In Search of David Twine (c. 1824-1894), Smithsonian Coachman

One of the more fascinating individuals interred in Mount Zion Cemetery in north Georgetown, District of Columbia, is David Twine (c.1824-1894). Twine was a lifelong hack driver and coachman in the District of Columbia, who for the last decade of his life was employed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum, serving as a coachman, in turn, to Dr. Spencer Fullerton Baird, the second Secretary of the Smithsonian, and Dr. Samuel Pierpoint Langley, the third Smithsonian Secretary

Family Background and Other Twines in the District of Columbia

David Twine’s mother may have been Eliza Twine, the only free person of color with the surname Twine in the 1830 and 1840 censuses in the District of Columbia. Eliza was born around 1800 in the District of Columbia. The 1830 census indicates she is the head of a household in Georgetown containing seven persons of color: one free woman, age 23-35, which must be Eliza Twine herself; one free female, age 10 to 12; two free girls, under age 10, and three free boys, all under age 10. It is possible that David Twine, whose death record indicates he was born in 1824, was one of these boys and a son of Eliza Twine. (The 1850 census, the first census to reference David Twine by name, states he is born in the District of Columbia, although his 1894 death record lists his birthplace as Virginia).

Eliza Twine on 2 Aug 1853 married Eli Jackson (b. 1793). The 1880 census records 80 year old Eliza Jackson as a widow residing alone on Four and A Half Street, SW, District of Columbia. She is evidently the Eliza Jackson who died 24 September 1884.

The only Twines in the 1850 census in DC are David and Christiana Twine, with their daughter Ann. However, it is possible that other children of Eliza Twine (that is to say, likely siblings of David Twine) are listed in the 1860 census, in the Washington Ward One household of Edward Woodland, a free black laborer:

Ann Twine, age 33 (b, 1827) , born Virginia
Andrew Twine, age 31 (b. 1829), laborer , born D.C.
Elias Twine, age 29 (b. 1831) , waiter, born D.C.
William Twine, age 27 (b. 1830 , waiter, born D.C.
Charles Twine, age 23 (b. 1837) , waiter, born D.C.
Mary Twine, age 18 (b, 1842) , servant, born D.C.

Living separately in Washington Ward One is a different William Twine, age 26, with his wife Mary Twine, age 25.

In addition, the 1860 census records a ten year old Eliza Twine, born 1850, in the household of William and Nancy Brown, in Washington Ward Two.

The 1870 census, the first “Freedmen’s Census,” lists nine black Twines residing in the District of Columbia:

Andrew Twine, b. 1825, a laborer in Washington Ward One, with his wife Martha and children Andrew and Ida. (This must be the same Andrew as listed in the 1960 census )
William Twine, laborer, b 1834, married to Mary Twine, in Washington Ward 1. (The same couple as listed in the 1860 census).
22 year old Rebecca Twine, b. 1848, working as a domestic servant in the household of the white publisher, John H. Hawes, in Washington Ward Two. Circumstantial evidence, discussed below, suggests she might be the daughter of David Twine.
Julia Twine, age 22, b. 1848, cook of Dr. Samuel Busey, who had a farm on the property that later became part of the National Cathedral Grounds, in Washington County, along with Julia’s 20 month old daughter Delilah. Julia Twine is not among the seven enslaved people owned by Dr. Busey, manumitted in 1862.

Note: A free woman of color, Ann Twine, born around 1834, married Charles Cogar on 22 Jan 1862 in the District of Columbia, and by 1880 resided at 2121 O Street in the District.

Mount Vernon and Tudor Place Connections?

It is possible that David Twine and this other cluster of Twines were related to the well-known enslaved woman at Dogue Run Farm, part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, Sall Twine (c. 1761, died after 1802). Sall Twine was a dower slave derived from the estate of Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757) who after the death of Martha Custis Washington in 1802 inherited with her children by Martha Parke Custis and her husband Thomas Peter, the sometime mayor Georgetown who constructed Tudor Place, among the most elegant private residences in the new nation. Sall Twine’s children, included Barbary, born around 1788, Abbay, born around 1789, Hannah, born around 1795, and George, born around 1798.

Tudor Place was itself partly funded by the proceeds of an earlier sale in 1796 of thirty-one slaves brought into her marriage with Thomas Peter as Martha’s dowry. The 1796 Day Book of Thomas Peter records his ownership of six members of the Twine family:

Peter Twine 46 (45 pounds) evidently married to Elly Twine
Twine, Elly 30, 60 pounds, wife of Peter Twine. In Mrs. Peter’s Patrimony.
Dinah 12 36 pounds, evidently, daughter of Peter and Elly Tiwne
Maklin 18, 25 pounds evidently child of Peter and Elly Twine born around 1778
Lyddia 4, 18 pounds evidently child of Peter and Elly Twine
Fanny 1, 5 pounds evidenly child of Peter and Elly Twine

A note indicates that on May 10, 1796, the following members of this family were sold;
Peter Twine, Elly,
Macklin and Fanny, (109 pounds )

Then, on November 10, 1796, Dinah and Lyddia were together sold by Thomas Peters, respectively valued at 45 pounds and 25 pounds, for a total of 70 pounds.

(Tudor Place Archives; see also Mary Beth Corrigan (2014)

Later enslaved at Tudor Place was the gardener Will Twine, who died in 1832 and who also may have been kin of Peter Twine and David Twine.

I discuss some of the Twine family’s fascinating history in an essay on Barbara Cole Williams, and in a piece on the enslaved persons involved in the construction of the first Smithsonian building.

As noted in the Smithsonian essay, Sall Twine’s son George would seem to be listed as one of twenty four enslaved people in the 1848 probate inventory of the son of Thomas and Martha Peter, John P.C. Peter of Seneca, Montgomery County.

David Twine’s Marriages and Offspring

To my knowledge, the earliest record of David Twine is his D.C. marriage record to Christina Gray, 20 December 1848. The next year the couple had a daughter Ann E. Twine, who is listed in the 1850 census but not in subsequent records. I suspect she is the same person as Mary Eliza Twine, who later married an Ignatius (Nathan) Gross of Frederick, MD and Baltimore. She may be the sister of Rebecca Twine who in the 1870 census is listed as born 1848.

The 1850 census shows David and Christina Twine residing in Washington Ward One, with their one year old daughter Ann E Twine and an eight year old Malinda Clark. David is a hack driver.

