent of a miner’s helmet, honoring the dozens of strikers killed in the 2012 Marikana massacre. In contrast, .“Thuleleni, (Amsterdam, 2018)” presents the artist in a ruff collar reminiscent of the wealthy Dutch merchants who oversaw the colonial project.

The net effect is to interpolate the “visual activist” Muholi into a dizzying range of embodied subject positions, taking themselves and their audience through an odyssey of pain, vulnerability, and loss, from which they emerge fierce, unbowed, and ultimately victorious. Such is the journey of the Nguni imbongi (royal praise singer), who takes on the suffering, the power, and the danger of the one who is praised, in order to channel creative flows of energy that summon up and reconstitute the sovereign social order. As Muholi hails this hybrid, multi-gendered dark lioness, that sovereign order is radically restructured, giving birth to a better world that fully encompasses and affirms those who were, for so long, consigned to the outer limits of the social.


Cope, T. Ed.),1968. Izibongo: Zulu Praise Poems. Oxford, Clarendon Press,

Gunner, Elizabeth Anne Wynne, 1984. Ukubonga Nezibongo : Zulu praising and praises., PhD Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies University of London


Cooper Gallery (Harvard University) virtual tour

Guardian Arts and Design

Tate Retrospective

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: 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


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

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

Creek Freedmen\

Craig Womack. Aestheticizing a Political Debate: Can the Creek Confederacy Be Sung Back Together? November 20, 2007, Southern Spaces

The Column in Between: Re-reading John Rogers’ “The Slave Auction” (1859)

John Rogers, The Slave Auction (1859)

Having written about reenacted slave auctions from the mid-19th century to the present (Auslander 2010; Auslander 2013; Auslander 2015), I am fascinated by John Roger’s 1859 plaster sculpture “The Slave Auction,” which the artist produced in copied format for sale during the Civil War period. Harold Holzer (2015) offers a reading of the piece in his volume The Civil War in 50 Objects. a review of works in the New York Historical Society collections. I’d like here to extend his thoughtful interpretation.

Five figures are depicted in this mass-reproduced sculptural group. Towering above the others, behind a podium, is the raised figure of the white auctioneer, his hair curled upwards, echoing the upward twist of his mustache, as if, Rogers noted, he possesses the devilish horns of “Old Nick”. To the left of the column is a striking enslaved African American man, his arms crossed defiantly, standing in classical contrapposto pose.

To the right is an enslaved woman, holding a baby to her breast, while another child clutches and hides behind her dress. The woman is depicted with notably white or European features, consistent with white abolitionists’ frequent emphasis on the near- white status of imperiled enslaved heroines. Her features also reference the theme of repeated sexual abuse inflicted on enslaved women by white slaveowners, a prominent motif in abolitionist discourse of the day. The podium bears a poster with the words; “Great Sale/of/Horses, Negroes & Other/Farm Stock/ This Day at/Public Auction.”

Iconographic and Textual Sources

By 1859, Rogers would have had innumerable textual and visual models to draw upon for this work, given that the mise en scene of the slave auction had been widely favored by northern abolitionist writers and artists for decades.

Hammat Billings, The Auction Sale, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852: 174

He was surely familiar with abolitionist Hammat Billings illustration, “The Auction Sale” in the second edition (1852, p. 174) of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the accompanying text, the adolescent Albert pleads without success for his purchaser to also buy his mother, from whom he is separated. In the image, the smartly dressed auctioneer towers above the enslaved chattel, who crouch in shadows. A poster is visible to the left, advertising for runaway slaves, driving home the overall theme of danger, rather as a poster is used in the Rogers sculpture to emphasize the horror of bondage.

More broadly, Rogers’ composition was likely informed by the Biblical imagery running through Stowe’s novel. Chapter 30, for example, opens with a meditation on a New Orleans slave warehouse, as diverse enslaved people are readied for the auction block:

“Then you shall be courteously entreated to call and examine, and shall find an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and young children, to be “sold separately, or in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser;” and that soul immortal, once bought with blood and anguish by the Son of God, when the earth shook, and the rocks rent, and the graves were opened, can be sold, leased, mortgaged, exchanged for groceries or dry goods, to suit the phases of trade, or the fancy of the purchaser.”

Rogers’ image similarly evokes the Gospels. Here we see a version of the Holy Family, now divided by the satanic auctioneer or slave dealer. The female figure with newborn evokes both Mary with the infant Jesus as well as the weeping Pieta. There may even be an echo of John: 19’s report that Pontius Pillate, after acquiescing to demands that Jesus be crucified, had a noticed prepared and affixed to the cross, reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Rogers’ central column, in turn, boasts the poster announcing the day’s auction, as if it too, were a cross of martyrdom.

