A new book by historian Kendra Taira Field ’99 explores family, race and nation after the U.S. Civil War.
Between 1865 and 1915, tens of thousands of formerly enslaved people journeyed out of the South and into the West and beyond. Among them were the ancestors of Kendra Taira Field ’99, who made their way to Indian Territory and what would become Oklahoma. There they developed black and, as families merged, black Indian towns and settlements. They owned land and built churches and schools. They were, Field says, “freedom’s first generation.”
When their lives and livelihoods were threatened by statehood, Jim Crow segregation and oil speculation, some of Field’s family members joined a powerful back-to-Africa movement, while others emigrated to Canada or Mexico. Over the course of their lifetimes, they experienced what she calls “a constant shifting of racial categories over both time and space.”
Field, now a history professor at Tufts University, initially collected their stories “on the side,” she says, until she was encouraged “to consider creating scholarship out of them.” The result is Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race and Nation after the Civil War. Published in January by Yale University Press, the book chronicles the epic journeys of three branches of Field’s family tree over the course of half a century. Their lives and choices “deepen and widen the roots of the Great Migration” and—as the following excerpt from the preface shows—demonstrate how “ideas about race and color powerfully shaped the pursuit of freedom.”
In New Jersey, our family was black, while back home in rural Oklahoma we were Creek Indian, too. As a child in the 1970s and 1980s, I loved nothing more than listening to my grandmother’s stories about growing up African-American and Creek Indian in 1920s Oklahoma. In the long wake of the Newark riots, watching Odevia Brown Field plant tomatoes in the patch behind her house, I learned about a time when our family had owned hundreds of acres of land, alongside our Indian and African-descended kin. Grandpa Brown had a place they called Brownsville, she said, where they built a school and a church. I learned, too, about the oil speculators who gradually came to see my (African-American and Creek) great-grandfather; for the occasional lump sum, he worked as a Mvskoke translator across Oklahoma, telling them “just where to look for oil.” Through my grandmother’s stories, I learned about Indian and African-American land loss.
About once a year, my grandmother would pull out the $25 check she had received from Sun Oil Corp., insisting that I look at it, too. I remember how she stared at that check, asking questions, already knowing the answers. In grade school, I memorized occasional facts about slavery and the Trail of Tears, but it was through my grandmother that I learned about the intersection of the two: that some Native Americans had held slaves, that African-Americans had participated in Indian “land runs” and that the North American “frontier” was far more complicated than my textbooks let on. During summertime visits to Oklahoma, I began collecting evidence. Uncle Thurman would take us out to Brownsville, driving red dirt roads for hours, following the perfectly rectangular perimeter of the 1,000-acre homeplace. There was no longer a house, but we found the steps to the school, amid a landscape of tall grass, Indian paintbrushes, and oil wells. One year at a YMCA summer camp in the Catskills, when I stumbled across a collection of Indian creation myths nearly identical to the Brer Rabbit folk tales my father occasionally told me as a child, I ran to a pay phone to call him. Was Brer Rabbit Indian, black or both? These were the wrong questions, but at the time, back east, there was barely language for what I wanted to know. There was, thankfully, the language of family. When I moved away to college, my family’s stories stayed with me, quietly highlighting the incompleteness of other historical narratives.
Long before I cared for the discipline of history, my grandmother’s stories made me whole, pointing to things I sensed, but for which I had no words. Author Ronne Hartfield writes, “Our mother’s stories have given us the maps by which our tribe locates its journeying, its streams and rivers, its stony places, its sometimes astonishing, more often incredibly affirming twists and turns.” Historian E. Frances White attests that her own grandfather’s stories were “so wonderful that I began to believe that they could not be true.” As she grew older, however, she stopped worrying about whether they were true. “What is important here is that my grandfather told me the stories; the stories made sense to me; and, most important, the stories made sense of the world for me.”
In recent years, psychologists have begun to examine what human beings have long understood, the importance of a strong “intergenerational self”: children knowing they “belong to something bigger than themselves.” One study revealed that in the face of conflict and uncertainty, “the more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self esteem.” Such findings have particular implications, both urgent and hopeful, for African-American communities.
Forcibly separated from our family members by the first and second Middle Passage, by slavery and the slave trade, we were also separated, in large part, from our family histories. Frederick Douglass opened his 1892 Life and Times this way: “The reader must not expect me to say much of my family. Genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves.” Rooted in the repetitive social trauma of family separation and “haunted by the need to know,” historian Heather Williams writes, in the post-emancipation era, descendants searched for “those who were lost through sale or through the negligence of history.” When the African-American search extended beyond the history of individuals or individual families, it began “to help construct the history of a people.” Just as “enslaved children were stunned when they found out they could be sold,” “some people are still stunned by the blow,” including the deprivation of family members and family history: “People cannot fathom it, and they want to reestablish and reclaim that history.”
