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Discussing history

TOPEKA, Kan.—The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site served as the venue recently to shed light on an unsung chapter in American history.

More than a hundred years before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation in public schools, blacks and American Indians successfully integrated to form a unique, multi-ethnic military and economic alliance to stave off the threat of slavery and encroaching white settlement in Florida during the early 1800s.

Lewis Johnson, assistant curator of the Seminole Nation Museum in Wewoka, Okla., spoke to Washburn University students at the site about the early alliance of the Seminole Indians of Florida and the Black Seminoles, also known as the maroons. The maroons, described by Johnson as freedom fighters, were free blacks and fugitive slaves who sought refuge among the Florida Seminole. Today, their descendants living in Oklahoma are known as the Freedmen.

Johnson and Rosetta Finney, a Freedman and member of the Oklahoma Seminole, were in Topeka Nov. 18-19 to share their knowledge of Seminole history in observance of Native American Heritage Month. Their presentations to Washburn University students and in Topeka public school classrooms were part of Brown Foundation’s program series, “Race and the American Creed.”

Johnson was raised in Wewoka and graduated from Haskell Indian Nations University in 1984. He has served five fellowships with the Smithsonian Institute under the Native American Museum studies program. He has been with the Seminole Nation Museum since 1992.

Johnson told students that the maroons were given sanctuary among the Florida Seminole in exchange for paying annual tributes of crops and livestock to the tribe. These maroon communities were highly militarized and prosperous, amassing wealth in cattle and crops.

“It really worked,” said Finney, who served four terms as a representative on the Freedmen council. The maroons and the Seminoles also joined forces to create a formidable military alliance against the U.S. Army.

Spurred by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Second Seminole War that lasted from 1832 to 1842 was the longest and most costly Indian war in U.S. history. The stakes were high. For the Seminoles, a loss meant removal from their homelands and the loss of their way of life. For the maroons, it meant the loss of freedom and a return to slavery.

“The white man was going to get the land come hell or high water,” Finney said.

In the war, Indian and black warriors employed hit-and-run guerilla warfare tactics that were later studied by Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary. Two leaders emerged from these battles. One was the Osceola, leader of the Seminole Indian resistance and John Horse, leader of the Black Seminoles.

The Second Seminole War was also the largest, most organized and violent slave rebellion in U.S. history. Indian and maroon warriors recruited slaves and destroyed many of the most prominent plantations in Florida. The ferocity of the maroon fighters led General Thomas Jesup to declare that it was “a negro, not an Indian war.”

The actions of the Black Seminoles gave rise in 1838 to Jesup’s Proclamation, the emancipation of rebellious slaves. Twenty-five years later, the proclamation gave legal precedent for Lincoln’s emancipation of southern slaves in 1863.

In the eventual relocation to Indian Territory, now present-day Oklahoma, Finney said the maroons fell under Creek law and were still faced with the threat of slavery from slave raiders who sought both black and Indian captives. John Horse led a mass escape of his people to Mexico where slavery was outlawed. In 1882, he secured a land grant for his people in northern Mexico, a permanent refuge where his descendants still reside. Horse later died in 1882.

In a later interview from her home in Wewoka, Finney spoke passionately about the legacy of John Horse, the Black Seminoles and the importance of knowing one’s history and heritage. She described Horse as “a true hero.”

“This was a man who protected his people,” Finney said. “This was a black man who founded Wewoka. They have no monument, no anything.”

Wewoka is the present-day home of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

Finney said she fears children are growing up without knowing who their families are. “I think they should know who Sally is, who Paul is,” Finney said. “The war separated families.”

Finney said people in Florida don’t know they have cousins in Wewoka. “We’re all related.”

“Talk every chance you get,” Finney said. “Talking and being around relatives is the best thing in the world for little kids. You’ve got to know where you came from to know where you’re going.”