As Holzer notes, the proximate inspiration of Rogers’ work may have been the vast slave sale of 436 enslaved people, March 2-3, 1859 conducted at the Ten Broek racecourse in Savannah, on behalf of planter Pierce Mease Butler to settle extensive debts (DeGraft-Hanson 2010). The sale was surreptitiously observed by northern journalist Mortimer Thomson, who published an expose of the auction in the New York Herald Tribune on March 9, under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks. Doesticks described the poignant case of the young woman Daphne, who had given birth two weeks earlier. A blanket covered her and her baby, although the prospective buyers protested that they wished to judge her uncovered limbs. Rogers may also have been influenced by Doesticks’ account of the young man Jeffrey, who pleaded in vain for his new buyer to also purchase the young woman Dorcas, whom he was in love with.

In his influential account in the Tribune, the reporter contrast the “dapper” appearance of the slave dealer Joseph Bryan, with the heart-breaking visages of those being torn asunder from friends and kin:

‘The expression on the faces of all who stepped on the block was always the same, and told of more anguish than it is in the power of words to express. Blighted homes, crushed hopes and broken hearts was the sad story to be read in all the anxious faces. Some of them regarded the sale with perfect indifference, never making a motion save to turn from one side to the other at the word of the dapper Mr. Bryan, that all the crowd might have a fair view of their proportions, and then, when the sale was accomplished, stepped down from the block without caring to cast even a look at the buyer, who now held all their happiness in his hands.”

Rogers presumably read this widely reprinted piece, and his sculpture may well have been an effort to translate this text into sculptural form.

Rogers was perhaps also inspired by a widely-reported mock slave auction staged thirteen years earlier, by the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. In 1846 at his church in Manhattan, Rev. Beecher raised funds to secure the freedom of the sisters Mary and Emily Edmundson, who had been recaptured after the failed mass escape attempt of The Pearl in Washington DC in April 1848. Much was made at the time of the young women’s relatively light skin, which rendered them particularly sympathetic to white audiences, and the threat of sexual abuse that hung over them should they be acquired by southern slave owners. Rev. Beecher, playing the part of the southern slave auctioneer, reportedly took great pride in driving up the price offered by the congregation to redeem the two young women, who were emanicipated in November 1848.

The Central Podium

To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of Rogers’ composition is the podium at the center of the assemblage. The column provides height to the elevated auctioneer, and simultaneously dramatizes the imminent division between the man on the left and the woman and her children to the right.

Viewed from behind, the auctioneer’s lower legs emerge out the column, rather as if he were a serpentine demonic presence, slithering out of the wood, perhaps redolent of the tree in the Garden of Eden that presaged the Fall. (The bunching of his rear waistcoat may recall a devil’s tail). In contrast. the black adults’ bare feet, like the feet of hiding child, are firmly planted on the base of the auction block.

John Rogers, The Slave Auction (Collection of Historic New England)

The central flat rectangular frontage of the podium, out of which the crouched auctioneer extends, could be read as a kind of phallic presence, redolent of the Law of the Father that is about to tear asunder this small family, as well as the implied likelihood that the enslaved woman, like her enslaved foremothers, will be subjected to white male sexual predation. The auctioneer is seen in the act of bringing his gavel down upon the podium, sealing the sale that will rend the family in two. In that sense, he and the gavel could be read as castrating forms, emasculating the heroic male black figure. The flatness of the podium front could thus be read as site of absence, a terrible void effacing the natural rights of paternity. The overall gendered imagery of the grouping, after all, prioritizes the mid-19th century ideal of the family, with the black husband solitary, tall and erect, and his wife with children, and bent over in grief, much lower than the male head of the family. This “natural” family formation is just about to be violated by demonic auctioneer rising from above the victims.

Appropriately, the shaft-like podium provides a surface for the poster announcing the sale, emphasizing, in effect, white control over the written word, implying that sinful white greed and lust seek to supplant the black man’s god-given prerogatives. It is intriguing in this regard, that the folds in the black man’s breeches, over the seat of his manhood, echo the folds in the adjacent poster. Perhaps the sculptor means to imply that right (in the sense of the male hero’s virtue) will ultimately prevail over the work of the Devil, who dares to sell off in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s words, ‘the soul immortal.”

This reading would lend further support to the sense that the central wooden column, severing the victims from one another, hints at the cross itself, under which Mary cradled her martyred son. It is striking that the enslaved woman, holding the infant to her breast, rests her head, and that of the baby, upon the podium. Perhaps, this vertical space, although at the present moment an instrument of a dreadful martyrdom, hints at a coming transformation and the promise of redemption under the cross, when the faithful will all once more be united.

The Sculpture’s Afterlife

Holzer remarks that the sculptural group did not sell anywhere near as well as Rogers had anticipated. New York City shops on the eve of the Civil War were reluctant to alienate southern customers and often refused to display the work. Rogers thus hit upon the strategy of having an African American worker hawk the mass-reproduced plasters from a push cart.

One of these was purchased by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The work may have influenced Rev. Beecher in undertaking several months later, on February 6th, 1860 his most famous mock slave auction, from the pulpit of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. As I discuss in my 2013 paper, Touching the Past, through this auction a light-skinned nine-year-old enslaved girl known as Sally Maria Diggs, or “Pinky,” was redeemed for a $900 purchase price raised from the congregation. Following the precedent from his other mock auctions, Rev. Beecher intimated that were Pinky not saved from slavery, she faced a life of likely sexual servitude, and that in freeing her, the faithful were offered the opportunity to redeem themselves from sin.

