Did U.S. Supreme Court hide Black Wall Street in Muscogee?
By Eric Stradford, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired
AMWS March 1, 2021, Muscogee Creek Nation – President Joseph R. Biden has pledged to study reparations for African Americans. His administration seeks to HEAL THE SOUL OF AMERICA by holding his own government accountable. Among the stuff that needs “governmental accounting” is how much, to whom and for how long.
To fully grasp the severity of a 100-year-old case for reparations, one might backtrack from the two-day Tulsa “riot” of 1921, wondering how free Blacks ended up here in the first place.
J.B. Stradford was among the wealthiest businessmen on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. His father, Julius Caesar (J.C.), according to family accounts, was enslaved. J.C.’s owner, assumed to be white, never gave J.C. a last name. But, he could read. “During J.C.’s time in slavery, his owner’s daughter befriended him and taught him to read.”
Perhaps by coincidence or divine appointment, J.C. “adopted” the name Stradford after his escape to Stratford, Ontario. Reportedly, “J.C. forged a travel permission slip, signing his owner’s name, and escaped to Stratford, Ontario. Changing one letter, he adopted the surname of Stradford.” That assumption separates the literate J.C. from a lineage of enslaved Africans migrating with their “owners” along the infamous “Trail of Tears.”
The substitution of a D for a T has disenfranchised free Africans since before William Shakespear’s poetry made his birthplace internationally famous. By simply changing a letter, the entire lexicon inherited by America is itself subject to distrust. Words matter, and how they are spelled could make all the difference in property you thought you owned in a place that perhaps never existed.
The city in Oklahoma we know as Tulsa exists within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Tulsa was settled between 1828 and 1836 by the Lochapoka Band of Creek Native American tribe. The name "Loachapoka" means "turtle killing place" in Muskogee, with locha meaning "turtle" and poga meaning "killing place.
Unlike their immigrant “neighbors,” these indigenous “settlers” migrated from what we know to be Alabama. They packed everything including the African slaves they owned, and a set out on a forced march to a land of broken promises. In 1832, American “settlers” occupied Muscogee land, renaming it “Chambers” County, Alabama. The county seat, LaFayette was the birthplace of my mother, Alma Catherine Thomas Stradford, as well as heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis.
The territorial boundaries claimed as sovereign and controlled by the “Indian” nations living in what were then known as the “Indian” Territories—the portion of the early United States west of the Mississippi River not yet claimed or allotted to become Oklahoma—were fixed and determined by national treaties with the United States federal government. These recognized the tribal governments as dependent but internally sovereign, or autonomous nations under the sole jurisdiction of the United States federal government.
On July 9, 2020, the United States Supreme Court, for purposes of the Major Crimes Act, ruled that land throughout much of eastern Oklahoma reserved for the Creek Nation since the 19th century remains a Native American territory. That means the lawful jurisdiction for a major crime would be the Muscogee Creek Nation Supreme Court.
The “landmark” ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma arguably and residually upholds the sovereignty of the Creek nation. It establishes Tulsa, the Greenwood community, its census tracts and all its inhabitants within and under the protection of a sovereign nation.
That ruling means the attack on Black Wall Street was not just a race riot, but an act of war by citizens of the United States on citizens of a sovereign nation.
Up to now, African Americans, anchored by the Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, have maintained a presence in Greenwood. But, value and vision for Black Wall Street has wrestled in the rubble of yet another nightmare mislabeled as a dream deferred.
Prior to its statehood in 1907, about half of the land in Oklahoma in the east, including the Tulsa metro area today, had belonged to the Five Civilized Tribes. There had been several decades of warfare and conflict during the 19th century over these lands between the Native Americans and the United States, including the Trail of Tears.
One might note, that nowhere in the legend of black cowboys do we find them killing indigenous people – i.e. Indians.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation includes the Creek people and descendants of their African-descended slaves who were forced by the United States government to relocate from their ancestral homes in the Southeast to Indian Territory in the 1830s, during the Trail of Tears.
In 1833, the United States government made a treaty with the Muscogee (Creek) Indians, and conveyed a large part of the Indian Territory to the tribe. Unlike most treaties, the Creek obtained the land under fee simple title, rather than the federal government holding the land in trust for the tribe.
In 1866 the Creek tribe ceded the western half of the land to the United States and in 1872 the land was surveyed. The survey contained an error, and as a result, 5,575.57 acres of Creek land was turned over to the Sac and Fox tribe.
By 1906, the United States Congress passed the Oklahoma Enabling Act, which had been taken to disestablish the reservations, and enabling Oklahoma's statehood. The former reservation lands, those of the Five Civilized Tribes as well as the other tribes in the state, were allocated into areas by tribe that were given suzerainty governing rights to the tribe to handle internal matters for Native Americans within the boundaries, but otherwise the state retained jurisdiction for non-Native Americans and for all other purposes such as law enforcement and prosecution.
In 1924, Congress passed a law allowing the Creek Nation to sue the United States for compensation arising out of government misdeeds from a treaty, agreement, or law of the United States. The Creek Nation sued for compensation in the United States Court of Claims.
In the Court of Claims, the United States admitted that the Creek Nation was entitled to compensation, the disagreement was over the way that the damages would be calculated.
The United States want the damages to be fixed at the value of the property in 1873, the tribe wanted it to be the value of the land at the time that they filed suit. The Court of Claims ruled in favor of the tribe, setting the value at $30 per acre as the value in 1926.
McGirt v. Oklahoma was a landmark United States Supreme Court case which ruled that, as pertaining to the Major Crimes Act, much of the eastern portion of the state of Oklahoma remains as Native American lands of the prior Indian reservations of the Five Civilized Tribes, never disestablished by Congress as part of the Oklahoma Enabling Act of 1906. McGirt was related to Sharp v. Murphy, heard in the 2018–19 term on the same question but which was believed to be deadlocked due to Justice Neil Gorsuch's recusal; Gorsuch recused because he had prior judicial oversight of the case. Sharp was decided per curiam alongside McGirt.
Jonodev Chaudhuri, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said the decision is a huge win for Indian Country and a profoundly impactful day for the tribe. “Many folks are in tears,” said Chaudhuri, ambassador of the tribal nation. “Despite a history of many broken promises, as is true with many tribal nations, the citizens feel uplifted that for once the United States is being held to its promises.”
Chaudhuri said the decision provides jurisdictional clarity and that the tribe will continue to work to improve the health, safety and welfare of tribal members and non-tribal members alike. “Creek Nation has a long history of working with its local, state and federal partners to protect the interests of all people in its boundaries and the clarity brought by today’s positions will only enhance that,” he said.
The majority of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, also known as “American Indians” (including the numerous Creek and Cherokee settlers) came from the Southern states. During the Civil War, they largely favored the Confederacy, in part because the institution of slavery being common within the Five Civilized Tribes.