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Anyone wishing to establish schools for freedmen in Oklahoma following the Civil War faced extra challenges because of the unique position of Indian Territory in the United States. In addition to the common problems of white opposition and lack of money, the push for education for former slaves also faced the reality of different problems and reactions among each of the Five Civilized Tribes. After the Civil War the United States government negotiated new treaties with each of the tribes, requiring that they recognize their former slaves as members of the tribe. The national Freedman's Bureau, created by Congress in 1865, operated in Indian Territory for several months under the leadership of Gen. John Sanborn but ceased its operations once the new treaties were negotiated. As a result of this action, most of the effort to educate freedmen originated among the various tribes and differed from group to group.

Tullehassee Creek Indian boarding school for African American children, April 1891

Among the Five Civilized Tribes the Seminole had the easiest time adjusting to postwar circumstances, quickly assimilating their former slaves into their tribe. Of the other four groups, the Cherokee did the best job of educating their freedmen, at least at the primary level, maintaining seven schools in 1872. But not until 1890 did the Cherokee provide a high school for their former slaves. The Creek also provided a basic education, having five schools in existence by 1874. In 1881 the Creek Council turned a school near Muskogee over to the freedmen. It opened in 1883 as Tullahassee Manual Labor School, and Creek freedmen ran it with help from the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Also in 1883 these two groups established a second school, known as Evangel School, on the old Union Agency grounds in Muskogee. The Choctaw failed to provide education for former slaves directly but promoted schools through various missionary organizations using federal funds. The freedmen provided the building, and the missionary groups provided the teacher and supplies. The first of these schools, run by the Baptist Mission Board, opened at Boggy Depot in 1874. This school was later burned down. Eventually several high schools, such as Tuskalusa Academy in Talihina and Oak Hill Mission near the Red River, were established in this way, but they did not last past the 1890s. The Chickasaw did not provide any support for schools for their former slaves, and the freedmen proved unable to meet the need themselves.

As was true throughout the South, most of the schools for freedmen in Indian Territory were small, poorly built, and lacking in equipment, but the people involved worked diligently to provide basic literacy skills to the former slaves. These efforts provided a firm foundation for the future growth of literacy and education among the freedmen of Oklahoma.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: T. L. Ballenger, "The Colored High School of the Cherokee Nation," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 30 (Winter 1952-53). Parthena L. James, "Reconstruction in the Chickasaw Nation: The Freedman Problem," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 45 (Spring 1967). Kaye M. Teall, Black History in Oklahoma: A Resource Book (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City Public schools, 1971).

Carol Sue Humphrey

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