And so we have. Dorothy Redford, descendant and genealogist of the North Carolina Somerset Plantation, recalled, “I began as a woman alone, drifting in both time and space,” and by the end, she had “a past peopled with links as strong and solid as any family in this nation.” As she pieced together the lives of their ancestors and organized a reunion on the grounds, Williams reflects, “All the slaves on the plantation became her people.” E. Frances White’s family “worked hard to develop strong black egos in its children” and thus sent her to spend a week with her grandfather each summer. He was a follower of Marcus Garvey and “had an impressive library filled with everything he could find on Africa and its diaspora. It did not matter to him whether a book was racist or uplifting; if it was about black people, he would buy it.” There White encountered “both a history of the Ku Klux Klan, written by a klansman, and C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins.”
My own first copy of Black Jacobins came from my granddad. So did W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and every book Joel Augustus Rogers ever wrote. Orphaned as a child in the 1910s, my granddad, William H. Field, was taken in by an unlikely African-American entrepreneur named Charlotte Field. Aunt Charlotte, as he called her, gave him a roof over his head and a job delivering The Crisis in Paterson, N.J. By the 1950s, following one year at Howard University and several more in the military, he was living in East Orange, N.J., and working at the post office in Newark. Around this time, he wrote a letter to Joel Augustus Rogers, the prolific self-trained historian (and onetime Pullman porter) who combatted racist propaganda and popularized black history. In his letter to Rogers, my grandfather lamented the lack of “black books” for his children at the local library, pleading to one of his most cherished authors for help. Some weeks later, Rogers arrived at the East Orange Public Library with a box of his books. Afterward, my grandmother remembered fixing him dinner—“maybe it was lamb,” she recalled—at 74 Stockton Place. Thus while my grandmother shared countless family stories, my granddad, lacking knowledge of his own ancestors, immersed his children in other kinds of stories and another kind of family: the beauty and rigor of the black intellectual tradition. Somehow, I knew, Du Bois and Rogers were “my people,” too. How I cherished this extended family. Growing up in a household marked by the insecurities of illness and death, I borrowed their strength.
On july 9, 1977, the new york times published an article about organ transplantation with a photograph of my mother, my father, my grandmother and me. Having developed kidney failure at 19, in 1968, my father received from my grandmother an early experimental kidney transplant. When I was born, some years after the surgery, the doctors told my father that he would be lucky to live to see my fifth birthday. But with the help of my mother’s fight, my father kept living—eventually becoming a kidney doctor himself, trying to understand this illness and its prevalence within African-American communities—and he carried me well into my 20s.
Over the years, various theories emerged about my father’s kidney disease. Somehow they all led back to Okmulgee, Okla., where he spent his first five years in the 1940s. Sometimes my grandmother talked about “greasy creek,” the oil-rich creek where they would play, wondering about its effects. Other times she mentioned the day he fell into a gigantic Oklahoma anthill. The theory that registered with East Coast doctors in the 1980s amounted to untreated strep throat and a lack of antibiotics during his early years. The final, unspoken one had to do with leaving Oklahoma. My father had been raised by his grandparents those first few years of life, in a country town where he was adored by a large extended family, black, “mulatto,” Indian and proud; amid a contentious return to his mother and father in urban Paterson, N.J., the separation was traumatic. Thereafter, he would return to Oklahoma each summer, with his younger sister Beverly, to be with his Momma and Pawpaw, but there was a longing that never quite healed. He seemed to cling to Oklahoma for life.
When my father passed away in 2004, having survived nearly four decades of illness—including a stroke that caused him to lose all of his speech—I stumbled back into history and found his intellectual curiosity and love of life waiting for me there. He loved Oklahoma, and the stories that reside there, more than the many places he had traveled in his 57 miraculous years. Making sense of our unspeakable loss together, my then 85-year-old grandmother accompanied me on nearly every research trip I made to Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama. She was every bit as curious as I, and far more skillful at enlisting others to come along for the ride, as we searched for missing puzzle pieces. In the 10 years that followed my father’s death and preceded my grandmother’s, Odevia Brown Field and I made the unspoken decision to dwell in the past.
I remember clearly the two of us racing back from a morning fact-finding expedition over long and winding roads, hoping to arrive to Sunday buffet at the Sirloin Stockade “in time”—before her eldest sister Marzetta scolded us. We had already missed church. We arrived just in time to find my grandmother’s cousin, Clifford Fields. We shared with Clifford what we were up to, and he immediately took me under his wing and proceeded to share with me the decades of scattered genealogy notes he had vigilantly collected. In the years since that serendipitous meeting, Clifford has driven me down hundreds of country roads, knocked on dozens of strangers’ doors and asked nearly every question that no one else dared to ask.
Like many historians, I imagine, I first learned the meaning of change over time, and space, within my own family, as I listened to mythical stories of long-lost black landownership from the vantage point of the post-civil rights era, and as I watched my father decline, a pillar of our family fall and my world ever so gradually collapse. Surrounded by secrets and the ever-present threat of separation through the passage of time and space, my job—first as a daughter, then as a historian—became putting the pieces back together. I wanted to know how one generation shaped the next, why these stories were repeated and where the shadows came from.
Kendra Taira Field ’99 is an assistant professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University.