Sometimes not being allowed to attend public school was a good thing for Native Americans

Part Two

In Part One, we described how thousands of Native Americans remained in the Southeastern United States after the tribal governments of several major tribes were forcibly marched to the Indian Territory, which is now the State of Oklahoma. The majority of these forgotten Native Americans lived in rural areas that were under British domain prior to the American Revolution. They lived outside of tribal boundaries, which were later ceded to the United States. In South Carolina several remnant tribes – mostly Creek, Uchee and Cusabo – were actually granted reservations by colonial authorities. They were not formally members of the Creek Confederacy and thus were not subject to any land cessions made by Confederacy leaders.

In the mid-1750s, my Creek and Uchee ancestors settled in Ruckers Bottom on the Savannah River near present-day Elberton, GA after smallpox and malaria epidemics decimated Native communities on the Lower Savannah River. When the large Creek town of Coweta defeated the entire Cherokee Nation in the autumn of 1754, the boundary between the Creeks and Cherokees reverted to what it had been in 1715 – the Tallulah and Hiwassee Rivers.

Both Georgia and South Carolina claimed what is now all of the State of Georgia from Macon northward. To help cement its claim, Georgia colonial authorities encouraged their allies, the Creeks and Uchees, to relocate from the Coastal Plain to Northeast Georgia. Families with mixed Creek and European spouses were also allowed to settle on Creek territory there. South Carolina did not do this, so even today there is a substantial population of people with Creek heritage in Hardeeville, SC, just north of Savannah, GA.

After the 1763 Treaty of Augusta, Royal Governor James Wright of Georgia constructed Fort James on a high ridge overlooking Ruckers Bottom. It was garrisoned by 50 mounted rangers, plus functioned as a trading post and a residence for Indian traders. Several of my Creek ancestors served as either rangers or scouts. Several of their sisters married white rangers. The Rangers adopted the traditional Creek deerskin hunting coat as their official uniform.

In 1776, without warning the Cherokees attacked frontier farmsteads in South Carolina and Georgia at the behest of the British Army. Georgia was generally indifferent to the revolutionary cause up till then and Wright was very popular. However, the Cherokees killed both White and Creek farm families without regard to their political attitudes. Instantly, the Upcountry became a hornets nest of revolt.

The Northeast Georgia Creeks joined the Patriot cause and the Royal British Rangers became the Patriot Rangers . . . driving the Cherokees back into North Carolina. Creek towns west of the Savannah River, who spoke a Maya dialect, Itsate, instead of Muskogee, invited white families, fleeing British-occupied areas, to settle with them. Thus, an attack on a Creek town would also be an attack on White families.

Later in the Revolution up until 1794, Upper Creeks, allied with the British, would occasionally attack White and Creek farmsteads in Northeast Georgia. The local Creeks manned the frontier forts along with their white neighbors and kin. This was the beginning of a permanent mixed-blood Creek community, north of Elberton, which continues to a certain extent today. However, generations of intermarriage have blurred the Creek physical features.

The future husband of Nancy Ward, Bryan Ward, was initially a ranger at Fort James, then became an Indian trader based there. The Cherokee version of Nancy’s life is pure fiction up to 1795. Nancy was born in the Itsate Creek village of Cho’i-te in the Nacoochee Valley, where Helen, GA is now located. After marrying Brian at age 16, she first lived at Fort James then on Ward Creek in the southern (Creek) portion of Stevens County, GA. She moved to Ocoee River in the Cherokee Nation

My grandmother Ruby thoroughly enjoyed her eight years at the Ruckersville Church School. It did not have any of the rigid military discipline, typical of government operated Indian schools. In addition to Bible-studies, history, reading, writing and arithmetic, the Methodist preacher’s wife taught the girls how to sew brightly colored traditional Creek dresses. They also learned how to preserve foods, make pottery, weave cloth and paint water colors. Ruby was known throughout her life for the hand-painted post cards that she sent friends and relatives. She made all the colors from berries, flowers and colored clays.

Church-sponsored Indian schools

Until the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration, education in the rural South was generally of a very poor quality. Both White and Black teachers typically had only a two year (Normal School) education beyond high school. In fact, in many poor counties, teachers were only required to have a high school degree!

By the late 19th century, enlightened Whites realized that further economic advancement in the South would require that its Black and African-American populations become literate. Less enlightened Whites, who controlled the public schools, however, often did not provide schools for either minority. Segregation of races was mandated by state law, but certainly was NOT a case of “separate, but equal.”

Initially, African-American churches during Reconstruction started school for their youth, which were taught by the pastor and any other members, who happened to be literate. Later, city and county governments were pressured into building schools for “Colored Students Only.” Unless constructed by the Rosenwald Fund (see below) rural Coloreds Only schools tended to be ramshackle structures, staffed by teachers making 25-50% less than white teachers. As you can see below, the rural Whites Only schools in rural Georgia were not a whole lot better in the early 1900s.

The Rosenwald School project built more than 5,000 schools, shops, and teacher homes in the United States primarily for the education of African-American children in the South during the early 20th century. The project was the product of the partnership of Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish-American clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company and the African-American leader, educator, and philanthropist Booker T. Washington, who was president of the Tuskegee Institute.

