Slaves to Denial

The Cherokee Nation is determined to deny black folks citizenship. Descendants of Freedmen cannot let that happen.

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Ross told me she was upset by my description of her ancestor as a slaveholder. “He was much more than that,” she said when I encountered her on an escalator in the city’s convention center.

My comments came during a forum about freedmen citizenship at a conference of African-American, Native American, Asian and Hispanic journalists. The quadrennial conference has the ambitious title, UNITY!

The conversation with Ross spilled out of the meeting room and back onto the escalator and, up to that point, had been polite and intense. Then, with a sharp note of hostility, she said something about not letting “other people” tell “our” history. Our history. Suddenly, me and my family were defined as the outsiders.

I responded with some shared history she probably didn’t know. In 1875, a relative of hers—another descendant of John Ross—shot and killed the first wife of my second great-grandfather (Malinda’s son). The tribe then manipulated the court system to ensure the shooter got off without a trial. Those revelations were enough for her to back off.

As it turns out, Gayle Ross and I are cousins by marriage. After the Civil War, a Cherokee cousin of hers and a freedman cousin of mine (Malinda’s nephew) married and had eight children in the Cherokee Nation.

The names of our married distant relatives are in the History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folklore by Emmet Starr, the eminent Cherokee genealogist. On page 417: Sarah Cynthia Clark (Ross’ relative) and Allen Lynch (mine).

How did I come to know this? The lawsuit seeking Cherokee citizenship for freedmen descendants cites discrepancies in how children were categorized in a census at the turn of the 20th century that determines eligibility for Cherokee citizenship. Some children were recorded as black, some as Cherokee by blood.

The Cherokee Nation’s attempt to disown part of its history, and those who share it, is actually doing more to bring that history into the open.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.