Rev. Beecher famously gave to the girl an opal-studded gold ring offered by a congregation member, the writer Rose Terry, telling Pinky, “Now remember this is your freedom ring.” (In subsequent re-tellings, Rev. Beecher is said to have uttered the more dramatic phrase, “With this ring I wed thee to freedom.) Nearly six decades later, in 1927, the woman who had once been known as Pinky or Rose Terry, now known as Mrs. James Hunt, returned a ring (not, it appears, the same ring) to the Plymouth congregation, perhaps freeing herself, I have argued, from the complex and rather humiliating weight of her 1860 public redemption.

A copy of the work is in the collection of Historic New England, a gift of the founder of the organization’s forerunner, William Sumner Appleton (1874–1947), evidently in 1935. Perhaps Appleton, whose Boston family had abolitionist tendencies, had inherited the piece.


Auslander, Mark, 2011. “Holding on to Those Who Can’t be Held”: Reenacting a Lynching at Moore’s Ford, Georgia (Southern Spaces)

_____________2013 Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic Living History Reenactments, Signs and Society. 1 (1). pp.161-183

_____________2014. Give me back my Children: Traumatic Reeanactment and Tenuous Democratic Public Spheres. North American Dialogue (Society for the Anthropology of North America) 17:1, pp. 1-12.

_____________ 2015. Contesting the Roadways: The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. Southern Spaces. August 2015.

______________2019. Competing Roadways, Contesting Bloodlines: Registers of Biopower at a Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. pp. 189-203. Varieties of Historical Experience. Stephen Palmie and Charles Stewart, eds. Routledge Kegan Paul.

Holzer, Harold (and the New York Historical Society). 2015. The Civil War in 50 Objects. Penguin Random House.

Dreams of a Living Landscape: Apay’uq’s painting “Anerneq”

This post continues our discussion of the work of the artist Apay’uq, who is based in the Bristol Bay region of south-eastern Alaska. (See the artist’s work on her website).

Aqay’u’s striking painting, “Anerneq (Spirit/Breath), 2020, bears the caption, “We are a part of the world, all as beings. We progress and evolve through each generation, but are expected by the spirits among us to carry on in the truest way of the human being. Respect all.

“Anerneq” (Spirit/Breath), 2020, Acrylic.

The painting is centered on an enormous, serene green figure of Mother Earth, who in this rendering is the sacred essence “Anerneq”. Anerneq is sometimes described for Yup’ik and related peoples of southwestern and western Alaska as the soul or breath of a person that may be transmitted from one generation to the next, especially through naming ceremonies.

The green being, an emanation of the living landscape itself, is surrounded by life-giving waters of a flowing river. She holds in her large green hands a dried plant of the wormwood family, used, the artist explains, as medicine or tea being, here being smudged. Blessing smoke from the smudging rises up around her, towards four unclothed children, who sit within the green banks of the river, filled with brilliant flowers redolent of the forces of new life. The artist writes that in her mind the children represent the past, present, and future of the Yup’ik people. Above the youth are distant blue mountain peaks, shaped with faces of ancestors, who gaze up a a bright orange sky that perhaps evokes sunrise and the coming of a new day. Apaqy’uq notes that in her mind the the sky kisses the faces of the ancestors.

Edward Curtis. Nunivak mask performer.

The artist further explains that the composition is inspired by the design of a traditional Yup’ik earthen or sod house, which was centered on a smoke hole. Here, the Mother Earth figure of Anerneq seems to be akin to a sheltering dwelling, from which blessing smoke rises up, as a prayer permeating all of creation.

Mask Imagery

To these observations, I will add some more speculative thoughts. It would appear that the young child at the upper right is holding a mask from the Yup’ik Winter ceremonial dance, which aids in the transition of animals and other living beings from generation to generation, allowing for hunting and fishing to continue in the coming year.  Perhaps we could even understand the whole painting as a transformation of the classic Winter Ceremonial mask motif, in which various sacred natural beings and forces—including the North Wind, Salmon, Moose, Eagle, Duck, and Seal (sometimes signaled by feathers or tail carvings)— radiate out from a central face, held in concentric lattice work. The children themselves seem to be positioned rather like the feathers that encircle many Yup’ik masks, calling forth new life in the seasons to come.

If I am reading the image correctly, the children are creating music, hitting traditional drums with drum sticks, as would be appropriate when a mask is activated in ritual activity that supports the regeneration of life. Like the ceremonial masked dance performances, the overall composition appears dedicated to maintaining balance between visible and invisible realms, and between persons and nature’s beings.

Historically, winter ceremonial masks would have been allowed over time to dissolve and disintegrate in the outdoors, gradually returning to the landscape from which their materials had been gathered. Apay’uq’s painting, in contrast, is a long-term permanent gift, helping to instruct all who see it in the core values of respect and spiritual connections across time.

