- Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War by Kendra Taira Field
In this stunning book, Kendra Taira Field interweaves family stories with the settlement of African Americans in Indian Territory and Oklahoma from Reconstruction through the early twentieth century. Separate chapters about three of Field's forebears provide a compelling narrative arc, generating a microhistory with much to say about migration, westward expansion, the back-to-Africa movement, and the ways Jim Crow legislation and society distorted a complex multiracial and multinational heritage.
Two of Field's great-great-grandfathers, Thomas Jefferson Brown and Monroe Coleman, and Coleman's cousin Alexander "Elic" Davis, traveled from Mississippi and Arkansas to Indian Territory (which became the state of Oklahoma in 1907). Though their migration stories are distinct, they all have their origins in the collapse of Reconstruction-era political and economic opportunities and in the dashed hopes of establishing a freedom based on independent landownership. As Reconstruction receded and white Democrats regained power and returned land to the planter class, roughly 100,000 people of African descent departed for Indian Territory.
Born in the early 1850s to a free African American father and an Irish mother, Thomas Jefferson Brown grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Before moving to Indian Territory in 1870, Brown had visited it a number of times, learned local languages, and likely knew that integration into the Creek or Seminole Nations would yield landownership. Designated a "mulatto" in U.S. records, Brown became an "intruder" or "non-citizen" in Indian Territory, though he at times passed for white or American Indian (p. 30). Through two consecutive marriages to African-descended Creek and Seminole women, Brown acquired more than a thousand acres of land and established a settlement that bore the name Brownsville. Having amassed acreage through participation in American national expansion, he then lost his land through white land speculation and due to the growing significance of race in Jim Crow Oklahoma. As stark notions of black and white took hold, Brownsville would, by and large, be remembered as a once independent all-black Oklahoma town, obscuring a complex past of multiracial and multinational landholding.
In a chapter tellingly titled, "Passing for Black," Field retraces the story of Monroe Coleman, a man born in Mississippi three years after the Civil War (chap. 2). Unlike Brown, Coleman migrated to Indian Territory on the cusp of Oklahoma's statehood. Moving with his family and arriving by train (suggesting wealth and position), Coleman purchased his land from Brown's ten-year-old grandson. Despite Coleman's relative wealth, he lived quietly in the countryside, leaving fewer records than did Field's other two relatives. Using techniques of microhistory, Field employs a range of similarly positioned stories to enrich what she has uncovered about Coleman. By doing so, she offers pointed analysis of how "the westward migration of 'mulatto' freedpeople constituted a telling response to the racial 'revolution' that accompanied the demise of Reconstruction. … [and] how 'the relentless search for the purity of [End Page 196] origins' has produced a thoroughgoing, painstaking erasure of the multiracial South" (pp. 60–61).
Field's third relative, Alexander "Elic" Davis, grew up in the Coleman household but, unlike his cousin, did not have white parentage or the educational and material benefits that sometimes accompanied it. Yet he, too, found his way to Oklahoma. When that state imposed a grandfather clause on voting rights, Davis joined the 1913–1915 back-to-Africa movement spearheaded by Chief Alfred Sam. Davis's trajectory allows Field to underscore the links between westward expansion and the early manifestations of global Pan-Africanism and to recalibrate African American emigrations along a continuum rather than as distinct movements.
Wonderfully written and based on significant oral histories conducted over a number of years, as well as archival research and a deep reading of the historiography, Field's book is a must-read for...