The United States is reckoning with a painful history of slavery, genocide and systemic racism. Protests continue across the country, bringing awareness to the impact that history continues to have on people of color. Today, commentator Scott Thybony brings us the story of his experience attending a ceremony in Texas to honor the ancestors of Black Seminole Indians. He was working on a story for Smithsonian magazine at the time. The Black Seminoles escaped from southern rice plantations in the 18th century, and by the late 1700’s, were building their own settlements in Florida, fighting a series of wars to keep from being enslaved. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott recounts the memorial gathering he attended to honor their bravery.
Headstones filled a clearing in the Seminole Scouts Cemetery where I stood next to Willie Warrior. He had joined a small gathering of Black Seminole Indians in West Texas to honor their ancestors. During my time with them, I had listened to stories of a determined people who had sacrificed everything, generation after generation, to remain free.
Holding his cowboy hat Willie joined the others in an old spiritual, a song of deliverance close to their hearts. “Bye and bye when the morning come/ We will tell the story how we overcome/ And we’ll understand it better by and by.” While it’s been years since I tried humming along with them, recent events have reminded me of their epic struggle.
A few days before the memorial gathering, I drove west with the windows wide open as Bob Wills sang “San Antonio Rose” on the radio. The land spread out empty of all but a four-wire fence running along a two-lane highway. I found Willie Warrior at home where he recounted how his people began as runaway slaves in Florida. They adopted the Seminole way of living, he said, wearing colorful turbans and moccasins, building Indian-style homes, and farming the land together.
The Black Seminole, genetically African and culturally Indian, fought for years to keep from being enslaved. They finally surrendered to the U.S. Army, agreeing to leave their homes and relocate to Indian Territory. But when slave hunters continued to prey upon them they said, “No more.” To keep their dream of freedom alive, a band of 200 Black Seminole slipped away from army patrols and escaped in a dramatic exodus across the plains of Texas. They suffered from hunger and winter storms, fighting hostile tribes along the way. Crossing the Rio Grande in 1850, they were granted refuge in Mexico in exchange for protecting the border villages against Comanche raids. The Black Seminole returned to the United States in 1870 only after slavery ended. The U.S. Cavalry recruited them as Indian scouts, where they earned a reputation for incredible bravery.
At the close of the memorial service Miss Charles Emily Wilson, matriarch of the Seminole community, placed a yellow rose on the graves of the four Medal of Honor winners buried there. She joined the others back in town where a blues tape played and the men set up their domino boards. The older women greeted each other in English, but when they got close enough for a hug they said hello in “the Seminole.” They believed it was their own secret language until a professor told them it was actually Gullah, a West African trade language brought to America by slaves.
Miss Charles took a seat next her friend, Lily Mae Dimery. Occasionally Miss Lily slipped into Gullah as she recounted a New Year’s Eve party when everyone did a traditional dance. A man who stood listening put his arm around Miss Charles, and she stood up. They began dancing the old step, their knees bending in time to the chant, but soon she was laughing so hard she couldn’t continue. She remembered hearing people chant in Seminole when she was a young girl. “It was an Indian chant,” she said. “De-hey, de-hey – like that.”
During one of our conversations Miss Charles insisted her people were never slaves, having won their freedom long before emancipation. “We just broke loose,” she said, “and walked for years and years.” To keep from being enslaved the Black Seminole had fought soldiers, slave hunters, and Plains Indians. When I asked about the source of their courage, she thought for a moment. “The older people,” Miss Charles said, “were always humble. They were compassionate.” It was not the answer I expected.