A decade later, the 1860 census records David Twine living in Washington Ward Three, with no sign of his wife Christina, who presumably died in the interim. He is living in a household with the 55 year old free black washwoman Nancy Johnson, and in the same dwelling structure as the free black hackman James F. Anderson. His daughter, previously listed as Ann E. Twine in 1850 is in 1860 listed as an “Eliza Twine,” ten years old, residing in Washington Ward Two with a William and Mary Brown, both age 60, who are perhaps the little girl’s paternal or maternal grandparents. They had presumably consented to raise the child since the widower David Twine felt incapable of the task.

Three years later, on April 7, 1863, David Twine married Sarah Anderson, a cook, born 1839, daughter of Jefferson Anderson and Lucinda “Lucy” Penny. It is possible that these Andersons were kin to the hackman James F. Anderson, with whom Twine had been residing in 1860. (Sarah’s younger brother was also named James.) In 1868, the city directory records the married Twine couple living at 387 10th street, with David employed as a coachman.

The 1870 census shows David Twine residing in Washington Ward Two with his wife Sarah Twine, along with his mother in law, Lucinda Anderson, and Sarah’s younger brothers, the waiter John Anderson, age 20, and James Anderson (14), and with Sarah’s sister Margaret (Penny) Miner (age 38) and Margaret’s evident son Benjamin Miner (12).

The 1880 census shows David and Sarah Twine living at 1608 M Street, with Sarah’s mother Lucinda Anderson and no others. Sarah Twine is recorded in the D.C. death records dying on 22 August 1892, two years before David Twine’s death. (I am unsure where she was buried). It does not appear that David and Sarah had children together.

Like many DC hackmen, Twine was occasionally charged with violations of the hack law and related statues. On 30 June 1853, the Evening Star reports he was held over for trial for a hack law violation, and again on 23 Sep 1881, he was one of many hackmen charged with failing to clean up manure on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ann E. Twine, Eliza Twine, Mary Eliza Twine Gross and Rebecca Twine Gross: The Same Person?

The identities of David Twine’s daughters, variously listed as Ann E., Eliza, Mary Eliza, or Rebecca, are somewhat confusing. As noted above, the 1850 census lists only one child of David and Christiana Twine, Ann E Twine. As noted below, David Twine’s granddaughter Katie Gross’s death certificate lists her mother’s maiden name as Rebecca Twine, who must be the same Rebecca Twine listed in the 1870 census as a servant in DC, working for the white publisher John Hart Hawes, the future US Consul to Hakodate (Hakodadi), Japan (1872-1875).

This Rebecca Twine (and possibly Ann E. Twine) might be the same person as “Mary E. Gerter Twine,” who on 27 May 1872 married Ignatius Gross in the District of Columbia. One month earlier, on 20 April 1872, an Ignatius B, Gross, born and raised in Frederick Maryland, opened a Freedmen’s Bank account in Baltimore, Maryland. He lists as his address Number 52 Park Street in Baltimore and as his parents Thomas and Nanny, both deceased, and as his siblings Daniel, Sarah, and Thomas. Thomas, he indicates, is in “Maryland, Africa,” meaning the colony set up for repatriated African Americans by the Maryland Colonization Society, known as “Maryland in Africa,” which later became part of the nation of Liberia. This is consistent with accounts of Thomas Gross, former slave of the late William Potts, consenting to colonization in Maryland in Africa, Liberia in 1849.

The 1880 census for Baltimore records Ignatius Gross, married to named Rebecca, born about 1851 in the District of Columbia. They have two children, David Gross, age seven (about 1873) and Catherine Gross, age one month.

Four years later, in 1884, the following death announcement appears in the Frederick Maryland Daily News, reprinted from the Baltimore American:

The Daily News
Frederick, MD
Friday, January 18, 1884
Page 4

The funeral of Nathan Gross, a well-known colored man, who died on Saturday, took place yesterday morning from his home, 33 Oxford street. He was a native of Frederick, and about 55 years old. He had suffered for about two years from consumption, and had been confined to his bed for nearly two months. He had been employed as a porter by Messrs. J. J. Nicholson & Sons, bankers, West Baltimore street, for the past fifteen years, and had always been found faithful in the discharge of his duties. He was a member of St. Francis Catholic Church, Calvert and Pleasant streets, and also of the beneficial organizations of St. Benedict and the Good Samaritans. High mass was said for him, and the remains were buried in St. Paul’s cemetery on Liberty road. He leaves a wife, two children and two brothers. He received every attention from his employers during his illness.—Balto. American.

Two years later, on 13 March 1886. the following death notice appeared in the Evening Star of Washington D.C: Departed this life on Friday morning, March 12, 1886, at 10:30, Mary Eliza Gross, daughter of David Twine. Her funeral will take place from the residenc eof her father, No. 1148 Fifteenth Street, between L and M street northwest, on Sunday afternoon, March 14 at 3 o’clock, Friends of the family are invited to attend.

Mary Eliza Gross was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, the largest Catholic cemetery in Washington DC. (Her husband Ignatius Gross, who had died two years earlier, had been Catholic, so she had presumably converted.)

The 1886 District of Columbia city directory records a Rebecca Gross living at the same address, in the home of her father David Twine, 1148 15th street. This would suggest she might be same person as Mary Eliza (Twine) Gross. Whatever the name she was using, her two young children, discussed below, were presumably residing there as well, and got to know their grandfather well. As reviewed below, he would remember them in his will.

David Twine, Dr. Spencer Baird, and the Smithsonian Institution

On July 6, 1876, Dr. Spencer Fuller Baird, then Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian penned a note to David Twine: “Dear Twine, -enclosure with(in?), for $50 for account of which $24 is in advance. Please sign and turn the accompanying receipt for Jubilee service.” The Jubilee being referenced might be the US Centennial marked two days earlier, on, July 4, 1876, or might reference that the 30th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution, which was to be marked the next month.

The note’s mention of an advance suggests that Twine had a long-term connection with Dr. Baird. A newspaper account of Baird’s death, eleven years later (discussed below) asserts that David Twine had worked for Dr. Baird for forty years.

In any event, seven years after Baird’s note to Twine, on 11 April 1884, David Twine was hired as a laborer at the Smithsonian National Museum. Baird had been elevated to Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1878, following the death of his predecessor Dr. Joseph Henry. Twine worked as a messenger and as coachmen for Dr. Baird, and later for Baird’s successor, Dr. Samuel Pierpoint Langley, the third Smithsonian Secretary.

Twine’s deep emotional connection to Dr. Baird is suggested by an account of Baird’s funeral in Oak Hill Cemetery, in the Washington Critic, on 30 November 1887, written in the racially pejorative language of the day:

“A touching sight was the visible emotion of one of the family servants, David Twine, the coachman, a venerable old darky with gray hair, who had been in the family’s service for forty years. As the remains of his late master were borne of the chapel he could not restrain his tears, and seemed overcome with sorrow. “

A later newspaper account, written during the period of Secretary Langley’s tenure, notes that Langley gave his old clothes to his coachman David Twine, and would at times amuse himself by giving Twine electrical shocks, through a battery he had installed under the coachman’s seat.

