The Tragic History of African Slaves and Indians

Julianne Jennings

Mainstream America remains totally unaware of the biological and cultural bonds that exist between African slaves and American Indians—a people created by expulsion, slavery, racism and war caused the collision of cultures that became the crucible of destruction by force, but later provided the terrain to initiate new signs of selfhood. The first paths to freedom taken by runaway slaves led to American Indian villages, “where black men and women found acceptance and friendship among the original inhabitants of Turtle Island. And though they are rarely mentioned in textbooks and movies, the children of American Indian and African American marriages, would help shape the early days of the fur trade, added new dimensions to frontier diplomacy, and made daring contributions to the fight for American liberty.”

In his book, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage – Revised, a 240-page highly readable and sad chronology, with new chapters, documents, prints and photographs, William Katz brings to light a part of America’s hidden past, the cultural and racial fusion of American Indians and Africans, and later African Americans, by attempting to reconstruct the parallel tracks of tragedy between two people who, for a while, provided mutual support and refuge from unrelenting atrocities inflicted upon them by early Europeans, and settler groups. Katz explains, “This history is vitally important because for four centuries Africans and Native Americans together fought Europe’s conquest and slavery; and they are still fighting for equal representation and presentation in American classrooms and in discourse today.”

Using a rich compendium of resources the book is organized along the lines of course in US history, starting with earliest resistance in colonial times up to the 21st century in the new 2012 expanded edition. Katz argues, “Our country’s story had been myth-constructed on the freedom-fighting heroism of the George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and others – and I was proving these men enslaved or made war on African and Indian communities, and dispatched possees after those who escaped.” 

According to Katz, the inspiration for Black Indians came from three powerful sources. He explains, “First was a conversation with Langston Hughes just before he died in 1967. He emphasized how the American frontier experience denied the significant role of people of color. Langston Hughes was as proud of his African ancestry as his lineage to Pocahontas.” Katz continues, “When I wrote The Black West I discovered enormous photographic and documentary evidence of the African Indian mixture from California and New Mexico to Florida and Rhode Island. Also, I used the pioneering research of Kenneth Wiggins Porter, and later became curator of his papers [which I brought to New York’s famous Schomburg Library]. Clearly here was a story that had to be told if we Americans are to understand our past.”

Although aspects of the separate histories are given, the emphasis is on black Indians whose swarthy complexion or curly hair was apparently an obvious limitation of definition. Black Indians such as Crispus Attucks, an American slave, merchant seaman and dockworker of Wampanoag and African descent, was allegedly the first person shot dead by British redcoats during the Boston Massacre, in Boston, Massachusetts; Paul Cuffee, a Quaker businessman, sea captain, patriot, and abolitionist, was of Aquinnah Wampanoag and West African Ashanti descent and helped colonize Sierra Leone. Cuffee built a lucrative shipping empire and established the first racially integrated school in Westport, Massachusetts and; Zeferina, a woman commander of a black Indian settlement, and O. S. Fox, editor of the Cherokee Afro-American Advocate are identified along with many others. The new edition also tells the story of African guides and translators of the colonial era who became valued contacts with Indigenous peoples, examines the African and Indian alliance known as the Pueblo revolt of 1680 that ended Spain’s rule of the southwest for a dozen years, introduces Francisco Menendez and the 1738 Black Indian community that defended its liberty in Florida against British incursions; and the tangled history of Red/Black presence in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Long Island and New Jersey, that included the Pequot, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Montucks and many other tribes living along the eastern seaboard, and much more.

I am honored writing this article for Mr. Katz, as Black Indians was the first book I read as an undergraduate concerning my research on “mixed-race” Indians—to which I am deeply rooted. Katz reveled to me in a telephone conversation that he was excited to see his work mentioned in an American Indian publication, his first ever. William Katz’s Black Indians remains the definitive chronicle on this overlooked and compelling chapter of American and American Indian history— about a people of color who share the experience of genocide, brutality, exploitation, colonization, and marginalization. We thank you, William Katz for finally writing a history in our image.

For more information: WilliamLKatz.com.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.










