A report came out several weeks ago that sparked a heated debate concerning our nation’s controversial history of race-relations. Headlines read, “Cherokee Nation Expels Descendants of Tribe’s Black Slaves.” The article discussed actions taken by the Cherokee Nation to amend their constitution in order to remove slave descendants and other non-Indians from Tribal rolls. While there are too many points of contention to list here, I did want to address some of the blatantly racists, mean-spirited and uninformed comments regarding race relations amongst African Americans and Native American populations.
Prior to Christopher Columbus’s accidental founding of America, Africans had long visited and interacted with Native Indian populations. This interaction continued throughout the days of American slavery, as enslaved Africans and displaced Indians joined together in swamps (The Great Dismal Swamp) all the way down to Seminole territory to create Maroon societies and to resist oppression of the dominant society. Moreover, Blacks and Indians coexisted in various educational institutions after slavery. Led by Hampton Institute, thousands of Indians mixed, worked together, and thrived together while receiving a top-notch education from Hampton and sister schools.
While most students/alumni of HU recognize Wigwam as the office of student affairs, it first served as a dormitory for Indian students. In 1875, Captain R. H. Pratt and Bishop Henry B. Whipple (yes that is who Whipple Barn is named after) partnered with Samuel Armstrong to begin an unprecedented venture in educating the minorities of the nation. At the time Hampton was already well in route to becoming one of the leaders in African American education. Armstrong believed industrial training had already yielded tremendous benefits in uplifting Blacks, thus in theory, the same should prove true for Indians.
On April 18, 1878, fifteen Kiowas and Cheyenne Indians arrived as students in the early hours of the morning. The experiment grew rapidly, yet, it was received by mixed feelings as Indians were unsure of how interacting with Blacks would fare, while Blacks feared the “invasion” of Indians would convert the Institute into a “criminal house.” Between 1878 and 1923 roughly 1,388 students representing approximately 65 cultures (I don’t like voluntarily using the word Tribe) attended the school. This number included The Sioux (473 students), Oneida (194), Seneca (112), Cherokee (61) and many others.
One of the first to oversee the education, growth and development of the Indians was non-other than Booker T. Washington. In his monumental work, Up From Slavery he details his experience as “house father” beginning in 1879. Here is an excerpt from his writing here:
“I was to live in the building with them and have the charge of their discipline, clothing, rooms, and so on. On going to Hampton, I took up my residence in a building with about seventy-five Indian youths (Wigwam). I was the only person in the building who was not a member of their race. I knew that the average Indian felt himself above the white man, and, of course, he felt himself far above the Negro, largely on account of the fact of the Negro having submitted to slavery- a thing which the Indian would never do.”
Washington reveals problems Indians had on assimilating to the dominant culture and the similarities between Black and Indian students.
“I found that in the matter of learning trades and in mastering academic studies there was little difference between the coloured and Indian students. It was a constant delight to me to note the interest which the coloured students took in trying to help the Indians in every way possible. The Negro students gladly took the Indians as room-mates, in order that they might teach them to speak English and to acquire civilized habits.”
Even more revealing is the grasp of the enormity surrounding this experiment in race-relations. Washington wrote:
“I have often wondered if there was a white institution in this country whose students would have welcomed the incoming of more than a hundred companions of another race in the cordial way that these black students at Hampton welcomed the red ones? How often I have wanted to say to white students that they lift themsleves up in proportion as they help to lift others, the more does one raise one’s self by giving the assistance.”
The subsequent house father, Robert Moton also gave his account in his autobiography, Finding a Way Out. His account is much more vivid and honest than Washington’s, as Moton detailed hard lessons learned by way of interacting with the Indian population. Moton often admired the obstinate and passionate beliefs exhibited by Indian students. Here is an excerpt from his experience below:
I learned for the first time how different Indian attitudes were from my own. I was surprised to find how hard it was for many Indians to adapt themselves to the customs of the white man, for they thought the old way, their way, better and in many cases gave very good reasons to support their view. Their opinion, for example, about the white man’s religion was that he preached one thing and frequently practiced another; that he preached human brotherhood, for instance, while very few whites, so far as the Indians could observe, actually practiced human brotherhood. This thought was firmly fixed in the minds of many of them.
This was a new experience for a Negro, for while many of us shared this view about the inconsistencies of the white man and how far he was from actually practicing his religion, we had nevertheless adapted ourselves to the white man’s ways, and had, consciously or unconsciously, and sometimes anxiously, absorbed the white man’s civilization. The nearer we came to it, it seemed, the happier we were. I learned for the first time that other peoples than the Negro had problems and race feelings and prejudices, and learned to sympathize with another race, one, too, that was more nearly on a plane with my own and whose difficulties and handicaps seemed much greater than those of my own race.
Hampton like so many other HBCUs at the time, served as a center for cultural discovery and provided so many minorities from a host of numerous nations an opportunity to develop and nurture a sense of respectability and identity. What often goes overlooked is the importance of HBCUs in serving as institutions of racial diversity. Whether it was a young Cherokee or Sioux, Hampton provided these students the rare opportunity to achieve greatness in America. By understanding the multiplicity of ways HBCUs like Hampton created diverse atmospheres of learning, hopefully will continue to prove why these institutions have been historically significant and why these schools are of extreme relevant today.