David Twine died September 29, 1894 at Freedmen’s Hospital. He was funeralized at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. where he was a member, and was buried at Mount Zion Cemetery on October 2, 1894. His will, witnessed on September 11, 1894, 18 days before his death, bequeaths to his grandson David Gross of Baltimore $100; to Mary L. Green of the District of Columbia. $100; to his mother in law Lucinda Anderson, $20; to his granddaughter Pauline Gross of Baltimore his gold watch and a picture frame from his room; to his grand daughter Katie Gross of Baltimore his silver watch. He appoints his friend and Smithsonian co worker William T. Black as the estate executor.

The court inventoried his entire estate at $505.59.

Who was Mary L. Green? The 1900 census does list a Mary L. Green, washerwoman, born March 1850, residing at 1225 28th street, in Georgetown near Rock Creek Park. She is living with her sister Liza Ogelton. Four years earlier, the City Directory lists Mary L Green at the same address, as the widow of Thomas Green. On 20 October 1880, a Mary Anderson married a Thomas E, Green in the District of Columbia. It is thus possible that the Mary Green mentioned in David Twine’s will was his sister in law, Mary Anderson. Alternately, she may have been a close friend of David Twine.

Whatever the connection, there are several newspaper accounts noting the refusal of Twine’s executor William Blake to pay the $100 bequest to Mary L. Green. For this failure, a bench warrant was issued on 19 March 1897 for Blake; I am not sure of how the case was ultimately resolved.

David Twine’s Descendants: The Gross Family

David Twine’s 1894 will mentions three grandchildren with the surname Gross, but does not mention his daughter Rebecca (Twine) Gross. I can see no mention of Rebecca Gross in the DC City Directory after 1886; perhaps she is indeed the Mary Gross who died in March 1886, six years before David Twine’s death in 1894. It would seem that after their mother’s death, the three children returned to Baltimore, where they had lived prior to their father’s death, and where they may have had kinfolk.

(Nine individuals with the Gross surname are buried in Mount Zion; I am not sure if any of them are related to the Twine-Gross line.)

What became of the three grandchildren enumerated in David Twine’s will, David Gross, Pauline Gross and Katie Gross, who appear to have been the children of Rebecca Twine Gross?

  1. David Gross was perhaps named for his grandfather David Twine. David Thomas Gross’ 1936 Social Security claim index lists his birth date as 24 Feb 1873 (which was about nine months after the D.C. marriage of Ignatius Gross and “Mary Twine”). He appears to have resided in Baltimore his adult life, appearing in the 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses, as well as multiple Baltimore city directories, employed variously as a driver (like his grandfather) and as an office building janitor and a porter in the Telephone Exchange. At some point, probably in the late 1890s, he married a woman named Alice (maiden name unknown). In the 1950 census, Alice Gross is listed as widowed so David Gross must have died prior to then.

The couple had one daughter Elizabeth D. Gross, born around 1900, who married the musician Harrison Morton Dodd around 1913. The couple had one daughter Dorothy E. Dodd, born around 1914. By 1930 Elizabeth (Gross) Dodd was divorced, once more living with her parents David and Alice Gross, and with her sixteen year old daughter, Dorothy E. Dodd.

In the 1940 census, Dorothy is listed as a married woman, with the surname “Davenport,” living without her husband with her mother Elizabeth and grandparents David and Alice Gross. (Curiously, Dorothy’s age is incorrectly given as 21 in the 1940 census, and she is listed as high school senior). In the 1950 census she is listed as married to a Bernard Smith, residing in the household of her widowed grandmother Alice Gross. I am not sure if Bernard and Dorothy Smith had children.

By 1942, Dorothy’s mother Elizabeth is married to Alfonso Alexander McLaren (1902-1981), who had been born in Jamaica The couple is also listed in the 1950 census, residing in the household of Elizabeth’s mother Alice Gross. I am not sure if the McLaren couple had any children of their own.

  1. Catherine or Katie Gross. As noted above, the 1880 census lists Catherine Gross as a one month infant, living with her parents Ignatius and Rebecca Gross.

She appears at some point to have married Rogers Monroe, a laborer in the gas office, and is listed as residing with him in Washington DC in the 1920 census, at 729 50th street.

On 25 July 1930, “Katie Monroe” marries Henry Bazamore (1888-1971) in Detroit, Michigan. She dies 23 July 1936, at age 56, in Detroit. Her death certificate informant was her brother David Gross, who lists her parents as Nathan Gross and Rebecca Twine. I am not sure Henry and Katie had any children, or if Katie had children by her previous marriage to Rogers Monroe.

One puzzle is that the marriage certificate for Katie , which records her father’s name as “Gross,” lists her mother’s name as “Pauline,” which, according to the will of David Twine, was the name of one of his granddaughters, presumably a sister of Katie and David Gross.

  1. Pauline Gross. Other than the reference in David Twine’s 1894 will, and the assertion on Katie Gross’s death certificate that her mother was “Pauline,” I have not found any record of Pauline Gross, to whom David Twine bequeathed his gold watch. (Note that the 1884 obituary of Nathan Gross mentions two surviving children of Nathan Gross, but that David Twine’s 1894 will references three grandchildren with the surname Gross.)

As of this writing, I am unsure if there are any living descendants of David Twine.

In Search of Isadore (Israel) Epstein, c. 1887-1952

Like many members of my family, I have been rather uncertain about the early life and background of my mother’s father, Isadore Epstein, who was evidently born 17 April 1886 or 1887 and who died 30 July 1952 in Philadelphia, PA.

Heaadstone, Isador Epstein, Mt Sharon Cemetery, Springfiled PA

To begin with, we have been uncertain of his parentage or the location of his birth. His headstone in Mount Sharon Cemetery (Springfield, Delaware county, Pennsylvania), references him in Hebrew as “Israel bar Elijah,” that it so say Israel son of Elijah. My mother Ruth Epstein Auslander believed Isadore’s father’s name was “Alex” and his mother’s name was Ann (and that her younger sister Ann Epstein Bruckner had been named for her). Ruth thought that like her mother Yetta, Isadore had come from Ukraine, but she was not confident of this. Ruth’s older brother Lou Epstein was under the impression his father Isadore came from “Bryansk” in Russia, which held a Jewish community that was closely related to Ukrainian Jewish communities.