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smartphoenixnavajo's picture
Even Indians do not want to acknowledge those of African decent in their ranks. Take the on going case of the Cherokee and their disenrollment of these people you write about. Its not just americans or america. Indian are pretty racist people in themselves for whatever reason(s), but you do not point that out.
tmsyr11's picture
But of course not, smartphoenixnavajo! 'They' never do point out the full story but are only content in cherry picking the elements that fit their argument and forego the rest - the truth. Those african tribes and their representative leaders were just as telling in selling blacks into slavery with Europeans (Spaniards, Portugese) for the sake of business. Of course these blacks were eventually brought into the Americas as slaves.
LaVonne Barnes's picture
I agree with Smartphoenixnavajo. My ancestry is rich with Indian and African-American blood, and has been traced all the way back to when those that were of African decent came to Indians for aid, and were enslaved by them. They were owned, the bloodlines mixed, and now disenrollment is desired. If this story is to be told...tell it all. I appreciate the efforts of the author, but this is old news to some of us who are descended from it, though some Indians wish to treat it much the same as the whites treated Indians - as if contributions mean nothing and do not merit mention, and as if they did not exist.
LaVonne Barnes
wahanataien's picture
As a Native American, from the Mohawk Nation, Wolf Clan....I think the point is missed. I agree, racism is in every race! The point here is that people of African decent, who they self consider themselves a black race and not African have been lead astray because of the belief that all black people have been sold into slavery. Yet the history of the wars have been hidden from all....
hesutu's picture
There's one tribe that disenrolled some people because they didn't have any actual "indian blood" at all and had originally been placed on the rolls by order of european invaders in the so-called US government who were dictating who would be a citizen. In subsequent years tribal nations have attained more theoretical "permission" from the european illegal alien dictator-thugs to determine our own citizenship criteria. This blood quantum theory comes from white people and is not a traditional belief for any tribes. But it was pushed so hard by the european invaders it has become is a widespread belief even among tribal nations these days and in the illegal nation-state-calling-itself-the-US, it is actually in their law, despite frequent claims that we indigenous peoples are allowed to make our own determinations of who is a citizen of our nations. There are court rulings restricting this rights, such as preventing non-indian spouses from being allowed to be citizens. Marrying in is a normal way people progress towards citizenship in most nations of the world, and was practiced by most of our own nations. But we are denied this ability. This is given just as one example of ways that european invaders profess to dictate our criteria for citizenship, despite delusions to the contrary that are widely believed. It seems a more reasonable path would be to acknowledge that the natural citizens of a tribe consist of those who know their language, history, traditions and culture, those who honor and respect the ancestors and spirits of the tribe, those who are related through genetics, marriage or adoption to the known members of the tribe, and those who have not taken on citizenship allegiance in some other enemy nation that has harmed their own people, and those who have not adopted an alien religion that is contrary to the practices and beliefs of the ancestors or which has attacked the practices and beliefs of their ancestors. In addition natural citizens by their nature take care to pass on their culture, identity, beliefs and practices to their children. This is how things have been done for the millions of years we have lived on Turtle Island. It is possible that with this criteria there might not be not too many real indians left, but there is hope that someday we can return to traditional ways. It would be a wonderful thing to get of the damaging european invader theology of blood quantum and return to traditional ways. Obviously there have been people hurt in a couple of situations where tribes have pursued banishment agendas under european invader theories of identity. Race is a construct that the dominant culture uses to impose its power. It has no basis in science. However culture is real. And belief in races and racial bigotry is definitely real. To cast this as a racial issue is to misrepresent the situation. To claim that because of one or two tribes "all indians are racist" is a statement that comes from a perspective of racial bigotry. It is a hostile statement and it is false.
Anonymous's picture
When the ships came over with people from Europe to the Americas, the Native Americans were here. They kept coming... They felt they were entitled to the land. It was soon they wanted more and more land. They started pushing the Native Americans off their land and put up tobacco and cottonfields everywhere. They had to buy men from far off lands to help them pick the cotton cause the cotton gin had not been invented. They held them for slaves and gave them little but a place to sleep and food to eat. Some of the plantation owners were also, Native Americans. They owned slaves themselves. They had there wives and they also, had taken slaves for bedpartners like Thomas Jefferson and other Europeans who had slaves. They would have children from their wives and from their slaves. Who can say they are white, Native Americans, or African Americans? They are still, their children.
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous's picture
Where did their racist view come from? It was taught to them by the very people that enslaved the African. I can't blamed them they saw the treatment of the black American and probably wanted to disassociate themselves from that.
patti73737's picture
Thank you for this article. My tribe does not want me! The Creek Freedmen have been disenfranchised by tribal law. But the history of our relationship is still part of my legacy and I embrace it. People think that I am part Asian, but I tell them with pride that I am part Muscogee Creek.