This is the Whites Only school that my Grandpapa Obie attended for eight years. Remember he had blue eyes and just a farmer’s tan, so could get away with being labeled “White.” In that era, school attendance was not mandatory. The children of white sharecroppers and tenant farmers often skipped classes to work on the farm or else didn’t attend at all.

There is very little information on the church Indian schools in the Southeast. Most only existed from the 1890s to the late 1920s, when county governments began allowing American Indians to attend public schools. Some Southern counties, however, required them to attend “Colored” schools.

In 2011, I actually had a daylong date in Helen, GA and the Nacoochee Valley with a lady, who was part Creek herself and had been a member of Ruckersville Methodist growing up. She did not know that an Indian school had operated there. As you can see, she does not look as “Indian” as my family, but does have Creek facial features. She said that her father had black hair and tan skin, but her mother was a blond.

The church Indian schools utilized a college-educated preacher as its primary teacher and a church’s Sunday School facilities as its classrooms. Most were free or at least free, if the Native American family was a member of that church. Most of these schools also allowed white children in their church to attend the Indian school. Very often the quality of education would have been superior to that of a contemporary Whites Only school.

From talking to my Uncle Hal in the past, I learned that the Ruckersville Indian School had a special situation. Most of the church members in the early 20th century were part Native American. Unfortunately, the uppity Whites in Elberton would not let all of the kids in the church attend public schools. The rejected kids had black hair, brown eyes and tan skin, like my mother and I.

Rather than putting a stigma on some of their children by calling their school an “Indian School,” they called it “The Ruckersville Church School.” The minister had a Doctorate of Theology from Emory University. His wife had some sort of formal education in the arts and crafts. The students received the quality education that one might expect from a private school.

Members of the church and all American Indians could attend free. Non-members were charged a modest tuition, if there was space for them. All parents were encouraged to donate food, supplies or money to the school, if they could afford it. Thus, although theoretically discriminated against, my grandmother had a superior education . . . at least for the eight years that it was available to her.

The Time Machine

Two big treats for our readers!

I have discovered a 14 minute film of Bowman, Georgia and then new Bowman High School, made in 1938. That’s where my mother went to elementary and high school, plus where my grandparents lived after they moved off the farm in 1955. You will be amused how much the United States has changed since then. Great-aunt Maybelle is featured. She was a foxy, single young sweet thang then. I caught a glimpse of my mother waiting in line to board a school bus, but her face is not visible. I think that you will enjoy this trip back in time.

Movie – I’d Climb the Highest Mountain

Corra Harris was the first nationally recognized female writer from the South. She grew up in Ruckers Bottom and attended Ruckersville Methodist Church. She was also part Creek Indian, but never advertised the fact. At age 17 she got on a train and traveled northward to Clarkesville, GA where she married a Methodist minister in the Nacoochee Valley. His main church is the one in the painting above.

Corra recorded her experiences as a teenage bride in the mountains at the turn-of-the-century in the best-selling book, A Circuit Riders Wife . . . which in 1951 became the beloved movie, “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain.” It was filmed on site in the Nacoochee Valley. All of the buildings in the movie are still there, but the red clay roads of 1951 are now two and four lane state highways. The grist mill, where the young boy drowns is now a tourist attraction.

This movie is a very accurate portrayal of the times and the landscape of when my grandmother Ruby was growing up. It is truly a time, Gone With the Wind. Speaking of that book and movie. Corra Harris befriended its author, Margaret Mitchell. All of the characters of Gone with the Wind were based on weekend guests at Corra’s farm.

1 Comment

  1. I’d Climb the Highest Mountain. I’ll watch that soon. I only vaguely remember seeing it.

    It’s rare to see blacks set apart from African Americans, but all blacks in my family state they’re Americans, with some African ancestry. Some with very, very little African, but it’s still healthier to be black in the north than American Indian. Our education rose and fell on politics. The blight of Indian Carlyle School is something democrats try to downplay to their liberal constituents.

    From family who had spent time there, yes, there are about 2,000 unmarked graves of students who committed suicide or were claimed to be suicides, murdered by pedophile teachers and sadistic ones. Early on, Messianic Jews and churches taught our children, and did so very well, unlike Harvard, who Mohawk stated ruined young men. Churches and other religious bodies are supposed to take control of schools/shul (religious sanctuary) by colonial English law.

    Education was demanded of all peoples regardless of race and before the Civil War, all children had to attend school up to the 8th grade. If they wished to continue, they did so, but most were put to work. My mother, in the 40s, passed all exams need to become a teacher. She excelled in English, was close to the top of her class. And then turned down by democrats. Instead, like Nana, my Grandmother, she began to teach migrants to learn, and was very popular.

    Maybe why I don’t recall it too well is because of a cousin, Dad’s side, who was murdered at a gristmill. The miller had problems with thieves (before WWI) and saw someone in the gloom. Thinking it was a thief, he fired and killed a preteen boy, a Susquehannock, who was bringing half a sack of corn to be milled. Afraid of revenge-minded family, he tied rocks to the kid and sank him in the mill pond. You see, at that time, the mafias were horning in and always thought we would be easy. The German clubs and Jews warned them to lay off us. Brown lost ten men in that war. Genero lost perhaps fifteen and so on. Not that it helped against democrats and their bigoted laws. But, it sure helped keep the peace. niio

    Liked by 1 person

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