Black Indians: An American Legacy

By Grenier, Richard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 21, 1997 | Go to article overview

Black Indians: An American Legacy


Grenier, Richard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Since 50 years ago Jackie Robinson endured sneers to break into major league baseball, both American sport and America itself have been been transformed. The dazzling dominance of African Americans in sport after sport hardly attracts attention any more. But the danger is that sports, music, dance, politics, and other conspicuous activities have in the public mind so monopolized the idea of black achievement that they sometimes seem to exclude black achievement in anything else. Nor does affirmative action, with its reverse discrimination and white resentment, make things much better.

So nothing could be more appropriate during Black History Month than the appearance of American Legacy, a new American historical quarterly published by Forbes and American Heritage (which it closely resembles). It brings to black readers serious articles which view America's black population in the context of the grand sweep of American history and doesn't mention Dennis Rodman once. With all the attention paid to black athletes by the "white" world, African Americans themselves are often ill-informed on the overall role blacks have played in the New World. Although obviously intended for black readers, I am white and read the magazine with great interest.

A leading article in the winter issue is about a missing chapter of history: the "black Indians." There have been thousands and thousands of intermarriages between blacks and Indians - with whole Indian tribes disappearing into the black community, often enslaved in the process. Blacks have similarly been absorbed by Indian tribes, almost as if in exchange. Some 95 percent of African Americans are now estimated to have at least one Indian ancestor, which explains the view of historian Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Week (as it was then called), who wrote, "One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is that treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians."

One of the most conspicuous events in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, for example, was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the forced deportation of the whole Indian population of the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi. Although now called the "Trail of Tears" because of the fearsome mortality rate, and discussed by Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" almost as soon as it happened, a young American historian named Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., made his entire reputation with his "The Age of Jackson" in 1945 without devoting a single word to American history's greatest act of "ethnic cleansing."

The founding of the first black-Indian community was in the 17th century, when fugitive black slaves and Indians of the Dutch colony of Surinam joined forces to form a populace called the Saramankas, a formidable fighting force. …

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