It appears that the eyes of the central green maternal figure are closed, and that we are meant to behold her in a state of sleep, trance, or dream-vision. She may in that sense be akin to a shamanic figure, who historically, guided by spiritual visions, would have carved masks or instructed mask carvers in the shape and imagery of each mask. Perhaps we are being invited by the artist into a productive dreamscape, witnessing how the energies of land, water, and air are passed along in great cycles of renewal, in ways that transcend conventional understanding. Looking into this beautiful, meditative face we are invited to slow down our own breathing and to become attuned to the gradual rhythms of the natural world. The encircling waterway that flows from the ancestral mountains past the children and through the Earth Mother may remind us of the annual run of salmon through Bristol Bay–which brings ocean nutrients deep into the land’s interior and its highlands. The net effect of the work is to honor the unified matrix of persons, animals, foliage, land, and water that will continue to nurture future life, so long as we honor our responsibility to safeguard these precious gifts.

For Further Reading

Ann Fienup-Riordan. 2001. What’s in a Name: Becoming a Real Person in a Yup’ik Community. in Strangers to Relatives. The Adoption and Naming of Anthropologists in Native North America. Edited by Sergei Kan. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press.

Ann Fienup-Riordan. 1986 The Real People: The Concept of Personhood Among the Yup’ik Eskimos of Western Alaska Études/Inuit/Studies Vol. 10, No. 1/2, À LA FRONTIÈRE DES SEXES / ON THE BORDER OF GENDERS (1986), pp. 261-270

Harold Napoleon. 1996 Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being. Edited by Eric Madsen. Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

–Listen to an interview with Apay’uq Moore and filmmaker Mark Titus at:

Barbara Cole Williams (1809-1892): An Enslaved and Free Resident of Georgetown

This short essay attempts to sketch out the life of Barbara Cole Williams (1809-1892), who spent at least the first four decades of her life in slavery at Tudor Place in Georgetown. I share what is known of her life and indicate some of the major mysteries and areas of inquiry that remain.

Parentage and Descent

Barbara’s maternal grandmother was Sall Twine (c. 1761, died after 1802), a dower slave derived from the estate of Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), the first husband of Martha Dandridge, later Martha Custis Washington, the wife of George Washington. Sall’s mother was presumably a dower slave, and thus Sall was as well, under the custodial control, if not the full ownership, of George Washington throughout George Washington’s life. (A widow or her new husband retained use value of dower slaves, but could not sell or transfer them without court permission. Dower slaves were normally passed onto the heirs of the widow’s late husband’s estate after her death).

1799 Inventory of Dower slaves, showing Sall Twine and her children. List : “Negroes Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage”, July 1799: Digital Collections of the Washington Library, Mount Vernon

Sall resided and labored with other dower slaves at Dogue Run and Muddy Hole farms, two of the five farmes that made up the Mount Vernon estate, She had an estimated six children with the enslaved man George, a gardener owned by George Washington who was based at the Mount Vernon Mansion House farm. Under the terms of George Washington’s will, George was to be freed after Martha Custis Washington’s death, and was in fact freed by her before her 1802 death, probabky in 1800. The dower slaves, however, including Sall, remained enslaved and were distributed among the Custis heirs. Over sixty Custis slaves had been previously transferred to Martha Custis Washington’s son’s daughter Martha Parke Custis (1777-1854) and her husband the Georgetown merchant and mayor Thomas Peter (1769-1834), on the occasion of their wedding in 1795; many of these individuals had sold off by the Peters.

After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, ownership of Sall and her children passed to Martha Parke Custis and her husband Thomas Peter, who at this point resided at K street and Rock Street, to the immediate east of Georgetown, within the site of the new Federal City.

I am not sure of what became of George, the now free husband of Sall Twine, after this point. (Perhaps he eventually relocated to Gum Spring, along with other of the freed former slaves of George Washington.)

[In A Georgetown Life (2020) Grant Quertermous asserts that the mother of Baraba Cole was Sall Twine, but this is contrary to the oral history shared by the Barbara Cole’s descendants, and seems inconsistent with available documentary evidence.]

According to the 1799 inventory of slaves at Mount Vernon, reproduced above, Sall Twine, then based at Dogue Run farm, was the mother of Barbary, born around 1788, Abbay, born around 1789, Hannah, born around 1795, and George, born around 1798.

Hannah, age 7, presumably the daughter of Sall Twine is listed in Thomas Peter’s note of 1 April 1803 as being assigned to work at the Peter’s farm in Maryland, presumably the Oakland property (Kail 2016). The same note references George, age 6, being assigned to labor at the same property; I presume this is the young son of Sall Twine, enumerated in the 1799 Mount Vernon census of the Washington slaves. This George, as I have noted elsewhere (Auslander 2012), appears to have been later transferred to the son of Thomas and Martha Parke Custis Peter, John Parke Custis Peter, and labored through most of his life at Seneca farm and quarry, which had been part of the Oakland estate along the Potomac in Montgomery County, Maryland. (An 1835 court petition notes that prior to the death of Thomas Peter, he transferred forty-six slaves to his two sons, John Parke Custis Peter and George Washington Peter, and a family associate.)

