In fact, Alaina E. Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, writes in her book “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” the freed slaves of five Native American nations “became the only people of African descent in the world to receive what might be viewed as reparations for their enslavement on a large scale.”
“I tell this story, a unification of Black, Native and white narratives, not only as a historian but also as a descendant of all four peoples: white settlers, Indian freedpeople, African Americans from the United States and Native members of tribal nations. On the one hand, it fills me with pride to think of the resilience of my Chickasaw and Choctaw forebears, who took a forced passage to a new land and turned it into an opportunity to create politically strategic and economically successful nations. And I feel honored to possess the rare legacy of historical Black landownership on the Roberts side of my family,” she writes in the book’s introduction.
Throughout history, the stories of some Black Americans have often gone untold, until recently. This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. WTAE Listens to Alaina Roberts, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She explores this dark chapter while shedding light on her own family’s story.
During and after enslavement in the United States, the West, and especially Indian Territory, represented freedom, possibility, and amelioration. Rumors that Indian nations would take in runaway slaves or that enslaved people in the Five Tribes—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Nations—were treated better than enslaved people owned by whites bred this mythology. While the truth behind these beliefs was far more complex, the West proved to be an attractive destination for an increasing number of Southern African Americans after emancipation.
"Owning slaves was a part of their strategy to assimilate into American society and it allowed them to be seen as different from other Native people and as more civilized," said Roberts, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. Roberts tells the story of how Oklahoma became a melting pot and the decades of racial tensions that preceded the Tulsa Race Massacre in her new book "I've Been Here All The While: Black Freedom on Native Land."
When it comes to race, American history is a perpetual factory of both injustices and ironies. At the heart of Alaina E. Roberts’ “I’ve Been Here All The While: Black Freedom on Native Land” is this: The only formerly enslaved Blacks who received any kind of reparations after the Civil War were some of those individuals who’d been owned by Native Americans — the very Natives whom, decades earlier, the U.S. government had driven from the South into what’s now Oklahoma.
Roberts is a University of Pittsburgh professor specializing in the intersection of Black and Native American history. But that history is also one she lives, as the descendant of Creek and Chickasaw freed people who once inhabited that very land (though Roberts grew up in California). And it’s a slice of history that can help readers interpret a grim centennial: This May marks 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre, when mobs of whites killed hundreds of Blacks in Tulsa, Okla., and burned down the community known as Black Wall Street.
Nineteenth-Century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) was home to a wide array of groups including Native American Nations, enslaved Indian Freed-people, African Americans, White settlers, and others. In a conversation on Black Reconstruction in Indian Territory, Alaina Roberts discusses what Reconstruction might have meant for Black people in what is now called Oklahoma in the years immediately following the Civil War, and why it should be included in broader conversations about Reconstruction.
"With her first book, “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” Roberts, an assistant history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, combines her family’s story with the broader story of Black Freedmen, the progeny of enslaved people who’ve lived in Native nations for centuries, and continue to do so to this day."
Pitt Assistant Professor of History Alaina Roberts says, of all the women in the windows, Pocahontas is her favorite. “She was an important intermediary between her people, the Powhatan, and British colonists in Virginia,” she said. “Pittsburgh has a rich and complicated colonial history on European-Native American relations, so it is fitting that a Native woman who did so much is depicted at one of our city’s landmarks.”
A candid interview with Alaina Roberts: My ancestors were Black and mixed race people... But I did not know that the owners were native people. So that was kind of a mind blowing thing to learn. And then to learn that my particular family’s history which is Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians is particularly under studied. A lot of the work done on Freedmen is on the Cherokees, sometimes Seminoles so I really wanted to kind of rectify that inequality and the sources.
An interview with Alaina Roberts, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. The interview focuses on Professor Roberts' research and writing, in particular her forthcoming book I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land. Listen here or on Soundcloud
The late 1700s was "when the tribe really began to pick up on Black enslavement," said Alaina E. Roberts, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. The Creek Nation adopted chattel slavery as a strategic effort, Roberts said, to ally with white settlers by assimilating to their culture.
This podcast episode features the subject of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, a man whose name is synonymous with the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow in the south. But perhaps his legacy isn’t quite that simple. Read more about Alaina's interview.
Listen to radio interview with Alaina E. Roberts on the show The Talk of Chicago.
“I think there’s a reasonable possibility that she will be a leading scholar in her field, if you want to look 10 to 15 years down the line. I think that would mean that she would have earned a reputation as a very original and thought-provoking scholar who looks at the problem of race in American history and in general,” said John Bodnar, IU Bloomington distinguished and chancellor’s professor of history.
In 2017, historians entered the fray. Immigration and ethnic history society scholars, especially, have been called to bring historical thinking and analysis to policy issues and public debates about immigration, citizenship, borders, white supremacy, and vulnerable and marginalized communities. Not only do scholars who study immigration history have subject expertise to share that can help us navigate today’s crises, but as educators and humanists, we are also bringing evidence, critical thinking, and knowledge to debates where they are often missing, in a context of epistemological uncertainty.