Pitt Magazine

Alaina Roberts’ book takes a fresh look at freedom in the American West

Roberts sits holding her book at the end of two library stacks
"I tell this story, a unification of Black, Native and white narratives, not only as a historian but also as a descendant," writes Alaina Roberts in her book, "I've Been Here All the While." Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/Pitt Photography

For about a decade, Josie Jackson regularly made an arduous journey.

She grew up in the mid-1800s in an all-Black town in Chickasaw Nation, a still sovereign Indian territory on land that would later become the state of Oklahoma. As a young mother determined to support her child, she found work as a domestic servant in a Texas town 120 miles from everything she knew. So she traveled back home whenever she could, either by stagecoach or walking.

Jackson returned repeatedly to her Chickasaw town not only to support her daughter but also because she felt a keen sense of belonging there — a sense of belonging rooted in an often overlooked part of American history.

Award-winning University of Pittsburgh history scholar Alaina Roberts shares Jackson’s story and others like it in her book, “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land” (University of Pennsylvania Press). By doing so, she illuminates the humanity behind the complicated settlement practices of Black, Native American and white people in the American West.

Roberts delves into Jackson’s life and legacy as a part-Black, part-European woman who was also a descendent of the Chickasaw, the Indigenous people who had once enslaved her and her Black ancestors. She was part of a group known as Indian freedpeople, a term used to distinguish them from people of African descent in the United States who were emancipated by the 13th Amendment. Because Jackson was a citizen of a sovereign Indian territory, the Emancipation Proclamation did not liberate her. It would take separate Indian treaties and laws to free the Africans enslaved by Native people. Even so, she felt a kinship to Chickasaw country and would eventually successfully argue for an allotment of land there.

Jackson’s story holds special significance for Roberts. It opens a window into an under-recognized part of U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction era history and its intersection with the racial politics of western expansion. But there’s a personal connection, too: Jackson was Roberts’ great-great-grandmother.

“I tell this story, a unification of Black, Native and white narratives, not only as a historian but also as a descendant of all four peoples: white settlers, Indian freedpeople, African Americans from the United States and Native members of tribal nations,” writes the associate professor in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

It took Roberts a while to attach herself to these stories, however. Growing up in Northern California, she was interested in history, but knew very little of her family’s connections to Native people, western expansion and the American story.

“My perspective as their descendant has helped me to see how their freedoms and opportunities were begotten by impeding the freedoms and opportunities of others.”

She was a sophomore at University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in history, when a professor’s assignment on race and creating a family tree launched her quest and her discovery.

Her research took her to the National Archives and to the Oklahoma Historical Society, where she examined tribal, federal and state documents on Native people. She also met with family in Oklahoma to collect oral histories — contributions she found just as valuable as the archival material.

The result of the following years of research is “I’ve Been Here All the While,” a book that has been described as a “lovingly personal narrative” by the Journal of Southern History and “a well-timed and welcome read [that is] hard to put down” by the Journal of African American Studies. It’s been awarded the Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize by the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as well as the Western History Association’s John C. Ewers Award and W. Turrentine Jackson Book Prize.

In it, Roberts outlines how Native nations in the Southern U.S. were forced off their homelands and pushed west to settle in what became known as Indian Territory and eventually the state of Oklahoma. This forced exodus of the People of the Five Tribes — the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — became known as the Trail of Tears, a journey marked by death, hunger and disease. Roberts highlights that captive Africans, enslaved by the Native peoples, marched the Trial of Tears, too.

The Five Tribes found U.S. assistance for settling in the West and redeveloping its land by assimilating into the American anti-Black labor system, Roberts explains, which supported African enslavement as a marker of being “civilized.” Their investment in slavery allowed some of the most influential members of these tribes to increase their wealth and maintain their participation in the cotton economy,.

“I’ve Been Here All the While,” focuses on the Black experiences with western expansion and grapples with some tough questions about how the oppressed can end up the oppressor.

For example, Jackson and other Indian freedpeople received their land allotments, but where did the land come from? Who gave it to the Five Tribes as communal holdings, and who lived on it before the Five Tribes settled there after the Trail of Tears?

Roberts argues the landownership of her great-great-grandmother and other Indian freedpeople came at the cost of becoming part of the larger turn-of-the-century dispossession of Native nations across the West.

“My perspective as their descendant,” she writes, “has helped me to see how their freedoms and opportunities were begotten by impeding the freedoms and opportunities of others.”

Equally troublesome, she argues, is the underlining narrative of the U.S. project to eradicate the sovereignty of Native American nations and force Native people into living like white Americans.

“It’s also important to acknowledge,” she says, “that when Oklahoma became a state, it changed a lot of the opportunities available to the Black people in those nations because they were no longer under Indian jurisdiction.”

Black people couldn't vote in the same way. There was lynching and other acts of pervasive racial violence that were not present before this space became the state of Oklahoma. The influx of white Americans brought with it an influx of anti-Black ideas — prejudices that would go on to ignite events like the Tulsa Race Massacre, the 1921 two-day white supremacist riot that destroyed the affluent Black neighborhood of Greenwood and led to up to 300 deaths. Robert delves into this history, too.

Overall, says Roberts, her book provides an opportunity to reexamine “western spaces as important spaces in which the convergence of race, belonging and citizenship are unfolding and are parallel and connected to the sociopolitical realities in the United States.”

So, while this book is about Roberts’ great-great-grandmother Jackson, it is also about “freedom, about hopes — both dashed and realized — and about identity. It about the history of the American West.”