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Our land before we die: the proud story of the Seminole Negro

Source: Jeff Guinn for FortTours.com

One day in summer 1994, writer Jeff Guinn headed to Brackettville, Texas, to write a newspaper story on the little-known past of the Seminole Negro, whose descendants still live in the dusty little town. This journey inspired his book, Our Land Before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole Negro , published in 2002 and nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award by publisher Tarcher/Putnam.

It is the first oral history of the Seminole Negro ever written. Guinn’s book tells of a people who sought shelter in the shadow of a tribe whose land and welfare already hung in the balance. And yet in their tireless journey — from Florida to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, on the 700-mile flight from persecution that took them across the Rio Grande into Mexico, and then back across the Rio Grande to Texas — they never surrendered hope of attaining land of their own.

But that hope was continually thwarted; in 1914, after decades of dedicated, distinguished performance as scouts in battles against the Comanche, Apache and border outlaws, the Seminole Negro were marched at gunpoint off the grounds of Fort Clark in Brackettville. The government had no more use for them, or for the agreement the tribe believed had guaranteed them land of their own in return for their service.

Still, modern-day descendants celebrate Seminole Heritage Days each year on the third Saturday in September — and still hope for land of their own.

Below is an excerpt from Jeff Guinn’s book.

Our land before we die: Prologue

Miss Charles Emily Wilson, last survivor of the Seminole Negro camp on Fort Clark across from Brackettville in South Texas, doesn’t organize the Seminole Heritage Days celebration anymore. She has what her Brackettville friends call “the Alzheimer’s,” and has been moved 70 miles away to a niece’s home in Kerrville.

It was 18 years ago that the 91-year-old retired schoolteacher, known to everyone as “Miss Charles,” declared there had to be an annual Brackettville event celebrating the rich history of the Seminole Negro. With the tribe’s modern-day young people getting so distracted by television and video games, Miss Charles warned, the storytelling tradition of the Seminole Negro was fast disappearing.

The Black Seminoles lived in adobe jacals or chink houses in the village on Las Moras Creek outsideFort Clark. Photo courtesy the Institute of Texan Cultures. The Black Seminoles lived in adobe jacals or chink houses in the village on Las Moras Creek outsideFort Clark. Photo courtesy the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Tribal descendants had scattered around the Southwest after the terrible day in 1914 when the United States Army, having run out of uses for scouts on horseback, evicted them from the shady Las Moras Creek village on Fort Clark land where they’d lived for more than 40 years. Miss Charles herself was the last one left who’d been there when the empty wagons arrived, who saw the soldiers with their guns and heard the old people crying when they were left on the Brackettville streets to survive or starve — the Army didn’t care anymore.

The story of the Seminole Negro was so glorious, going back to the days when the Spanish owned Florida and escaped slaves eagerly ran south. There was so much everyone, not just the Seminole Negro children, should know about the great chiefs, the great battles — how the Seminole Negro fought the U.S. Army in Florida, then helped the Mexicans guard their borders, then returned to Texas to show the Americans how to finally beat down the Apache. Whole history books could have, should have, been filled with these things.

But historians overlooked the Seminole Negro. Only tribal bards told the stories, and there were fewer of them as years passed and people died or drifted away. Now, Miss Charles said she was getting on, her memory might weaken at any time, and after she was gone, knowledge of all those great and terrible times still had to be passed down from one generation to the next, or else everything that had happened to the Seminole Negro would be forgotten, and the blood and tears shed over centuries would come to nothing…..Read the rest of the article here at FortTours.com


This entry was posted on January 8, 2009 by in USA News (archived 2009-2013) and tagged , , , .
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