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Descendants of Blacks enslaved by indigenous people push back against renaming Columbus Day at county hearing

Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore said Monday that before a vote can be taken on changing the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, tribes should “acknowledge their role in the rich history of Black slaves.”

Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore
Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore wants the Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations committee to delay a vote on a resolution to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore said Monday that before a vote can be taken on whether the county should change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, major tribes in the U.S. should “acknowledge their role in the rich history of Black slaves.”

Moore, who said he is a direct descendant of a Choctaw Freedman, said tribes have unfairly denied descendants full tribal membership — and are excluding them from such benefits as education and housing assistance and casino profits.

“They are discriminating against us, and if they do not want to recognize the Freedmen and their descendants, they should no longer accept nor receive federal taxpayers’ dollars based upon the census population of the Freedman,” Moore said in a statement.

Moore’s remarks came as the Cook County Board debated a resolution Monday on changing the October holiday.

Opponents, including members of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans, feared that renaming the holiday would hinder an annual celebration of Italian-American culture. Others supported an Indigenous Peoples’ Day but one that did not interfere with Columbus Day.

Chicago Teachers Union Chief of Staff Jane Johnson, a former Chicago Public Schools history teacher, commended CPS’ earlier decision to change its calendar in speaking in favor of the county change.

“It sends a powerful signal that we don’t celebrate an individual responsible for genocide conquest slavery and rape,” she said. “It’s time to undo the damage.”

Moore said his push to delay the committee vote is “personal and has nothing to do with Columbus Day.” His great-great-grandfather was Alford Trotter who was a Black Choctaw whose family were slaves to the Choctaw Nation.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee [Creek] and Seminole nations were referred to historically as the Five Civilized Tribes, or Five Tribes, by European settlers because they often assimilated into the settlers’ culture, adopting their style of dress and religion, and even owning slaves. Each tribe also has a unique history with Freedmen, whose rights were ultimately spelled out in separate treaties with the U.S.

Today, the Cherokee Nation is the only tribe that fully recognizes the Freedmen as full citizens, a decision that came in 2017 after years of legal wrangling.

“It’s very hurtful and personal for me that when I look up my great-great-grandfather’s name ... and see his name with the word ‘denied’ next to it,” Moore said.

Other descendants of Freedmen, mostly from Oklahoma, attended the meeting virtually and proposed postponing the vote. Many told their ancestors’ histories and their own encounters with racism perpetuated by their tribes.

“I am extremely sensitive to the horrific treatment of indigenous people. In fact, Columbus himself is a powerful sign of white supremacy,” said Kristi Williams, a Creek Freedmen descendant and committee member for the Greater Tulsa African-American Affairs Commission. “But how can I be in support of commemorating the history and culture of my ancestors' slave master?”

“We have an opportunity today to put a spotlight on the injustice that is happening to our brothers and our sisters,” Moore said. “We will not stop until all the Five Civilized Tribes honor the sacrifices of their black slaves. ... If we decide that it’s more important that Black Freedmen lives do not matter, and I will have to urge a ‘no’ vote.”

No action was taken by the board Monday. The committee aims to vote on the proposed resolution on June 23.

Contributing: AP