There is some uncertainty about Isadore’s year of birth. His headstone lists his age at death as 66 years, which would imply a birth year of 1886. His death certificate, however, lists his birth year as 17 Apr 1887.

Death Certificate of Isadore Epstein, 1952, Philadelphia

There are not entirely clear records of Isadore’s immigration or his marriage to his wife Yetta, whose gave as her her maiden name “Anderson,” a name which her children did not believe to be her original maiden name. (As I discuss in another post, I have not succeeded in locating any immigration records for Yetta, and remain uncertain as to her natal surname.) It is quite possible that Isadore and Yetta were never legally married but rather only lived in a common law marriage, within which they raised seven children. starting with Morris Epstein, born in Reading on 26 Dec 1924.

Immigration Record for Isador?

The most likely passenger list manifest for Isador is of an “Itzchok Epstein”, age 21 (so born about 1890), occupation tailor, arriving in New York City on 22 May 1911 of the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, from Hamburg (p. 1, line 24). He indicates that his most recent residence in the Old World was with his mother “Hanna Epstein” in Bobruisk (often termed the “second city” of Belarus), and that he was born in Bobruisk. “Hanna” would be consistent with the family’s recollection that Isadore’s mother was named Anna. Isador indicates he is intending to stay with his cousin Joe Epstein, at 372 Cherry Street, on the Lower East Side.

2 May 1911 of the Kaiserin Auguste VictoriaL Line 23, Ischadol Epstein

Listed on line 23 of the passenger manifest, evidently traveling with Isadore is Eli Levin, age 19, also a tailor from Bobruisk, who most recently stayed with his father Reuben Levin in Bobruisk. He will be staying with his brother Abraham Levin at 58 Montgomery Street in New York, an address immediately adjacent to where Joe Epstein was living. It seem likely that Isador and Eli were cousins of some sort. (It may be significant that on April 7, 1886, a marriage took place in Bobruysk between Shmul’ Shaya Levin, son of Rakhmiel’ Levin, and Sora Gitlia Epshtein, daughter of Shlioma Epshtein. )

in the 1910 census, a Joe Epstein, occupation painter in a shop, resided on Monroe Street, adjacent to Cherry Street. He lived with his wife Bessie (Esther nee Zugman) and their four daughters Rose, Millie, Tillie and Rachel. His 13 June 1925 Naturalization petition indicates he was born in Vitebsk, Russia. (By 1920, the family had moved up to 112th street.)

Where was Isadore in 1920?

IsadoreEpstein, 1920 Reading PA city direcory.

Isadore appears in the 1920 city directory for Reading, Pennsylvania, where Isadore, Yetta, and their children would reside through the 1920s and the 1930s. The 1920 directory lists him as a tailor residing at 500 S. 15th Street in Reading. Isadore is also listed in the Reading city directory in other years, including 1927, 1929, 1934, 1940, and 1941. A newspaper notice from 2 May 1929 notes that the court has authorized the sale of a house belonging to Isadore and Yetta Epstein, perhaps as the result of a foreclosure. We know from family stories that Isadore, who struggled with alcoholism through his life, had frequent financial challenges. The children recalled nights in Reading at which, due to eviction, they had to sleep on cutting tables in a tailor’s shop.

Isadore’s soon-to-be wife, Yetta Anderson, is listed in the 1920 census as residing in Baltimore Ward 6, Maryland on Jackson Square, adjacent to her sister Bessie (born Massie) and brother in law Abraham Labb (born Lebed). I had thought that perhaps Isadore lived in Yetta’s environs, and that is how they met prior to moving to Reading, PA. However, there is no Isador Epstein listed in the 1920 census residing in the Baltimore area in the 1920 census. There are over 100 Isador or Isidor Epstein’s, born in Russia, nationwide listed in the 1920 census. Of these around 25 were born in the 1880s , whom I thought at first might be “our” Isadore, residing in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Mount Vernon NY, New London CT, Chicago, and St. Louis Missouri.

1930 census for Isador and Yetta PEstpein, Reading, PA

The 1930 census in Reading PA does clearly list “Ischdol” Epstein and his wife “Jennie, who must be Yetta, living with their four sons, Maurice, Harry, Charles, Louis. Isador’s immigration year from Russia is given as 1913. He is working as a tailor in the pressing industry, and the family lives at 309 Belvedere Street in Reading. He is still an alien. Isadore and Yetta are listed in the 1940 census in Reading with all seven of their children; the 1940 census, however, does not list year of immigration.

1940 census, Reading PA. Epstein family.

Knowing Isador’s likely immigration year and the fact that as late as 1930 he remained an “alien,” narrows the candidates in the 1920 census. Considering only unnaturalized tailors or workers in the clothing industry, born around 1886-87 in 1920 who immigrated around 1913, and who do not appear in the 1930 census, the most promising candidate is an “Isaac” Epstein, birth year illegible. He immigrated in 1913, is still an alien, and is working as a clothing presser. Residing in Manhattan Assembly District 2, at 114 Chrystie Street, the heart of the Lower East Side (one block from the present day Tenement Museum) in the home of his niece Bella Lipschitz, with her cousin Elizabeth Epstein. “Isaac” is listed as married, but the identity of his wife is unclear. (The 114 Chrystie street address is one mile northwest of Joe Epstein’s location in 1911 at 372 Cherry Street.)

Isaac Epstein in 1920 census (Is this Isador?) Birth year unclear

NOTE: There are two other 1920 candidates who can be safely eliminated:

A, Isadore Epstein, born 1891, immigrated 1911, living in Leonia, Bergen County, NY, married to Rebecca Epstein, with daughters Lily age 8, and Ida, age 5. A tailor in his own shop. Claims that immigration papers are submitted. By 1930, he is naturalized and the family is still living in Bergen County, so he can be removed from consideration

B. Isador “Estein” (sic), born 1887, immigrated 1912, married to an Annie, working as a tailor in a tailor shop in St. Louis, with two young daughter, Fannie, age 4, and Ida, aged 10 months. However, this couple and their daughter appear in St Louis in the 1930 census, so this cannot be “our” Isador.

It is also possible that Isador was evasive with the 1930 census enumerator, and that he actually immigrated earlier than 1913 or thereabouts, in which case many other Isador Epsteins would need to be considered.

Dora and Samuel Epstein

Isador’s son Lou Epstein recalled that his borhter Mo was under the impression that Isador had two brothers, Jacob Epstein and Yuri Epstein, and one sister, Dahle Epstein. Through DNA searches, I have recently made contact with Mark Evans, my “new” second cousin. who is clearly the grandson of Dora Epstein, who must have been Isadore’s sister “Dahle.” Dora (b. 1899) married Samuel Epstein (b. 20 November 1899). According to family stories, Sam adopted Dora’s surname, to assist with his immigration. The family recollection is that Dora immigrated one year prior to Samuel.

