On Jan. 11, 2023, Afro-Natives and Black Seminoles from around the country gathered at the historic Seminole Inn in Indiantown, Florida. They met in the Inn’s reception area, where the walls are decked with paintings, murals, and artifacts from the Seminole Wars. There, they said a prayer and ate a meal to begin a six-day reunion organized to affirm their complex history and discuss remedies to their historical erasure, including federal recognition of Black Seminoles as Native people. It was the first time descendants of the Black Seminole diaspora had returned en masse to the state to which their ancestors had lived free as early as the 15th century, escaping slavery in Georgia and the Carolinas.
For grant writer and the director of the conference, Wallis Tinnie, Day 1 of the reunion was the most personally impactful, as she watched three generations of Black Seminoles return to their homeland.
Florida escaped slaves tended to live among the Seminoles, who often adopted them as kin. This continued until Florida ceased being a Spanish territory in 1821. Alternatively, runaway slaves formed separate bands living in close proximity to the Seminoles. Native people across the South, and especially the Seminoles, regularly adopted escaped Africans into the social fabric of their nations. For this reason, Tinnie views the appellation of Black Seminole as an “oxymoron,” explaining that it “comes out of the racial binary in America, because when the people were united, they were just Seminoles. There was no such thing as a Black Seminole or a Red Seminole. … Most of the Seminole were mixed.” Still, it is a term that has persisted through common usage.
Erasure and Broken Promises
In an effort to recapture escaped slaves taken in by the Seminoles, the U.S. military fought the Seminole Wars from 1816 to 1858. The Seminole Wars are remembered as the deadliest and costliest “Indian Wars” the U.S. ever fought. After the wars’ end, surviving Black Seminoles were removed as free people to Indian territory in Oklahoma, along with the rest of the Seminole Nation. Once in Oklahoma, mixed-race natives were treated like African Americans by whites. They were often kidnapped by enslavers. In their quest to escape the worst abuses of America’s racial prejudice, the Black Seminoles moved to Texas, Mexico, and the Bahamas.
During their 2023 Florida reunion, the Black Seminoles returned to a site near the Everglades where nearly two centuries ago their ancestors began to claim their freedom as Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. Researchers; Black Seminoles, including tribal chiefs and band members; other Indigenous people; and a small number of interested people of other backgrounds toured historic sites, listened to academic presentations, and participated in tribal gatherings. Despite their contributions to Native American history, there are no federally recognized Afro-Native bands. The gathering thus enabled the Black Seminoles to affirm their history and reinforce a sense of community on the path to achieving federal recognition.
Vital to the Black Seminole legacy is the dignity derived from their centuries-long struggle for freedom. Descriptions written by the U.S military reveal how jarring white Americans found the manifestations of Afro-Native self-esteem. A South Carolinian sergeant, for example, was repulsed by the way Black Seminoles greeted whites by shaking hands, expecting to be treated as equals. The bearing of Black Seminoles unnerved the plantation class as deeply as the loss of property.
One of the reunion attendees, Chief Thomi Perryman/Eagle Claw of the United Warrior Band of the Seminole Nation/John Horse Band, leads a band of Black Seminoles from Texas. He hosted tribal gatherings and spoke several times during the conference, reaffirming Black Seminole heritage and insisting that the U.S. honor its treaties with his people. “The United States has never fulfilled any of their treaties with our ancestors. Not in Florida, when they promised us land in Oklahoma, not in Oklahoma, when they promised us all the rights of Native people, and not in Texas, where they promised us land after they broke the last two agreements.” He adds, “Our people fought for the right to recognition and land. But in the end, all we got was survival.”
Chief Perryman’s ancestors carved out a place for themselves along the Texas-Mexico border through their ability as guerrilla fighters, fighting with the U.S. Army in the Plains Wars in the 1880s. Their descendants were promised land by the U.S. and Mexican governments for their military service. The Black Seminole Scouts, who served in the U.S. military at Fort Clark, Texas, were awarded 4 out of 15 Medals of Honor given to “Indian” Scouts. Many of the conference attendees attested that they had discovered their own Black Seminole heritage through researching the Black Seminole Scouts from Fort Clark. While their relatives in Mexico, known as the Negros Mascogos, gained land and state recognition, the Black Seminoles of the United States can claim neither.
