Roberts on Dickerson-Cousin, 'Black Indians and Freedmen: The African Methodist Episcopal Church and Indigenous Americans, 1816-1916'

Author: 
Christina Dickerson-Cousin
Reviewer: 
Alaina E. Roberts

Christina Dickerson-Cousin. Black Indians and Freedmen: The African Methodist Episcopal Church and Indigenous Americans, 1816-1916. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021. 252 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08625-0.

Reviewed by Alaina E. Roberts (University of Pittsburgh) Published on H-AmIndian (August, 2022) Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of South Carolina Lancaster)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57470

Black Indians and Freedmen: The African Methodist Episcopal Church and Indigenous Americans, 1816-1916 is Christina Dickerson-Cousin’s long-awaited monograph-length contribution to the field of Black-Indian history. Dickerson-Cousin argues that the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) played an important, and previously unexplored, role in proselytizing Native people in Indian Territory (part of the modern-day state of Oklahoma), but also throughout the northern United States, seeking to continue its founding principle of diversity and bring people of Native and Afro-Native descent into its fold. This history is meaningful because many earlier explorations of Christian religion within the five southeastern slave-owning tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations) have focused either on its part in the coerced assimilation of Native people (with white missionaries who encouraged the adoption of Euro-American agricultural practices, dress, and cultural norms), or on Native peoples’ syncretistic mixing of their spiritual and cultural traditions with Christian teachings, such as the experience of the Cherokee Keetoowah Band.

The first two chapters of Black Indians and Freedmen are chock-full of details about the early evolution of the AME church, detailing various leaders’ missions to northern Native people like the Wyandotte. Dickerson-Cousin then casts the church’s work in Indian Territory as part of the African Methodist Migration (AMM), a term she coins. This western migration included places as far-flung as California and New Mexico. I found this intriguing, as the multitude of reasons Black people traveled west in the nineteenth century still have yet to be fully examined.

In our continually evolving ideas of the groups that made up Oklahoma all-Black towns, from southern African Americans fleeing white violence to those Black people formerly enslaved by Native Americans, Dickerson-Cousin adds members of AME churches, who contributed to the “social and cultural life of all-Black towns” (p. 9) She paints a compelling portrait of Black life in Indian Territory, as both Black Indians and African Americans from the United States sought to build lives for themselves after emancipation, contending with their own differences in culture and custom and with Native people angry that both groups now lived freely on their land. Dickerson-Cousin demonstrates that there was growing Black power in Indian Territory moving into the 1890s and early 1900s, and that even Indians like Choctaw Chief Green McCurtain, who had often blatantly discriminatory views of Black people, sometimes felt they needed to court them for their votes or social support. This push-and-pull between Black and Native people is an important part of understanding the post-statehood Oklahoma landscape.

I also was particularly interested in Dickerson-Cousin’s argument that “[African Methodists] recognized the plight of Native people and viewed them as fellow victims of white hegemony” (p. 6). I appreciated the examples she provides of speeches and correspondence wherein African Methodists bemoan the treatment of Native people, and she notes that they likely saw themselves as “sharing with Indigenous people the same liberation experience that Christianity had provided to them during the dark days of slavery” (p. 8). Dickerson-Cousin acknowledges that this does not, of course, completely remove the larger, problematic context of Christianization among Native communities, and there is more of a conversation to be had there, although it is not found in Black Indians and Freedmen.

I will admit that at first, I was put off by Dickerson-Cousin’s decision to use “Black Indian” to refer to all people of African descent owned by Native Americans, regardless of whether they actually possessed mixed-race heritage. I would say this is generally contrary to the field’s current norms and the way many descendants describe themselves and their families today. But by the end of the book, I had embraced this use as a representation of Dickerson-Cousin’s full imagining of Black and mixed-race peoples’ important part in the tribes in which they were enslaved.

The records of religious organizations form an essential part of the Five Tribes’ source base, and thus, having an understanding of these varied peoples’ thoughts, motivations, and interactions with Native and Black people is critical. Christina Dickerson-Cousin’s contribution is useful not only for scholars of religious history but also for those who would glean details of Native American/Afro-Native community building.

Citation: Alaina E. Roberts. Review of Dickerson-Cousin, Christina, Black Indians and Freedmen: The African Methodist Episcopal Church and Indigenous Americans, 1816-1916. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57470

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