Samuel Epstein, Naturalization Delcaraiton, 23 May 1927

Samuel Epstein’s Naturalization Declaration (23 May 1927) is consistent with this story. It indicates he was born in Bobruysk, Belarus., and lived a 2851 West 24th street, Brooklyn. He states he arrived in New York on the the ship “Seitan” from Bremen, Germany in April 1910.

Gershon PEstin, Passsnger Manifest SS Zietan, 21 Pril 1910.

Consulting the passenger manifest lists for 1910, Sam appears to have been the “Gerschon Epstein,” age 22, (so born around 1888) a tailor, on the ship “Zieten” which arrived in New York on 21 April 1910. He lists as his destination Moische Rosenblum, 279 (Prince?) street, NY, NY. “Gershon” states he had been living most recently with his mother, “Masele” (?) (perhaps Mazal?) Epstein, in Bobruisk. (If the family story is correct, Samuel may have misrepresented his natal name, so perhaps his mother in fact had a different surname in Bobruisk.)

Moische Rosenblum may be the same person as Moses M Rosenblum, age 52 (b. 1858), widowed, tailor listed in the 1910 census, residing in Manhattan Ward 7, in the home of his son Abraham Rosenblum. Moses had immigrated about 1887. (Moses may also appears in the 1900 census. married to Eve, at 69 Norfolk Street Street, Manhattan. Ward 7, also in the heart of the the Lower East Side, about three blocks east of the present day Tenement Museum. )

Dora Epstein, in turn, appears to have been established in New York City by this time. The 1910 Federal census, enumerated on 19 April, records Dora Epstein, residing in the home of her sister in law Beckie Epstein on Essex Street, in the Lower East side. Beckie’s son Joe, age 7 lives with them, Beckie is married but it is not clear where her husband is living.
Presumably, within days of the census enumeration, Dora and Samuel wee reunited, following his arrival on the Zieten on or about 21 April. I am not sure if the couple had already been married in Belarus, or if they were formally married in the United States. Dora’s 1910 census entry lists her as single, but I have not found a US marriage record for Dora and Sam. (They may never have undergone a US legal marriage process, just as Isadore and Yetta don’t appear to have been legally Nor havmaried.) e I found a passenger manifest or any naturalization papers for Dora Epstein.

Dora Epstein, 1910 census, Manhattan.

In any event, a decade later, the 1920 census clearly records Samuel and Dora Epstein residing on Prince Street, Ward 4, Newark NJ, with their five year old son Harry Epstein, who was born 11 January 1915. This is the same name that eleven years later Isadore and Yetta would give to their second son, Harry Epstein, born 26 Aug 1926 in Reading PA. Is this coincidence, or were the two couples perhaps naming their sons (who were first cousins) after a common ancestor in the Old Country? (JewishGen’s list of Duma Voters in Belarus does have a 1907 listing for “Girsh Epshsteyn,” son of Lipin, living in Bobruysk, who might a relevant kinsman.)

1920 census, Newark NJ for Sam, Dora and son Harry Epstein.

The 1930 census shows Sam and Dora, with 15 year old son Harry, living at 2859 W. 24th street in Brooklyn, Apt. 241, more or less consistent with Sam’s 1927 Naturalization Declaration form. His World War II registration in 1941 shows Harry working at Rosenbaum Bakery in Brooklyn.

Epsteins (Sam, Dora, Harry) 1930 census Brooklyn NY

Henry Epstein served in the US Army during World War II, perhaps, his sons think, in the Motor Pool, and was evidently stationed on Okinawa late in the war. (Just before he time he went into the service, he and Gloria Orans (daughter of Morris Orans and Gertude Langer) were married in Elkton, MD in 1941). After discharge, it appears, Harry Epstein began to call himself “Hank Evans,” and his three sons took the surname Evans as well. The 1950 census records Hank Evans, with his wife Gloria, living with their sons Mark and Tedd on Long Island, Hempstead, in Nassau County. NY. Hank is working as a photoengraver. Hank died 14 OCT 1988, and Gloria passed away 25 JUN 1994.

I am not sure how much contact there was during this period between siblings Isadore and Dora. Mark Evans, Dora and Sam’s grandson, recalls family stories about Dora’s brother, ”Uncle Itshka.” I don’t know if the two Harry Epstein’s ever met. By an interesting coincidence, Mark Evans and his family lived for years in Cleveland Park in Washington DC. near where my sister Bonnie and I grew up near Chevy Chase Circle. My late mother Ruth would have been thrilled to know that Dora’s family was so close.

Sam and Dora’s grandsons recall that Sam, like his son Harry (Hank) Evans (Epstein), was active in the ILGWU (the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union), and were of a progressive, pro-labor bent. I do find this an intriguing coincidence: my father’s mother’s family, the Zeltzer and the Weinstein lines, were also from the Bobruisk area and certainly were involved in Yiddish pro-labor progressive social movements, in Belarus and in the United States. Nathan Shaviro, the husband of Sema Weinstein (sister to my great grandmother Chava Weinstein Zeltzer) regularly wrote for the Gerechtigkeit (Justice), the ILGWU newspaper and helped edit it.

My mother Ruth Epstein Auslander often said she felt right at home in my father’s Zeltzer extended family network, and it may be that part of this sense of familiarity was a shared political and cultural orientation, with roots in Bobruysk!

What became of Isadore and Dora’s brothers Yuri and Jacob Epstein?

Yuri Epstein

A possible candidate: Yeer (?) Oscher Epstein, born 1889, arrives on 19 April 1913 in New York from Bremen on the SS Wittekind, line 16, occupation dyer. Most recently staying with his father Isle (?) Epstein in Bobruisk. Intends on staying with cousin Rubin Nafels (?) at 41 Canal Street, New York. Born Bobruisk, Minsk.

This individual’s naturalization declaration of 19 April 1933 gives his occupation as a painter, born 25 October 1888 in Minsk, residing at 321 E. 121st street New York, residing with his wife Nettie, b, 1901. Three children: Murray 9b 22 Sept 1919) , Rose (b. 25 Aug 1921) , and Eve (b. 27 May 1924). The family in 1930 resided at 243 E. 182st in the Bronx, and in 1940 at East 178th Street in the Bronx.

Of these children, Murray (Mortimer, Morton) Epstein in 1950 was residing in Manhattan, married to Ann, working as a clerk in a finance department.

Rose Epstein appears to have kept her surname, and to have died in September 1994; buried at Springfield Gardens, in Queens.

