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Don Cheadle’s Deep American Roots
In 2008 the actor discovered his family’s stunning and sad connection to Native Americans as part of the genealogy project African American Lives.
By: Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Posted: May 26, 2011 at 11:03 AM
The Chickasaw people cannot see any reason or just cause why they should be required to do more for their freed slaves than the white people have done for theirs. It was by the example and teaching of the white man that we purchased at enormous prices their slaves and used their labor and was forced by the result of their war to liberate our slaves at a great loss and sacrifice on our part and we do not hold or consider our nation responsible for their present situation.
Donald Frank Cheadle Jr. was born on Nov. 29, 1964, in Kansas City, Mo. His family had roots there going back several generations. “Kansas City was where all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were,” he said. “We lived close to each other.”
Don was lucky enough to grow up knowing his paternal great-grandmother, Clennie Carroll, who was born in Blackwater, Mo., in 1886. “My great-grandmother lived to be 107. She was just a stone’s throw from slavery. And she had real acuity. She was very, very smart, very aware of everything. I had a personal relationship with somebody who was a generation away from it.”
His family moved from Kansas City when Don was still a child. His father, Donald Cheadle Sr., a clinical psychologist, was pursuing an academic career and moved from the university to university before settling at the University of Denver.
Don says he became aware of race after they left Kansas City. “Everybody was black in Kansas City,” he said. “When we started moving around — especially when we got to Nebraska — it got pretty eclectic racially.
“My mom raised us to be very open — not gullible — but open to the life experience. She urged us to stay connected to who we are and make sure we maintained our black friends. She was aware of racism and discussed it with us,” said Don.
As we explored Don’s family tree, we discovered that although Kansas City is importantto his family history, Oklahoma is equally important.
Don’s grandfather, Lee Therman Cheadle, was born in Oklahoma in 1910, moved to Missouri during his youth and married there. Don’s paternal great-grandfather, William Cheadle, was born Sept. 25, 1882, in what was known as Indian Territory and would become the state of Oklahoma. Don’s paternal grandfather’s family, it turned out, was very much a product of his birth state.
“My grandfather was sweet but gruff,” Don recalled. “He worked at the Chevy plant, loved baseball but never talked about Oklahoma — never.” Don knew little of Lee’s story. This is a real loss to Don’s family history because Lee Therman Cheadle grew up during a most unusual historical time and circumstance.
In the 1830s the United States government, enforcing the Indian Removal Act, forcibly relocated the Five Civilized Tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — from their homelands in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida into what would become Oklahoma territory. They traveled the infamous Trail of Tears at staggered intervals: Choctaw, in 1831; Seminole in 1832; Creek in 1834; Chickasaw in 1837; and Cherokee in 1838.
This dreadful forced migration opened lands in Mississippi and Alabama so that white Americans could move in, bringing with them their black slaves and introducing cotton crops perfectly suited for the rich soil. The migration was a fundamental step in the creation of the Cotton Kingdom, bringing unprecedented wealth to white Americans and immeasurable pain to blacks and Indians alike. How had Don’s family ended up living in Indian Territory?
The answer lay with Don’s paternal great-great-grandfather, Henderson Hence Cheadle, born in 1846 in Indian Territory, and his wife, Mary Kemp, born around 1854 in the same area. I was astonished when our researchers uncovered an 1898 enrollment card for the Chickasaw freedmen — an official document listing slaves who were owned by the Chickasaw nation. The card includes the names of Don’s great-great-grandmother, Mary, and some of her eleven children, including Don’s great-grandfather, William. Don’s ancestors were enslaved by Native Americans, the Chickasaw. They had been living in Indian Territory, and joined the march from Mississippi with their enslavers on the Trail of Tears. When the Civil War ended, the Five Civilized Tribes refused to liberate their slaves, claiming that as self-governing nations they were not a part of the United States and were not subject to its laws. “That’s hard to believe,” said Don, stunned. His ancestors, as property of the Chickasaw tribe, suffered more than did almost any other African Americans in their situation.
In 1866 the United States government made treaties with the native people in Indian Territory requiring them to emancipate their slaves and adopt the freedmen as citizens. The Chickasaws were the only tribe that did not fully comply. They freed their slaves but did not offer them citizenship in the Chickasaw nation. For decades, Chickasaw freedmen lived in a state of limbo. They were in Indian Territory, where many had lived since birth, yet they were neither Chickasaw nor were they American. “They were in never-never land,” said Don, grappling with the reality of what life must have been like for a people without a country and without any legal status at all. Don’s ancestors hung in a stateless limbo for more than 30 years. All around them the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee and Seminole nations were offering citizenship to their former slaves.
We found a letter written by Jonas Wolf, the Chickasaw governor, in 1885. He explained the tribe’s views succinctly: “The Chickasaw people cannot see any reason or just cause why they should be required to do more for their freed slaves than the white people have done for theirs. It was by the example and teaching of the white man that we purchased at enormous prices their slaves and used their labor and was forced by the result of their war to liberate our slaves at a great loss and sacrifice on our part and we do not hold or consider our nation responsible for their present situation.”
