February 02, 2012

"The Dead Call Us To Remember": Illuminating the Lives of Enslaved Blacks among the Cherokees

by Tiya Miles

The purpose of this booklet is to illuminate, commemorate, and contextualize the lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans who labored on the Vann plantation in the Cherokee Nation. The larger goal is to contribute to the public history mission of the Chief Vann House historic site.

In an essay titled "Revolutionary 'Renegades': Native Americans, African Americans, and Black Indians," scholar bell hooks argues that the conjoined history of African Americans and Native Americans has long been suppressed in the United States. Hooks attributes this suppression to a national practice of separating racial groups from one another and structuring those groups into a hierarchy of relative power and regard, with white Americans placed at the top and Indians and blacks placed at the bottom. Hooks insists that in order to challenge unjust racial hierarchies and to honor those whose lives have been forgotten, we must recover these lost histories.

"The dead call us to remember" the buried stories of our past, hooks urges (180). And in recent years, scholars and community groups have responded to this call, taking up the subject of black and Native interrelated histories and cultures — thereby reconstructing what historian Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, has called, "one of the longest unwritten chapters of the history of the United States" (Woodson 45).

The Chief Vann House State Historic Site, operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, offers a rare opportunity for the exploration of African American life among American Indians. James Vann was a wealthy businessman of Cherokee and Scottish parentage who, in 1804, built a plantation called Diamond Hill in present-day northwest Georgia. Vann and his heir possessed over 100 of the 583 black slaves owned by Cherokees in the first four decades of the 19th century (Norton 60; McLoughlin, Ghost Dance 234, 240).

The Vann home has been restored by local preservationists and state officials and is open to the public for guided tours and organized community events. In July 2002, the Vann House was augmented by the opening of a visitor's center and museum, including a permanent exhibit and documentary film. Because James Vann allowed Moravians (a German-speaking Protestant denomination) to operate a mission on his land, a detailed record of life on the Vann plantation exists in the form of missionary diaries and letters.

It is in this context that an undergraduate class titled "Blacks, Indians, and the Making of America" at the University of Michigan set out to increase awareness of African American history at this historic site. Nearly 30 students from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds researched the history of the Vann plantation, relying on sources ranging from Moravian missionary diaries to Works Progress Administration narratives of former slaves of Indians, including classic secondary sources on slavery in the Cherokee Nation by scholars such as Theda Perdue, William McLoughlin, and Rudi Halliburton.

Students shared their research findings with the class, and then wrote individual papers on their topics. The papers were edited, shortened, combined, and compiled by a team of African American and Native American students.

Students in this course were passionate about their projects and deeply serious about the topics and questions they explored. The student authors crafted the essays in this booklet with care, and the editors worked diligently to identify and correct mistakes. Errors or gaps in information are inevitable, however, especially in a project like this one. We encourage readers to refer to the partial bibliography of scholarly publications at the end of this booklet for further learning.

With permission from Tiya Miles, University of Michigan, 2006.

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is Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor of African American Women's History and Chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is also a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and author of The Ties That Bind.