Sall’s daughter Barbary (b. 1788) was evidently transferred to Martha and Thomas Peter, who at the time of Martha Washington’s death were residing at their house on K Street near Rock Creek (now 2018 K Street), before they purchased in 1805 the eight acre property in north Georgetown that became Tudor Place. The Peters during the early decades of the 19th century alternated residence seasonally between their new property at Tudor Place and their 500 acre farm “Oakland” in southern Montgomery County, Maryland, along the Potomac River, in the vicinity of present day Seneca and Lock 24 on the C&O canal. The Peters also owned a smaller farm property known as Effingham, between present-day Sixth and Seventh streets in Washington D.C. (Kail 2016) Presumably. their enslaved people were transferred between these properties based on agrarian and domestic labor needs.

Barbary gave birth to her daughter, Barbara (later known as Barbara Cole Williams), around 1809. It is not clear whom the father might have been. (If the 1860 census entry mentioned below for Barbara Williams pertains to “our” Barbara, then she was born in the District of Columbia, which presumably means born at the Tudor Place property.)

The Cole and Williams Surnames

Barbara (b, 1809) is at times referred to as Barbara Cole and at times as Barbara Williams. Her daughter Hannah used the Cole surname, including in registering her 1847 marriage with the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1867. It is not clear if Barbara was born with the Cole surname, or if she acquired it through marriage to an enslaved or free man of color. Perhaps the surname was used by her mother Barbary, daughter of Sall Twine, or perhaps by her unknown father.

As noted below, I believe that Barbara Cole acquired the surname Williams through marriage to a William Williams in 1856.

I list enslaved and free Cole’s in antebellum District of Columbia in Appendix I. Perhaps future research will uncover connections between some of these families and Barbara Cole.

Life at Tudor Place and Oakland

Barbary’s daughter Barbara Cole (b, 1809) seems from an early age to have been assigned to look after Britannia Wellington Peter (later Kennon), born 1815, the youngest child of Thomas and Martha Peter to reach adulthood. In time, Barbara was Britannia’s principal maid, and later looked after Britannia’s only child, Martha “Markie” Custis Kennon (1843-1886) as a nurse (Quertermous 2020). As noted below, it appears that Barbara continued to work as a nurse or nursemaid until late in life.

According to oral history among the Pope descendants, Barbara (b 1809) was impregnated in 1828, at around age nineteen, by a white member of the Peter family, possibly one of Britannia’s brothers. She bore twin girls on 28 December 1828: Barbary who died in infancy and Hannah Cole, who lived until 1912. The Pope descendants note that their biogenetic relationship to the Dandridge line (as in Martha Dandridge Custis Washington) is confirmed by DNA testing and that they have numerous white DNA cousins descended from Martha Custis Washington.

We do not know if this sexual relationship with a white member of the slaveowning Peter household was transitory or long term. There are family stories that Barbara was resistant to control, and was at times transferred out to one of the family farms, perhaps at Oakland, as punishment.

According to their descendants’ reminiscences, Barbara and Hannah resided together in the attic of Tudor Place.

Barbara and Hannah would have had close interactions with the other enslaved people in the Peter household, including the cook Charity and her daughter Fanny; before they were sold to the Governor of Virginia James A. MacDowell (1795-1851) on 13 January 1845; Sarah the chambermaid; Charles, the groom; and Henry and the waiter and coachman.

After the marriage in 1842 of Britannia Wellington Peter to US Navy Commander Beverley Kennon, Barbara and her daughter Hannah were given to the new couple as part of their dowry from the Peter family. These two enslaved women moved with the young bride Britannia to the Washington Navy Yard, which Beverley Kennon commanded. They would have been at the Navy Yard during the birth of the Kennon’s couple’s only child Martha “Markie”, and at the time of the tragic death of Beverley Kennon, when a naval gun exploded on board the USS Princeton during a demonstration cruise on the Potomac in 1844.

Following the death of their owner Beverley Kennon in 1844, Barbara and her daughter Hannah appear in the Household Appraisal of Beverly Kennon’s Estate, as  “Negro Girl Hannah $350.00. Negro Girl Barbara $ 200.00.” (Tudor Place Archives MS 7 Box 1 –26). They would then have become dower slaves, controlled by Britannia Peter Kennon, and evidently returned with her to Tudor Place.

The immediate aftermath of Beverley Kennon’s death must have been a deeply unsettling time for the enslaved people at Tudor Place. in the settlement of the estate, as noted above, the cook Charity and her daughter were sold away in January 1845. Hannah was also sold that year, it would appear, by Britannia to the former Congressman, Georgetown attorney John Carter, who lived several blocks south of Tudor Place. Britannia’s reminsicences assert that the sale was made to allow Hannah to marry her beloved, Alfred Pope, then enslaved and owned by John Carter. This may have been the case, or the sale may have been primarily motivated by the financial pressures to settle the Kennon estate.

