By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
Like the history of America itself, Alaina Roberts’ family history is knotty, astonishing and, to a large degree, hidden. With her first book “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), Roberts investigates the era of Reconstruction, Indian territory and Black history. She also tells a bit of the Roberts family history, too.
An assistant history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Roberts’ research is often aimed at this intersection of African American and Native American history. She herself is descended from enslaved people who worked in bondage in Indian territory and then remained in what became the state of Oklahoma to farm and establish the small town of Robertsville.
“[Robertsville] was a community where the Robertses lived, along with people they had intermarried with, and families who had also been owned by Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians. These families were often mixed-race. Some of them had Black ancestry, Native ancestry, white ancestry,” Roberts told the Current via telephone.
They built a church and a school –it was the first Black school in the Chickasaw Nation. People still live in Robertsville and the Calvary Baptist and the graveyard stand watch over this ground today.
Alaina Roberts will speak at an online Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Event this Thursday, April 22nd.
“The gravestones are still there. They’re very old. Some of them are tins, just these pieces of tin, not immaculate, expensive gravestones. But they go back to the 1800s and show how foundational my family was to the founding of Ardmore, the greater city that Robertsville is within,” Roberts said. “Having my family history intertwine with these institutions, and then seeing them, it’s still an amazing landmark,”
The story of the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears is one of the most appalling chapters in American history as Native Americans, most famously the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole (known as the Five Tribes), were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southeast by the U.S. government.
“It’s a horrible injustice. People suffered so horribly,” Roberts said. Even so, some of the families within those nations were better off than others. Wealth shielded some families from the worst conditions and for some families, that wealth was in the form of enslaved people. There are people who are not comfortable with telling this history, with the idea that Black people are part of the story of Native dispossession, but without understanding all of these moving pieces, we have a very incomplete understanding of American colonialism and expansionism, Native history and Black history.
“The fact is that the Trail of Tears itself involves Black people who also suffer along this trip and see their sense of self change. They are also moving to a new homeland. People are certainly surprised to learn [this story.] I think some people push back because it complicates [it],” Roberts said.
“Without that connection to Black history, it’s hard to understand that every Nation’s trip was different and how the Five Tribes were able to, especially the Chickasaws, sort of strategically use this move to actually improve their financial outlook. These large slaveholders were then able to rebuild in Indian territory in a better way, and in a far more profitable way,” according to Roberts.
From the perspective of the U.S. Government, Native dispossession served a couple of purposes. The removal of Native peoples allowed for white land owners to scoop up the land in the south and greatly expand plantation slavery. The Five Tribes then ‘settled’ the land known as Indian Territory — they moved into lands which were already occupied by other Native Americans and those tribes were disrupted and displaced.
After the Civil War, several distinct groups tried to justify claims to this land: Indian freedpeople (the term Roberts uses for Black people once owned by members of the Five Tribes), Native Americans, Black Americans from the south, and white Americans who moved onto the land in violation of any number of treaties. All of them are trying to make a go within the constructs of American style settler colonialism.
This is just the beginning of the story that Roberts is telling as she takes the reader on a trip from the Trail of Tears up through Oklahoma statehood in 1907 and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
So much of the discourse around the American west has been told in one way for so long that it feels radical to add anything to the story of the wild west that we know from television and movies. But Roberts opens up the lens and confronts constructed ideas of race, belonging and national identity with painstaking detail and precision. How do all these people go about trying to realize the land ownership they want? And the freedom they want? And how has that shaped the world we live in the 21st century?