These words are an important reminder of the essence of slavery: It is an economic relationship. In Wolf’s view the slaves had been obtained for a significant cost and were playing a significant role in his tribe’s economy. They had been freed not for humane reasons but rather because the tribe had been forced to free them by virtue of the outcome of the Civil War. Extending rights to the freedmen would only further the economic loss that the Chickasaws had sustained. There were no human-rights issues at play here at all — just economics, hard and cold.
The story ends in economics, too. In 1893, the United States government set up the Dawes Commission, to reorganize the Indian Territory by eliminating tribal land titles and instead allocating fixed lots of land to individual Indians.
To facilitate this, government agents made official lists, called rolls, of the members of the Five Civilized Tribes and their former slaves. Almost all black people who signed their names to the rolls received 40 acres of their own, which sounds generous, but a primary purpose of the whole operation was economic — and deeply cynical.
By redistributing land from the tribes to their individual members, the federal government was greatly reducing the power of the tribes and the aggregate amount of land owned by Indians, thus freeing up the Indian Territory for white settlers.
The Dawes Commission proved a disaster for Native Americans, but it did offer a chance for former slaves like Don’s ancestors to claim Chickasaw identity and get some land. With this in mind, Don’s great-great-grandparents, Mary Kemp and Henderson Cheadle, traveled to Tishomingo, Okla., the capital of the Chickasaw nation, to enroll. Records indicate that they were successful.
We found a land deed showing that both of the Hendersons and their child received 40 acres each in a town called Wiley, Okla. After suffering for decades as a people with no status at all, in the end Don’s ancestors received something that other African Americans only dreamed about — land.
“The vaunted 40 acres,” said Don, laughing at the irony.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.
CNN | Tiya Miles | 2/27/12
African American history, as it is often told, includes two monumental migration stories: the forced exodus of Africans to the Americas during the brutal Middle Passage of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the voluntary migration of Black residents who moved from southern farms and towns to northern cities in the early 1900s in search of “the warmth of other suns.”
A third African-American migration story—just as epic, just as grave—hovers outside the familiar frame of our historical consciousness. The iconic tragedy of Indian Removal: the Cherokee Trail of Tears that relocated thousands of Cherokees to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), was also a Black migration. Slaves of Cherokees walked this trail along with their Indian owners.
In 1838, the U.S. military and Georgia militia expelled Cherokees from their homeland with little regard for Cherokee dignity or life. Families were rousted out of their cabins and directed at gunpoint by soldiers. Forced to leave most of their possessions behind, they witnessed white Georgians taking ownership of their cabins, looting and burning once cherished objects. Cherokees were loaded into “stockades” until the appointed time of their departure, when they were divided into thirteen groups of nearly 1,000 people, each with two appointed leaders. The travelers set out on multiple routes to cross Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas at 10 miles a day with meager supplies.
At points along the way, the straggling bands were charged fees by white farmers to cross privately owned land. The few wagons available were used to carry the sick, infant, and elderly. Most walked through the fall and into the harsh winter months, suffering the continual deaths of loved ones to cold, disease, and accident. Among these sojourners were African Americans and Cherokees of African descent. They, like thousands of other Cherokees, arrived in Indian Country in 1839 broken, depleted, and destitute.
In addition to bearing the physical and emotional hardships of the trip, enslaved Blacks were enlisted to labor for Cherokees along the way; they hunted, chopped wood, nursed the sick, washed clothes, prepared the meals, guarded the camps at night, and hiked ahead to remove obstructions from the roads.
One Cherokee man, Nathaniel Willis, remembered in the 1930s that: “My grandparents were helped and protected by very faithful Negro slaves who … went ahead of the wagons and killed any wild beast who came along.” Nearly 4,000 Cherokees died during the eviction, as did an unaccounted for number of Blacks. As one former slave of Cherokees, Eliza Whitmire, said in the 1930s: “The weeks that followed General Scott’s order to remove the Cherokees were filled with horror and suffering for the unfortunate Cherokees and their slaves.”
Although Black presence on the Trail of Tears is a documented historical fact, many have willed it into forgetfulness.
Some African Americans avoid confronting the painful reality of Native American slave ownership, preferring instead to fondly imagine any Indian ancestor in the family tree and to picture all Indian communities in the South as safe havens for runaway slaves.
Some Cherokee citizens and Native people of other removed slaveholding tribes (Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) have also denied this history, desiring to cordon off forced removal as an atrocious wrong that affected only Native Americans. By excluding Blacks (many of whom had Native “blood”) from a claim on this history, these deniers also seek to expel the descendants of Freedmen and women from the circle of tribal belonging. For it is the memory of this collective tragedy, perhaps more than any other, that binds together Cherokees who draw strength from having survived it.
As a researcher whose work focuses on African-American and Native American histories, I have encountered this resistance. A few years ago, I spoke on the subject of Blacks in the Cherokee removal at a conference of the National Trail of Tears Association. One member of the audience, a Cherokee instructor of Cherokee history, insisted that this was an historical event only for Cherokees, a story that rightfully belonged to them alone. This is a view shared by a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who reportedly implied in a published remark that descendants of Freedpeople do not deserve tribal rights because they did not suffer the collective trauma of removal. The Trail of Tears is a sacred story to the Cherokees, as in special and set apart. It carries a meaningful lesson across time and space—-about greed, injustice, and the perseverance of a people staring into a bleak and unknown future. However, a potent story shared with others is not necessarily diminished by the sharing; it might instead grow stronger in its ability to enlighten.