In any event, an 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau document records the marriage between Hannah and Alfred as having taken place in 1847. The following year Hannah gave birth to the couple’s first child, the girl Jedidah, named for Alfred’s mother. Also in 1848, Alfred joined the attempted mass escape on the schooner Pearl, and was recaptured. In contrast to nearly all of the Pearl escapees, Alfred was not sold to slave dealers, but was returned to reside with his owner. Two years later, Alfred, his wife Hannah, mother Jedidah, and daughter Jedidah, along with other enslaved people in the Carter household, were freed under the terms of John Carter’s will. The Pope family continued to live in Georgetown, several blocks from Tudor Place.

The 1850 slave schedule lists a “J. Peters” in Georgetown owning four female slaves, born around 1795, 1819, 1825, and 1837. None of these match the age of Barbara Cole, and it is not clear who precisely “J. Peters” was. It is possible that Sall’s daugher Hannah, born around 1795 according to the 1799 inventory at Mount Vernon, the aunt of Barbara Cole, is the eldest slave in this record, listed as born 1795. The 1850 census (of free persons) lists only one person with the Peters surname residing at Tudor Place, “M. Peters,” who must be Martha Custis Peter. The “J” in the slave schedule was presumably a mistake by the census enumerator.

It seem possible that Alfred and Hannah Pope might have labored during this period to raise the funds to secure the freedom of Hannah’s mother Barbara. or Barbara herself may have attempted to purchase her freedom. The fact that Charity and Fanny had been sold away may have increased their sense of urgency to secure Barbara’s freedom. If this was the case, no record of any such payment has survived, to my knowledge, in the District of Columbia manumission records of the period. Since Barbara was most likely a dower slave, there would have been legal challenges to manumitting her, although that consideration does not seem to have prevented Britannia from selling Charity, Fanny, and Hannah.

When Did Barbara Become Free?

There are several piece of indirect evidence that Barbara was free before 1860, and perhaps even before 1850:

  1. The 1850 census lists a Barbara Cole, a free woman of color, born in the District of Columbia around 1815, residing in Washington Ward 1 in the household of “Mathew” (a mistaken rendition of “Nathaniel” ) Towson, a brigadier general in the US Army, who served as the Army’s Paymaster General. General Towson, who lived at 17th and F streets, just north of the Executive Mansion and opposite the Navy Department, employed two other live-in black servants, Luand (?) Witherson, born around 1825, and William Pierre (mistakenly written as “Pier” in the census), born 1824. Could Barbara already have attained freedom by this point? Given the circles that Britannia Wellington Kennon Peter traveled in, as widow to the former Commandant of the Navy Yard (who also headed the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs), it seems possible that she might have been able to secure Barbara a place in the Towson household.
  2. The District of Columbia marriage records indicate that Barbara A. Cole married William Williams on 17 November 1856 (Film Number: 002079252). This is consistent with the 1890 District of Columbia City Directory entry that lists Barbara as the widow of William Williams (see below). This record would seem to imply that Barbara was free by 1856.

3. The 1860 slave schedule does not list any slave-owners with the surname Kennon or Peter in Georgetown, so it may be that by then there no enslaved people residing at Tudor Place. Britannia’s close Peter relatives retained extensive slave holdings at several sites in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, including in Seneca (the former Oakland property) and the four women listed in the 1850 slave schedule might have been transferred to one of those properties by 1860. It is known that Britannia regularly rented out some of the enslaved people she owned, and perhaps for this reason none are listed in the 1860 census.

4. The 1860 census lists a Barbary Williams, age 50 (born around 1810 in the District of Columbia ), living as a free black servant in the household of the Georgetown merchant Corrnelius Stribling, at the corner of Gay and Green Streets (present day N and 29th streets), along with two other free black servants Mary Carter and Eliza Carter. This household was two blocks due south from the home at O and 29th streets, of Alfred Pope and Hannah Cole Pope, the daughter of Barbara Cole Williams, and about four blocks from Tudor Place, where Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon still resided.

1860 Censsus entry in Georgown for Barbary William, b. 1810,

Speculatively the surname Carter of the two other servants in the Stribling household might suggest they had some connection with the household of Congressman Congressman John Carter, where Alfred and Hannah Pope had been enslaved up until 1850.

Barbara’s employer in 1860, Cornelius K. Stribling II, was the first son of Rear Admiral Cornelius K. Stribling, the third commandant of the US Naval Academy. Cornelius II was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and was married to Emma Josepha Nourse, son Dr. Benjamin Franklin Nourse, descendant of James Nourse, whose family was prominent in Georgetown and environs. Britannia was on familiar terms with the Nourses, and through her late husband USN Commandant Kennon, knew many senior figures in the Navy. Perhaps she helped secure Barbara her position in the Stribling household.

(In 1850, in Norfolk VA, the father of Cornelius Stribling II, Admiral Cornelius Stribling owned six slaves. However, I do not see any evidence that Cornelius II owned any slaves.

Who was William Williams?

Who was William Williams, who evidently married Barbara Cole in 1856?