Jacob Epstein
Possible candidate 1: Jacob Epstein , born 1886, arrives on 2 May 1910 on the Carmania, sailing from Liverpool to New York. He is from Minsk, occupation tailor; his most recent residence was with Simel (?) Epstein, his father in Minsk. He is intending to say with his cousin Selden Slits (?) on 84th street in Brooklyn.

Possible candidate 2: 26 December 1908 Naturalization Declaration of Jacob Esptein, (sic) born in Minsk, 10 April 1884, immigrated through Quebec, Canada, arriving via the Boston and Maine railroad 10 October 1894. Resides at 157 Lexington Ave., NY.

A World War II draft registration card records a Jacob Epstein living at 112 Baruch Place, near the East River, giving his birth at December 1884 in Minsk, and employer as Bernstein and Gummer.

However, Sharon reports Lou recalled a family story that Jacob was a sheep farmer who had stayed behind in the Old Country.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Linda Kelly for assistance to putting together many pieces of this puzzle, and to Sharon Hann for her years of work reconstructing Epstein family history.

What these Trees have Seen: Slavery, Post-Slavery, and Anti-Blackness in the South River (Welaunee) Forest Zone

Mark Auslander and Avis E. Williams
23 April 2022

The proposed South River (Welaunee) Forest zone spans approximately 3,500 acres in southeastern Fulton County and southeastern unincorporated DeKalb County, Georgia. The land is in the watershed of the South River, evidently referenced as the Welaunee or Weelaunee by indigenous Muscogee Creek inhabitants. This land has a complex indigenous history, incorporating some of the Soapstone Ridge that was the site of numerous indigenous quarries during the late Archaic and early Woodland periods. During the 18th century these lands were well within the territory of Muscogee Creek, gradually being pressed by expanding white trading and settler interests from Florida, South Carolina, and coastal Georgia. From at least the 1790s onward there appear to have been scattered white farms, often based in the enslaved labor of persons of African and indigenous descent, intermixed with Muscogee Creek settlements as well as hunting and gathering zones on these lands. The development of the cotton gin and the increasing industrialization of cotton processing vastly accelerated white demand for agricultural land, to be worked by an enslaved people of African descent.

By 1821, the white expropriation or theft of Muscogee land in this region of Georgia culminated in the fourth Georgia land lottery, in which these lands were divided into 202.5 acre plots, distributed to white men who qualified for the drawing. This essay briefly considers the experiences of enslavement with this 3,500 acre zone, and on continued structures of labor discipline that continued on these lands during the post slavery Reconstruction and Redemption eras.

The Transitional Era: Muscogee Creek, White Penetration, and Early Enslavement

We begin with the transitional era from c. 1750 to about 1820 when enslaved people of African descent, owned by Muscogee Creek. may have resided in these lands or close by them. From 1751 slavery was legal in Georgia. As noted, there were scattered white owned farms through Creek controlled areas between the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers from the 1780s onward. Increasing numbers of African-descent people were also held by Muscogee Creek in involuntary servitude.

Over much of the 18th century, there are accounts of escaped black slaves from the Carolinas and coastal Georgia finding their way into Creek territory, and being, in essence, adopted into local communities. Some African-descent people lived in forms of slavery which Gary Zellar (2007) maintains was not as coercive as the slavery system that had been established in British North America. However, after the invention of the cotton gin, cotton cultivation became increasingly profitable and more and more Muscogee Creek turned to a labor system modeled on the enslavement of African-descended people.

It is unclear if Estelvste (African Creeks), free or enslaved, resided with what is now termed the South River Forest zone, which was located within the Lower Creek region of the Creek Confederacy. As noted, there were certainly enslaved people owned by Creek within the general vicinity (Saunt 2005, Zellar 2007).

The most famous Muscogee Creek slave-based plantations in the region were Chief William McIntosh’s complexes at “Lochau Talofau” on Acorn Bluff on the Chattahoochee River in Carroll County and at Indian Springs, Butts County, respectively about 35 miles southwest and 50 miles southeast of the South River Forest zone. McIntosh owned over 100 enslaved people, and his children owned a number of other people of African or Afro-indigenous descent as well. Many of these enslaved individuals’ names are recoverable from documents associated with claims made against the Upper Creek, after William McIntosh was assassinated (or executed) in 1825 at Acorn Bluff for signing the Treaty of Indian Springs. (Littlefield 1979; May 1996).

Among the individuals owned by the McIntosh family, was Sarah Davis (1799-1886), who was as at one point owned by the daughter of William McIntosh, Rebecca McIntosh Hawkins, who in 1831 married Benjamin Hawkins, an educated, “mixed-blood” Creek and sometime business partner of Sam Houston. After Chief McIntosh was executed by Creek warriors in 1825, 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 a house slave/servant for him.

By 1853, Sarah Davis 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 Freedman leader, His descendants continue to reside in Oklahoma, along with thousands of others descended from enslaved Afro-native peoples owned by the McIntosh faction and other members of the Muscogee Creek elite.

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. As we honor this endangered forest, a site of so much tragedy, let us also think of that distant forested cemetery which remains a site of great injustice, compounded by the fact that most Creek Freedmen descendants were in 1979 stripped of tribal citizenship and remain legally outside of the tribe.

The 1821 Land Lottery

The white settler theft of Muscogee (Creek) lands in this region of Georgia, between the Ocmulgee and Flint rivers, was finalized in the 1821 land lottery, in which eligible white men drew for 202 and a half acre plots, including the land that now constitutes the 3500 acres of the proposed South River or Welaunee Forest. What is now DeKalb county was then part of Henry County. Districts 1-18 of Henry were distributed through the lottery, including District 15, in which the proposed forest zone is located.

Naming Names: The Enslaving and the Enslaved

  1. Slaves of Lochlin Johnson

Among the first white winners of the lottery was Locklin Johnson (18 Feb 1787-17 July 1861) who then resided in Cooper District, Putnam County, where he appears to have already owned four slaves. He drew lot 73, at the confluence of the South River and Blue Creek, two miles southeast of where we stand, and in time acquired lots 72,73 56, and 67. The historian Franklin Garret reckoned Johnson’s plantation “the finest in the county,” by which he meant the most productive.Johnson at various points represented the county in the State Senate, served as as county sheriff, postmaster and road commissioner, and was an Inferior Court judge, as well as land speculator in what later become Atlanta. By the time he died in 1861, Locklin Johnson owned eleven people who toiled on these lands, and he may have rented many others.

