Alaina Roberts on Black Freedom on Native Land

On September 12, the Zinn Education Project hosted historian and author Alaina Roberts in conversation with social justice educator Cierra Kaler-Jones about the Reconstruction era connections between Black freedom and Native American citizenship in the context of westward expansion onto Native land. This class was part of our Teach the Black Freedom Struggle series.

Event Recording


There was a packed (virtual) house, with participants joining in with reflective and timely questions. Here are a few reactions from participants:

So many that it’s hard to think of just one. Several: 1. That there were Indian freedpeople in Tulsa during the massacre, 2. that Native freedpeople saw themselves as just that — not as Black freedpeople — and felt tied to the Native land on which they’d lived (and been enslaved), 3. that all those Black towns (like Boley) in OK were a result of the govt. giving Native land from the Creek Nation to freed Black folks during Reconstruction. . .  until (of course) they then took it back, established OK and put it under Jim Crow laws.

I am adding a search of the Dawes Commission Records to the primary resources I use to teach Reconstruction. I am working diligently to show my students that the failure of Reconstruction was not the fault of the freedmen but the failure of the U.S. government to ensure and safeguard the political and economic gains of freedmen.

Hearing about some of the intersections of identity and politics, war and peace, between white, Native and Black Americans was riveting. There was so much more to consider than what is readily available in public school textbooks in the U.S.

This is going to influence how I introduce colonial America to my 4th and 5th graders.

The format was excellent. I really appreciate the skillfulness in facilitation, the length of the session, and the fact that breakout rooms were placed in the middle. It was perfect!

The Zinn Education Project always exposes me to history that I never learned, which sets this background for me to be able to integrate it into what I’m already doing in the classroom.


Here are some main points of the session from the tweet thread by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, high school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member.




Here are many of the lessons, books, articles, and more recommended by the presenters and also by participants.

Lessons and Curricula

Teaching a People's History of Abolition and the Civil War (Book) | Zinn Education Project

40 Acres and a Mule: Role-Playing What Reconstruction Could Have Been by Adam Sanchez (lesson)

The Color Line by Bill Bigelow (lesson)

How to Make Amends: A Lesson on Reparations by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, Alex Stegner, Chris Buehler, Angela DiPasquale, and Tom McKenna (lesson)

Repair: Students Design a Reparations Bill by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (lesson)

Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War edited by Adam Sanchez (teaching guide)

Related Books

I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land by Alaina Roberts (University of Pennsylvania Press)

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press)

I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction by Kidada E. Williams (Bloomsbury Publishing; expected release date of January 2023)

Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Brandy Colbert (Balzer & Bray/Harperteen)

Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo (Amistad)

The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha (Yale University Press)

Related Articles and Resources

Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction report (with an Oklahoma vignette featuring Dr. Roberts’ book).

Dawes Rolls from the National Archives
The Dawes Rolls, or the “Final Rolls,” are the lists of individuals who were accepted as eligible for tribal membership in the “Five Civilized Tribes.”

This Land podcast on Crooked Media
How a string of custody battles over Native children became a federal lawsuit that threatens everything from tribal sovereignty to civil rights.

This Day In History

"Running the Negro out of Tulsa" | Zinn Education Project

May 23, 1838: The Trail of Tears Began

March 3, 1865: Freedmen’s Bureau Established

June 25, 1876: Battle of the Greasy Grass (Battle of Little Big Horn)

April 18, 1877: Nicodemus Town Company Founded

Feb. 20, 1884: Indian Industrial School Opens in Nebraska

Feb. 20, 1885: Black Town of Princeville, North Carolina Incorporated

May 31, 1921: Tulsa Massacre

Participant Reflections

What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today?

There was no one experience of enslavement.

Really appreciated the nuance around reparations — is it valid if it comes from a group other than the one that caused harm? How can they be framed (supported, hindered) when framed against systems of white supremacy?

The multilayered impact of the Dawes Act and possible framing within reparations discussion.

How the U.S. government used land during reparations to further divide Indigenous & Black solidarity was fascinating and disturbing.

I learned to look more closely at the ways in which People of Color have been brought together as well as torn apart by white supremacy through some tribes adoption or rejection of chattel slavery and Black/Indigenous solidarity through history!

The complexity of reparations when other people’s land becomes the compensation for a national tragedy.

I think it was powerful to learn how complex and nuanced the story of land and reparations and reconciliation is in the so-called U.S.

What will you do with what you learned?

I am rearranging so much furniture in my head right now. Know better, do better. I am really looking forward to applying more nuances to my Reconstruction lessons.

I will be forced to reconcile this important nuance in the teaching of the history of slavery in the U.S. with the general backlash against the teaching of “peoples history,” and will have to find creative ways to introduce this contentious reality without it being used to cause division or in bad faith attempts to discount the teaching of Black or Indigenous freedom struggles.

I’m a teacher of Georgia Studies/Georgia History. I plan to add these tidbits of wisdom to conversations we’ve already been having about Native Removal, the Maroon communities, as well as Black and Red Power Movements.

This will serve as a helpful foundation and background knowledge as we transition from the Harlem Renaissance Unit to reading Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink talking about Black success in Greenwood, Oklahoma and the Tulsa Race Massacre that followed.

I want to interweave this history into our study and work about indigenous people, but mostly it reminds me to continue to dig into history and find ALL the voices and perspectives. In many ways it teaches students to hold complexity.

I will be very selective of the resources that I use in class. It must be based on facts, not over generalized, and include perspectives that are historically suppressed.

I will bring the nuanced challenges of reparations model within Indian territory as an example of reparations for formerly enslaved people as students examine and design reparations proposals, as well as highlighting the distinct differences/separateness of the United States as distinct from Indian Territory and Indigenous tribal sovereign land, into my civics class. I am fascinated to learn more about the split in the Creek Nation over the issue of slavery. I will put more study and attention into the Black west, and I can’t wait to read Dr. Roberts’ book.


Alaina Roberts, the author of I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land, is an award-winning historian who studies the intersection of Black and Native American life from the Civil War to the modern day. She is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She writes, teaches, and presents about Black and Native history in the West, family history, slavery in the Five Tribes (the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Indian Nations), Native American enrollment politics, and Indigeneity in North America and across the globe.

Cierra Kaler-Jones is a social justice educator, writer, and researcher based in Washington, D.C. Her research explores how Black girls use arts-based practices as mechanisms for identity construction and resistance. She is the director of storytelling at the Communities for Just Schools Fund and on the leadership team of the Zinn Education Project.




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