Mainstream America remains totally unaware of the biological and cultural bonds that exist between African slaves and American Indians—a people created by expulsion, slavery, racism and war caused the collision of cultures that became the crucible of destruction by force, but later provided the terrain to initiate new signs of selfhood. The first paths to freedom taken by runaway slaves led to American Indian villages, “where black men and women found acceptance and friendship among the original inhabitants of Turtle Island. And though they are rarely mentioned in textbooks and movies, the children of American Indian and African American marriages, would help shape the early days of the fur trade, added new dimensions to frontier diplomacy, and made daring contributions to the fight for American liberty.”
In his book, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage – Revised, a 240-page highly readable and sad chronology, with new chapters, documents, prints and photographs, William Katz brings to light a part of America’s hidden past, the cultural and racial fusion of American Indians and Africans, and later African Americans, by attempting to reconstruct the parallel tracks of tragedy between two people who, for a while, provided mutual support and refuge from unrelenting atrocities inflicted upon them by early Europeans, and settler groups. Katz explains, “This history is vitally important because for four centuries Africans and Native Americans together fought Europe’s conquest and slavery; and they are still fighting for equal representation and presentation in American classrooms and in discourse today.”
Using a rich compendium of resources the book is organized along the lines of course in US history, starting with earliest resistance in colonial times up to the 21st century in the new 2012 expanded edition. Katz argues, “Our country’s story had been myth-constructed on the freedom-fighting heroism of the George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and others – and I was proving these men enslaved or made war on African and Indian communities, and dispatched possees after those who escaped.”
According to Katz, the inspiration for Black Indians came from three powerful sources. He explains, “First was a conversation with Langston Hughes just before he died in 1967. He emphasized how the American frontier experience denied the significant role of people of color. Langston Hughes was as proud of his African ancestry as his lineage to Pocahontas.” Katz continues, “When I wrote The Black West I discovered enormous photographic and documentary evidence of the African Indian mixture from California and New Mexico to Florida and Rhode Island. Also, I used the pioneering research of Kenneth Wiggins Porter, and later became curator of his papers [which I brought to New York’s famous Schomburg Library]. Clearly here was a story that had to be told if we Americans are to understand our past.”
Although aspects of the separate histories are given, the emphasis is on black Indians whose swarthy complexion or curly hair was apparently an obvious limitation of definition. Black Indians such as Crispus Attucks, an American slave, merchant seaman and dockworker of Wampanoag and African descent, was allegedly the first person shot dead by British redcoats during the Boston Massacre, in Boston, Massachusetts; Paul Cuffee, a Quaker businessman, sea captain, patriot, and abolitionist, was of Aquinnah Wampanoag and West African Ashanti descent and helped colonize Sierra Leone. Cuffee built a lucrative shipping empire and established the first racially integrated school in Westport, Massachusetts and; Zeferina, a woman commander of a black Indian settlement, and O. S. Fox, editor of the Cherokee Afro-American Advocate are identified along with many others. The new edition also tells the story of African guides and translators of the colonial era who became valued contacts with Indigenous peoples, examines the African and Indian alliance known as the Pueblo revolt of 1680 that ended Spain’s rule of the southwest for a dozen years, introduces Francisco Menendez and the 1738 Black Indian community that defended its liberty in Florida against British incursions; and the tangled history of Red/Black presence in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Long Island and New Jersey, that included the Pequot, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Montucks and many other tribes living along the eastern seaboard, and much more.
I am honored writing this article for Mr. Katz, as Black Indians was the first book I read as an undergraduate concerning my research on “mixed-race” Indians—to which I am deeply rooted. Katz reveled to me in a telephone conversation that he was excited to see his work mentioned in an American Indian publication, his first ever. William Katz’s Black Indians remains the definitive chronicle on this overlooked and compelling chapter of American and American Indian history— about a people of color who share the experience of genocide, brutality, exploitation, colonization, and marginalization. We thank you, William Katz for finally writing a history in our image.
For more information: WilliamLKatz.com.
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.