Through DeKalb County probate records, we are able to identify by name most of these enslaved people, who resided, according to the 1860 slave schedule, in three dwellings. In his will, Johnson Lochlin Johnson bequeathed his his slave Aley valued $300, “and her issue” to his daughter Margaret M.P Lichtenstadt (wife of Maurice Ludwig Lichtenstadt). To his daughter Nancy P. Farrar (wife of Jesse Farrar, a real estate agent) the “negro girl” Harriet and her issue, worth $500. To his daughter his daughter Jane E.L. Robinson (wife of James Robinson) the “negro girl” Emily ($500) and her issue. All of this was consistent with the frequent practice of slaveowner planted to bequeath their daughters with younger women slave who might serve as their enslaved maids and personal attendants (this is precisely how young Sally Hemmings came into the household of Thomas Jefferson as a gift to Jefferson’s wife from her father).

Other enslaved people were sold at an estate auction on New Year’s Day, 1862, on the front steps of the DeKalb County courthouse in nearby Decatur:

Laura and her children Emma and Herman, were sold to David Kiddoo (of Cuthbert, GA)
Wyatt, sold to James Robinson (Jane’s husband) then in Atlanta
Ben, sold to Jesse Farrar (husband of Nancy), then in Atlanta Ward 4
Anthony, sold to Mary K. Richie, via her guardian.
Jake, sold to M.L. Lichenstandt (Margaret’s husband: Maurice Ludwig Lichenstadt)

We are not sure yet of what become of Tobe (also known as Cornelius W) and the “boy” John, who are listed in the estate’s inventory and appraisement records, but not the auction records.

We see likely traces of some of these individuals in the first Freedmen’s Census, of 1870, nine years later.

A. Wyatt Johnson appears as a day laborer living in Atlanta’s Ward 4, living in the household of the black blacksmith Sidney Perkins.

A “Benjamin Johnson” is working as a sharecropper in Panthersville, evidently on same land he and his family had been held on during slavery. Among his daughters are 12 year old Harriet and one year old Emma, who might have been named for the Harriet bequeathed in 1861 to Lochlin Johnson’s daughter Nancy, and for the Emma, who was the daughter of Laura, sold to David Kiddoo of Cuthbert County. (All this suggests that various kind was sold or distributed apart from one another during 1861-62. Ben Johnson ten years later is listed as working on a farm in the same neighborhood.

Aley and Jake, as we have seen, were acquired by Dr. Maurice Ludwig Lichtenstadt, a prominent physician whose patients during the Civil War included Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy. Aley may have become Ally Johnson, born 1837, who appears in the 1870 census, living in Atlanta Ward 1, with her husband Green Johnson, a blacksmith

The same year “Jack Lemons,” born 1812 , and his wife Harriet, born 1810, are living together in Atlanta’s West End. Perhaps this is the formerly enslaved Jake, and he and Harriet, separated by the 1862 auction, reunited following Emancipation.

  1. Slaves of Nathan Turner

The plantation of slaveowner Nathan Turner was located in lot 71, just to the east of Lochlin Johnson’s plantation. He enlisted in the Confederate Army as 1st Sergeant March 4, 1862. He was Elected Jr. 2nd Lieutenant September 8, 1862. and Died of disease at Vicksburg, Miss, January 28, 1863. His estate inventory that he owned the following enslaved persons:

—Eady, woman 36 years, and child, also Solomon, a boy, 4 years, valued at $1300
—Margaret, girl, 15, $1500
—King, boy, 15, $1500
—Clinton, a boy, 13, $1500
—Minty, a girl, 12, $1200
—Allick a Boy, 5 years, $1000

His will bequeaths the 14 year old slave girl Margaret to his daughter Frances Ann Turner, and his 12 year old slave “Minta” to his daughter Sarah Eliza.

Most of these individuals remained in Panthersville into the era of freedom. In the 1870 census, twenty one year old Minty (now known as Aminda) is married to a Nathan Turner, in household #11, the is now in the proposed forest zone.

In another part of Panthersville, “Edy” Razenback, 40 ( previously Eady) is married to Edmund Razenback, 40 (who was not in the Turner inventory) with her sons Alexander Razenback, 15 (must be “Allick”) and Solomon Razenback, 10 who were both in the Turner estate inventory).

  1. Slaves of Rev. Elijah Clark

Another prominent slaveowner in the forest zone was the Methodist Minister Rev. Elijah Henry Clark, 3 Dec 1835-12 Jun 1898, who represented DeKalb County in the Georgia House of Representatives and who became a Captain in the Georgie Infantry 42, company D. His father William Henry Clark owned 39 slaves in a different part of the county. Rev Clark himself occupied lot 78 and owned 14 slaves, who resided in three slave dwellings, in 1860.

We can surmise the identities of some of these individuals from the 1870 “Freedmen’s census” which shows the following four free black families living next door to Rev. Clark, five years after Emancipation:

Dempsey Clark, 70, b. 1800
Harriet Clark, 45
Louisa Clark, 20
Ousley Clark, 10

Dempsey Clark, 36
Cordelia Clark, 35 , b. 1835

Bill Clark 25. b 1845
Sally Clark, 24
Amanda Clark, 11
Cordelia Clark, 10 months

Thomas Clark 40
Catharine Clark 34
Marena Clark 10
Ella Clark 7
Hannah Clark 3
Jacob Clark 3 months

(All of these individuals over the age of five were presumably owned by Rev. Clark or his family prior to 1865, when freedom finally came to Georgia.

These black Clark families are still listed in the 1880 census, continuing as sharecroppers farming in Panthersville.

  1. The slaves of George P. Key

The slaveowner George P. Key occupied lots 82 and 83, the site of the Intrenchment Creek Trailhead (where protest and ceremonial events in support of the Forest were held in 2021 and 2022) as well as the southern section of the later Atlanta Prison farm. (Key Road is named for this family.) Key owned 19 slaves in 1860. George Key’s father Chiles Keys (Jan 30 1784-Mar 4 1846) died intestate in 1846. He owned 21 slaves in 1840 The section of his probate inventory listing enslaved people unfortunately is missing. Other enslaved only two individualsReuben and Lively, are mentioned in probate records).
It is not precisely clear which individuals were owned by George Key, but five years after Emancipation, the following black families of sharecroppers were living next door to George Key: Henry and Kizziah Thrasher Phillip and Fanny Mitchel. George Middlebrooks, Annise and Mary Middlebrooks, and Alonzo and Eliza Walker. We surmise some or all of these individuals were owned by the white Key family.

