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Ties That Bind Untangling the history of the “Black Seminoles”

The Seminole Freedmen: A History
By Kevin Mulroy, $36.95, Hardcover,
University of Oklahoma Press (November 2007), ISBN-10: 0806138653, ISBN-13: 978-0806138657, 446 pp.

As a transplanted Englishman, Dr. Kevin Mulroy might seem an unlikely candidate to peel back the layers of mystique and legend surrounding the “Black Seminoles.”

To him, his role is a natural progression from his childhood curiosity about the American West, African-Americans and American Indians, now merged in one great story.

In Britain in the mid-1970s, Mulroy, now associate executive director for research collections and services at the University of Southern California, had the rare privilege of taking a course on Black and Indian relations. In it, he found the story of affiliations between Black runaways and the Seminole Indians “very appealing.”

Learning then that little had been published on their experiences after the federal government transplanted them together from their homelands in Florida to Indian territory, Mulroy soon moved to Oklahoma to further his research.

“Academics and librarians in Oklahoma were a little surprised that somebody from England would be interested in this topic,” he recalls. “This was back in the late 1970s, before the subject became better known. Everybody, however, proved extremely helpful and supportive.

“The freedmen that I met … were glad to find that I was genuinely interested in their history,” he adds. “Once we had established a trust and comfort level, my informants proved very forthright. Some of the Seminole Indians I met were a little more suspicious, probably because they thought I might be advocating for the rights of freedmen.”

In 1984, he completed a doctoral thesis on “Relations Between Blacks and Seminoles After Removal,” and later published Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas, (Texas Tech University Press, 1993), which focused on descendants who moved on to Texas and Mexico.

His latest book focuses on those who stayed in Oklahoma. It is intricately packed with facts and names, extensively documented with footnotes and bibliography, and accompanied by captivating photographs of historical figures.

The subject is timely, following the controversies over the freedmen descendants’ tribal rights. The Seminole Nation voted to oust them in 2000, but they were later reinstated after the federal government imposed funding sanctions. Earlier this year, Cherokee Nation voters cast ballots to oust freedmen people from their rolls. This book sets the stage for the present frictions and takes on recent events directly.

Mulroy’s book will probably heighten the debate as much as settle it, but he writes in the introduction that he hopes the book will foster “more informed dialogue on the nature, complexities and significance of the freedmen’s relationship with Seminole Indians.”

Mulroy says he found the Black descendants “to be caring, giving informants, who are concerned about their ancestry, history and identity, and who want the story told accurately.”

In the book, he unequivocally argues that the groups are indeed separate peoples. The freedmen, including many who had freed themselves by running away from owners and many that Seminoles owned as slaves, maintained a culture apart from nearly everyone else, even other African-Americans, according to Mulroy.

They are more properly considered “maroons” than Indian or African-American, he says. This term emerged as early as 1626 — for fugitives from slavery in the West Indies, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and he admits he is not the first to apply the term to the Seminole freedmen.

He bases the definition on the maroon experience of maintaining remote communities engaged in constant guerilla warfare to protect their freedoms and holding on to key elements of their African past, all while working in alliance with the native people.

“The premise of this study is that, with only a few notable exceptions, the history of the Seminole freedmen has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented … The Seminole freedmen are not today and never were Seminole Indian,” writes Mulroy.

Tracing their histories from their first contacts in Florida in the 18th century to the present, he offers extensive evidence that the two groups co-existed and cooperated but did not do nearly as much intermingling or intermarrying as often assumed.

While some may challenge his findings, it clarifies a part of our national history and that of two groups who figure prominently in it.

— Angela P. Dodson is the former executive editor of Black Issues Book Review and a former community college instructor.

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