When Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a white U.S. military officer who in 1842 was sent on a mission to what is now Oklahoma, wrote in his diary about a smart, skilled Black man who was serving as a language interpreter for a Native Creek chief, he assumed “Negro Tom” was enslaved by the chief.
That Black man’s descendants would beg to differ. According to their family lore, the man more widely known as Cow Tom (because of his livestock holdings) was not enslaved. He later became a Creek Nation chief, honored for negotiating a landmark treaty after the Civil War that established Black Creeks as full tribal citizens. But they lost their status in 1979 because of the same racist perspective that skewed Hitchcock’s vision. Journalist Caleb Gayle’s absorbing We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power explores how this happened, and what contemporary Black Creeks are doing to reclaim their legacy.
Gayle, a Black American of Jamaican descent who was raised in Oklahoma, traces the history of Black Creeks from the early days, when some but not all were enslaved by Native Creeks, through the considerable prosperity of many Black Creeks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cow Tom’s descendants, such as the Perryman and Simmons families, became wealthy pillars of the Oklahoma civic establishment, largely because their Creek status gave them access to capital that other Black Americans did not have.
Gayle blends that story with his own encounters with racism and his personal identity: Is he Jamaican or Black? The Black Creeks’ ongoing legal fight to reclaim Creek heritage has inspired him to reexamine his own perspective, he writes. He is Black and Jamaican and American, just as the Black Creeks are “fully Black and fully Creek.” The United States, he argues passionately, would be a richer, more beautiful society if we recognized and honored those complexities.