The 1850 census lists a William M. Williams, a free man of color living in Washington’s Ward 1, born around 1824 in Virginia, evidently a servant in the household of Maria Sperden. The 1853 City Directory lists a William Williams, colored, working as a driver and living downtown on C street between 3rd and 4th.

The 1858 District of Columbia Directory lists a William Williams, colored, employed as a coachmen residing in an alley between M and N streets, north, near Vermont Avenue. This location was about two miles due west of Tudor Place and the residence of Alfred and Hannah Pope (who lived at 78 Montgomery street in Georgetown, now 28th and O streets.) Two years later, the 1860 directory lists a William Williams, colored, as a waiter, living nearby at 235 L street, north. (There is not a black William Williams of credible age in the 1860 census in the District.)

At least fifteen black men named William Williams served in the US Colored Troops and at least eleven black men of the same name enlisted in the Union Navy during the Civil War; I am not sure at this point if Barbara’s husband served in the Union Army or Navy.

In Appendix II, I list enslaved and free people of color in the District of Columbia with the surname Williams, some of whom may be related to Barbara’s husband.

Post Civil War

It is possible that Barbara alternated between the Williams and Cole surnames. The 1865 Georgetown directory lists a “Mrs. Barbara Cole, col’d” (colored), living at 23 Fourth street (present day Volta Place), about three blocks from Tudor Place, just across High Street (the present day Wisconsin Avenue).

1865 Georgetown Directory for Mrs. Barbara Cole

The 1870 and 1880 censuses gives no indication of a Barbara Cole, a Barbara Williams or a William Williams of the correct age living in Georgetown or elsewhere in the District of Columbia. I am not sure what point Barbara became widowed.

On August 18, 1871, Hanna Cole Pope opened a Freedman’s Bank account in the District, and listed as her mother “Barbara Williams,” but giving no indication of where Barbara was living at the time.

During the later decades of her life, Barbara Cole Williams must have known her granddaughter and namesake, the remarkable Barbara Ellen Pope (1858-1908), daughter of Hannah Cole and Alfred Pope. Barbara Pope, a teacher, accomplished writer. and Niagra Movement member, was famously arrested in 1906 for refusing to sit in a “Jim Crow” segregated railroad car and subsequently won her legal case with Niagra Movement support, establishing the right of interstate transportation without discrimination based on race. (Harris 2015).

The 1876 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a servant at 810 20th Street. After this there is no listing of Barbara for twelve years until the the 1888 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a nurse at 1143 Connecticut Avenue.

1890 District of Columbia Directory

Two years later, the 1890 District of Columbia Directory lists Barbara Williams, widow of William, nurse, residing at 2900 O Street in Georgetown, the same address as her daughter Hannah Cole Pope and son in law Alfred Pope, where Barbara E. Pope resided as well. [The Pope family descendants recall that Barbara E. Pope lived her entire life in her parents’ house, escpt for time she spent at Tuskegee. According to the 1900 census, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope, occupation schoolteacher, resided at te 2900 O Street address ,where she is also listed in the 1860, 1870 and 1880 censuses.]

Family Search’s database of DC deaths (record 662) notes that Barbara Williams died on 18 August 1892 in Washington D.C, at age 86. She is buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in north Georgetown: The record from an undertaker reads,” Barbara Williams born 1806/died Aug 9 , 1892 – place of death 2900 O Street, NW,” the home of her parents Alfred and Hannah Pope. . Her eldest granddaughter Jedidah A, Pope Thompson, died 10 August 1897, and is buried in the Old Methodist burying ground of Mount Zion Cemetery (Sluby 1975, p 57). In contrast, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope (who never married) is buried in Columbia Harmony Cemetery (subsequently moved from Rhode Island Avenue to Hyattsville, Maryland).

Appendix I. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Cole in the District of Columbia

A. Free persons of color with the surname Cole in antebellum DC in 1860 include:

The family of James and Catherine Cole in Ward 2:

James Cole 42
Catharine Cole 38C
Georgiana Cole 18
Wm Cole 16
Wille Ann Cole 10
Hester Tyler 25
Ida Tyler 4
(Georgeanna Cole’s freedom was attested to on 5 May 1859, by John S. Norris in front of a Justice of the Peace.)

On July 2, 1860, George Cole, a free man of color, states that he has been illegally arrested and confined to jail as a runaway slave. He sought a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted.

B. Enslaved Persons with the surname Cole

The 1862 Compensated Emancipation petitions in the District of Columbia indicate that at least fourteen enslaved people with the surname Cole were freed. These includeL

Sibey (or Libey) Cole, born around 1787, and her likely daughter Rachel Cole, born around 1833, owned by Ulysses Ward. (Sibey was acquired from Ulysses’s wife).

Ellen Cole, born around 1810, owned by Matthew McCleod (Inherited by Matthew’s late wife from her mother in law, Mrs. Mary Manning of St. Mary’s County Marylan.)

James Henry Cole, born around 1840, owned by Michael R Combs (received as a deed of gift from Michael’s grandfather Michael Sardo)

Maria Cole, born around 1847, owned by Thomas H. Barron, acquired through Thomas’ marraige. (Maria was in Prince George’s County when the act of emancipation was passed.)