  1. Slaves of James Moore and William Cobb

The slaveowner James Moore (born Cork, Ireland, 6/28/1798; d. 5/14/1856) is recorded as owning six slaves in 1850, on lots 110 and 111, on lands that would later become the northern sections of the Atlanta Prison Farm. After his death in 1856, only two enslaved people are listed in probate records; Fanny and Mary, who were both sold at auction to Moore’s neighbor, William T. Cobb. The 1860 slave schedule indicates they were born 1837 and 1841.
William Cobb, a miller, achieved a degree of fame during the Battle of Atlanta, when on the night of 22 July 1864, he guided Gen. Patrick Cleburne of Gen. Hardee’s Corps ( Confederate) through the forest, in a failed assault on f Union General McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee

One wonders what Fanny and Mary thought as they watched these fateful proceedings.

W speculate that Fanny appears six years later in the 1870 census, as “Fanny Stanners” in Panthersville, born c 1834, in household #t328, married to Bailey Stanners

  1. Slaves of Robert Cobb

William Cobb’s apparent brother Robert Cobb, resided on Lot 84 (between Georgie Key and Augustus Pitts). He died in 1865 and his probate records for 6 April 1865 (three days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House ) indicate the following slaves in his estate:

Dare, a negro man, valued at $3000
Lee, a negro man, 3500
Sy, a boy, 19 years, 4000
Jane, negro woman and 4 children, 6500
Pegg and 3 children, 5000
Alissa (? ) and a child, 50
Eliza, a girl, 3000

Turner appears five years later in the 1870 census living in Panthersville as sharecropper Turner Cobb, heading a substantial family:

Turner Cobb 58 (b. 1812)
Matilda Cobb 35
Juliann Cobb 18
Mary C Cobb 12
Lucy Cobb 10
George Cobb 8
Polly Cobb 6
William Cobb 3
Andrew J Cobb 3 month
Allen Cobb, 20
Offelia Cobb, 1

Since none of these individuals are listed in the Robert Cobb inventory, it seems likely that most were owned by someone else in the area; and that the family was reunited after Emancipation.

  1. Slaves of Justice Augustus Pitts

Justice Augustus Pitts held property on lots 51 and 76. He owned 6 enslaved people in 1860.

In1870, five years after Emancipation, two doors from Judge Pitts in Panthersville, lived a free black family comprised of:

Holland Pitts 25
Margaret Pitts 25
James Pitts 10
Eliza Pitts 8

Next door to Holland Pitts, lived the free black family

Ephraim Pitts, 25 (b.1845)
Elvira Pitts, 21
Sally Pitts, 4
Margaret Pitts
Irena Clark, 60
Rachel Clark, 10

Ten years later, Ephraim Pitt’s family remained in Panthersville, near Judge Pitts’ home:

Ephaim Pitts 35 Self (Head)
Elvira Pitts, 25 Wife
Sarah Pitts, 14 Daughter
Margaret Pitts, 13 Daughter
William Pitts, 9 Son
Ephriam Pitts, 8 Son
Isaiah Pitts, 6 Son
Caroline Pitts, 3 Daughter
Infant Pitts, 5/12 Son

  1. Slaves of James F. Stubbs

In 1860, James F. Stubbs owned 14 slaves. Ten years later, the census lists several free persons of color likely to have come off of the old Stubbs place, including Henry Stubbs, a 13 year old farm laborer in the household (#42) of former slaveowner James Stubbs

Also in 1870 in Panthersville. Dilsey Stubbs, born 1820, headed a household twelve households away from Judge Augustus Pitts.

Dilsey Stubbs 50
Charles Stubbs 17
Alexander Stubbs 10
Lucy Stubbs 7

Future research, based on Probate records, Indian Agency files, church documents, land records, and other materials may be able to help us compile a more complete picture of the enslaved people who labored and resided on the lands of the proposed South River Forest, during the successive periods of Muscogee Creek and white control, and to tell more fully the story of free people of color who worked this land during the post-Emancipation era.

Appendix I. Known Names of the Enslaved in the South River Forest zone (list in progress of formation)

Aley (owned by Lochlin Johnson, then Margaret Lichtenstandt )
Harriet (owned by Lochlin Johnson, then Nancy Farrar )
Emily (owned by Lochlin Johnson, then Jane E.L Robinson
Wyatt (owned by Lochlin Johnson, then James Robinson)
Ann. owned by Lochlin Johnson
Ben , owned by Lochlin Johnson, then Jesse Farrar)
Anthony (owned by Lochlin Johnson, then Mary K. Richie via guardian)
Jake owned by Lochlin Johnson, the, then M.L. Lichtenstadt)
Laura and her children Emma and Herman ( owned by Lochlin Johnson, then David Kiddoo)
John, a boy, owned by Lochlin Johnson
Tobe (alias Cornelius W) owned by Lochlin Johnson,
Fanny (owned by James Moore, then William Cobb)
Mary (owned by James Moore, then William Cobb)
Turner Cobb (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Dare (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Lee, (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Sy, (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Jane (Perkerson?), and 4 children (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Pegg and 3 children, (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Alissa ? (Hollingsworth?) and a child (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Eliza, a girl, (owned by Robert W. Cobb)
Holland Pitts (owned by Augustus Pitts)
Ephraim Pitts (owned by Augustus Pitts)
Henry Stubbs (owned by James Stubbs)
Benjamin McWilliams
Eady, (owned by Nathan Turner)
Solomon (owned by Nathan Turner)
Margaret, (owned by Nathan Turner)
King, (owned by Nathan Turner)
Clinton (owned by Nathan Turner)
Minty or Aminda (owned by Nathan Turner)
Allick, or Alexander (owned by Nathan Turner)

Acknowledgements: Research on this project has been conducted in the Archives of the DeKalb History Center, the Kenan Research Center of the Atlanta History Center, the Georgia Archives, and the Probate and Real Estate offices of the DeKalb County Courthouse (Decatur, Georgia). We are grateful for the guidance of Creek Freedmen leaders and community historians Rhonda Grayson, Sharon Lenzy, and Akua Maat in deepening our understanding of early Muscogee Creek enslaved history in Georgia and environs. Many thanks to Margaret Spalding, Jaqueline Echols, Joe Peery, Craig Womack, Gerardo “Abundia” Tristan, Guillermo Zapata, and Johnna Gadomski for sharing their perspectives on the complex struggle to interpret, protect and remediate the South River watershed and forest zone.


Lifflefield, Daniel F, .Jr, 1979. Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Greenwood Press.

May, Katja. 1996. African Americans and Native Americans in the Creek and Cherokee Nations, 1830s to the 1920s. Collision and Collusion. Garland Publishing.

Saunt, Claudio. 2003. Atlanta, White and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family. Oxford University Press.

Zellar, Gary. 2007 African Creeks; Estelste and the Creek Nation. University of Oklahoma Press.

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