Recalling a Legacy of Inclusion
While Chief Perryman and many others are looking for federal recognition for their bands, other Afro-Natives covet re-inclusion into Native American nations. Re-inclusion would mean they would be added to tribal rolls and be entitled to all the rights and privileges of Native Americans. Although not a Black Seminole, former Oklahoma Sen. Anastasia Pittman attended the conference to take part in tribal gatherings, where she spoke about the necessity of healing from historical emotional trauma and correcting the legal status of Black Seminoles. Pittman is the daughter of a Seminole mother and an African American father and sits on the General Council of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. She detailed the legal basis for the Black Seminoles’ re-inclusion into the Seminole Nation by recalling the words of the 1866 Reconstruction treaty between the Seminole Nation and the U.S.: the Black Seminoles “shall have and enjoy all the rights of Native citizens.”
The end of slavery brought little change in the lives of Afro-Natives. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Afro-Natives living in the West felt the full brunt of Jim Crow segregation. Native tribes were less likely to be federally recognized or receive adequate schooling if they were mixed-race. The Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek Nations of Oklahoma rescinded citizenship for mixed-race Natives throughout the 20th century. Scholars and Natives alike have come to argue that the Black Seminoles lack Seminole ancestry and were never members of the Seminole nation.
Before the Civil War, white Americans also viewed the Black Seminoles as enslaved people, even if they owned property, carried weapons, and held leadership roles within Native tribes. Black Seminoles often sat on the Seminole Council, a meeting of chiefs and village leaders who helped come to a consensus on tribal issues. Indian agent Wiley Thompson concluded that a Seminole “would almost as soon sell his child as his slave.” It appeared that he could not fathom that Black Seminoles were the adopted children of the Seminoles.
Native Americans frequently adopted foreigners to replace deceased family members. “Chief Dub Warrior came to see me as a son. Adoption is very common among all Native people. He adopted me to replace his son Tony Warrior,” explains Sub-Chief Frank Garcia of the United Warrior Band of the Seminole Nation/John Horse Band. The late chief of the United Warrior Band, Dub Warrior, also adopted current Chief Perryman/Eagle Claw. As settler wars ravaged the Americas, Indigenous people reconstituted their tribes by adopting other Natives, Africans, and even Europeans. Adoption contributed to the genesis of Afro-Natives across the Americas.
Fighting to Tell the History
On the fourth day of the reunion conference, attendees gathered at the Loxahatchee Battlefield, the site of the last great battle, waged in 1838 by the Black Seminoles as part of the Second Seminole War. Speaking from that site about the grant that funded the conference, Tinnie explains that the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected 80 organizations for funding based on the criteria of “telling the full history … of a site.” She adds, “When you’re doing war stories … the only side you hear is the side of the victor, or the one who now owns the plot of land.” Despite their central role in Seminole resistance, the Black Seminoles have been largely written out of Native history and denied the rights they helped win for the Seminole Nation.
Additionally, many academics at the conference noted that they experience present-day political barriers to their work. Michelle Bowlegs, Anthony Dixon, Uzi Baram, and Daniel Littlefield presented their research on the third day of the conference in the auditorium of Palm Beach University. Professor Baram, who teaches at the New College of Florida, has become a target of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new Stop Woke Act, which bans any teaching that might cause students to feel “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” because of their race, gender, sex, or national origin. The Board of Trustees for the publicly funded New College has been empowered to enforce this new legislation. Such attacks will further strain efforts to more fully incorporate Black Seminole history into the history of the U.S. as a whole.
On the sixth and final day of the reunion conference, Cynthia Atchico, a descendant of the Black Seminoles from Oklahoma, delivered the closing presentation. She echoed the broad sentiments of those gathered when she said, “The Black Seminoles are descended from people with the courage to escape slavery, the compassion to adopt strangers, and the integrity to fight for them.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 1:17 p.m. PT on April 3, 2023, to correct the year when Florida ceased being a Spanish territory; that year was 1821, when the United States purchased the territory from Spain. Read our corrections policy here.
Liam M. Wamba graduated from The New School with his degree in Anthropology. His works is at the intersection of history, ethnography, and journalism. He is primarily focused on issues relating to the diaspora and colonialism through both a cultural and historic lens. He can be reached at [email protected]