Milly Cole, born around 1819 and her children Jacob Cole, b. 1839 and Rosa Cole , owned by Charles Lyon. Milly Jacob and Rosa, born 1852, were all purchased from Thomas and Cathereine Barron in 1854 An associated note indicates taht Jacob Cole, a “good mechanic, ” was purchased by Charles Lyons from Mr Sheckell of Washington City D. C. a Negro dealer about the year 1854” (Rosa Cole is not emancipated in 1862, so perhaps died at some point.)

Julia Cole, born around 1822, and her children Joseph, William, Robert and Albert, owned Mary A Harvey. (All inherited from Mary’s late father the late Michael Sardo last of Washington County in the District of Columbia. (Note that Michael Sardo also bequeatheed James Henry Cole )

Joanna Cole (alias Alexander) born around 1835 owned by Lieut. Henry L. Abbott, US Army, Acquired, “By virtue of a bill of sale from Mary Helen McLeod of Georgetown D.C. executed on the 19th day of June 1860” )

Appendix II. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Williams in the District of Columbia

A. Enslaved Persons with surname Williams:

Owned by Thomas Donoho (who purchased Selina Wiliams and child John Henry from Joshua Talbot in 1833):

Salina​ Williams 51
James Henry (son of Selina) 30
Lydia (daughter of Selina). 24
Lewis (son of Selina 15.1 mo
Marion (daughter of Selina 20
Gertrude (daughter of Marion 6
Laura (daughter of Marion 3
Edward (son of Lydia 6
Albert (son of Lydia 18 months

These are presumably related to Harriet Williams, owned by Thomas Talbert [Jr.] in the 1857 tax assessment in unincorporated Washington County,

Dick [i.e., Richard] Williams, 18, in the 1855 tax assessment, owned by Margaret C. Barber (current grounds of the Naval Observatory)

Owned by Fielder Magruder:

Duke Willams, born 1822
Adeline Williams
Lewis Williams
Charles Williams
Maria Williams (daughter of Adeline )

(Fielder purchased all except Maria around 1856, from John Throckmorto. Maria “born of Adeline since i purchased her.”)

B. Free Williams:

William Williams a free man of who in the District of Columbia in March 1836 sought an injunction against a Thomas Duvall, to prevent Duvall from transporting his enslaved wife and child out of the District of Columbia Williams asserted Duvall had imprisoned his wife and child in a slave jail with the intention of selling them to a slave dearlr. . (Petition details at: )

In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860

Nathaniel Williams 57
M A Williams 30
Rebecca Williams 25
Joseph Williams 29

In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860

Joseph Williams 53 mulatto
Bessie Williams 49

In Georgetown Ward 4 in 1860:

Charles Williams 53
M A Williams 50
Sarah Williams 21
John Williams 20

Washington Ward 1 in 1860:
Mary Williams 54
Mary Williams 12

Washington Ward 1 in 1860:

Chas Williams 40
Mathilda Williams 38
Mary Williams 19
Charles Williams 17
Francis Williams 16
Richard Williams 12
Martha Williams 7
Isabella Williams 6
Julia Williams 2

Washington Ward 2 in 1860:

Emily Williams, 28, servant in the household of William Thompson. plumber and gas fitter

Washington Ward 4 in 1860:

Frederic Williams 30
Lucy Williams 30
William Williams 18
Percilla Williams 15
Ann Williams 12
Charles Williams 10
James Williams 8
George Williams 4
Robert Williams 1

NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:

Geo Williams 47 laborer
Delphia Williams 63
Sarah Cole 25
Jos Cole 7
Eugene Cole 4

NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:

Geo Williams 47 laborer
Delphia Williams 63
Sarah Cole 25
Jos Cole 7
Eugene Cole 4

I do not know if this Williams-Cole family is somehow related to Barbara Cole Williams.


I am grateful to Wendy Kail, former archivist, Tudor Place, for her assistance in researcing enslaved persons at Tudor Place and at related Peter properties. Ann Chinn, historian and direct descendant of Barbara Cole Williams, has generously shared her family knowledge of this rich and complex history. Many thanks to Lisa Fager, (Executive Director Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Society
Historic Memorial Park, Inc) for sharing information on Mt Zion burials; and to David Taylor for sharing information on Barbara E. Pope’s burial.


Mark Auslander. Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian: Reading the Stones Southern Spaces. December 12, 2012.

Jennifer Harris. 2015. Legacy Profile: Barbara E. Pope. Legacy. Vol 32 (2): 281-304.

Wendy Kail. Oakland: Far from the Madding Crowd. March 2016

Grant Quertermous. (ed). A Georgetown Life: The Reminsciences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon. Georgetown University Press. 2020

Paul Sluby. The Old Methodist Burying Ground (typescript), 1975.

Enslaved Persons in the 1855-62 Tax Assessments, Washington County, District of Columbia

List : “Negroes Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage”, July 1799. Digital collections of the Washington Library. Mount Vernon