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seminolewar


1976 Tampa Times articles on eastern Creek Indians, part 2

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A few years ago I posted a series of articles from the now-defunct Tampa Times newspaper, about the strange genesis of the very odd eastern Creek Indian groups. With some of these groups once again seeking federal recognition, I think it is time again to bring these articles to light, and be reminded of who these people are. In my opinion, none are worthy of federal recognition.

The T-Times newspaper no longer exists, and the rolls of microfilm of their back issues were tossed in the dump, so it is almost impossible to find a copy of their paper from the past. Libraries do not even have it in their archive collection. I have reprinted the articles here, and recently came across another Xerox copy of the articles, so I am adding the photos.

I would encourage anyone to follow their ancestor’s culture and family traditions, but these groups are not even doing that—they are just making it up. And there are traditional families who carry on the old ways and traditions, but interestingly enough they are not seeking federal recognition and just want to be left alone.

The Tampa Times

Monday, October 18, 1976

Illiterate Alabama dirt farmer led Creeks in struggle to find and restore their heritage


Tampa Times photos_0002

Movement’s founder

The Martin Luther King and founder of the modern Creek movement—Calvin McGhee—decided in 1947 that the shabby school provided his people was intolerable. He started a campaign that snowballed into a far-reaching civil rights movement. The unsung dirt farmer died in 1970, but the crusade he started is stronger than ever.

Calvin McGhee's battle for recognition made the Creeks in Alabama feel like a tribe again. His movement spread to Florida and Georgia and encouraged other eastern tribes to rise up.

The birth of the modern Creek nation east of the Mississippi began in 1947 when a blue-eyed, charismatic Alabama dirt farmer decided he would no longer abide the ramshackle wood-frame schoolhouse provided for the children of his Creek community.

The far-flung movement that followed the first campaign of Calvin McGhee—the Martin Luther King of the modern Creek nation—was fed by the 1960s civil rights crusades. But he started with the schoolhouse issue almost 10 years before the 1954 civil rights decision that triggered the cause of black rights.

McGhee emerged after World War II as a leader in the Creek community of Poarch, Ala., near Atmore. Poarch had grown from a dozen or so Creeks who helped Andrew Jackson in his war against the tribe, and who were allowed to stay on their land.

By the 20th century, the Poarch Creek mixed-bloods no longer spoke their native tongue and lost most of the Creek religions and cultural tradition but were considered Indian enough to be excluded from Atmore’s white schools, shops and restaurants.

In McGhee's time, most of the Poarch Creeks, who farmed at home and were at times migrant fruit pickers to supplement heir income, were illiterate. On Saturday when they went to the nearby city of Atmore to buy goods, they had to stay on a certain street.

For a Creek elementary school, local officials provided only a shanty and a teacher’s salary. That was the limit of the Creeks' education. Creek children in outlying communities, who lived closer to Atmore than to Poarch, were bused to Poarch for classes.

Disgusted at the lack of response to Creek pleas for adequate education, McGhee filed suit against the school board in 1947. Before the suit was resolved, the school board relented and built a modern classroom. Poarch elementary school graduates were given the right to ride the bus into Atmore, and, for the first time, to attend high school.

The settlement was a compromise, for the school board originally offered to let McGhee's children attend their white schools if the tenacious little farmer would drop the matter—a suggestion he angrily rejected.
Before McGhee, most Alabama Creeks were indifferent to their ancestry. But this near-illiterate crusader, whose education ended at third grade, didn't stop with the issue of equal education but set a goal of redress from the federal government for protracted wrongs.

During his struggle, the Creeks in Alabama began to feel like a tribe again, and his movement spread to Florida and Georgia and encouraged descendants of other eastern tribes to rise up and be recognized again.
He formed Creek political organizations and had Creeks registered to vote, and soon ambitious Alabama politicians scrambled to have their pictures taken with the newly renowned Indian leader.

“Before Calvin, we weren't overlooked at the state level because we were Indian,” recalls Buford Rolin, now a 36-year old Pensacola office worker who attended the old segregated Poarch school. “It was because they didn't know we were there.”

To better remind them, Calvin bowed to a Hollywood stereotype and showcased himself in Plains Indian gear of buckskin and long feather headdresses—the only attire many Americans to this day recognize as Indian. The dress was a far cry from the traditional Creek trappings, which consisted of little more than Spanish moss skirt for women and plain vanilla loincloth for men. But the Plains Indian costume was definitely more photogenic.

By 1950, McGhee was ready to launch his second campaign—a legal battle seeking payment for millions of Creek acres taken during the 1830’s removal. Creek descendants from all over Alabama held a mass meeting and officially organized as a tribe again, with Calvin their leader. During his election, Calvin was in Frostproof, [Florida] picking oranges to make ends meat.

The eastern Creeks discovered that their Oklahoma cousins, whom they hadn't seen since their removal in 1836, had already filed such a multimillion dollar claim. Alabama’s Creeks, claiming to represent all descendants of their tribe east of the Mississippi, petitioned the new Indians Claims Commission to join the Oklahoma Creeks’ suit.

The commission refused, saying there were no Creeks left east of the Mississippi. The U.S. Court of Claims a year later disagreed and ordered the commission to let Calvin’s Creeks share in whatever award was made.
The issue finally came up for a commission vote in 1962. A confident Calvin stepped before the skeptical commission and, by using a Biblical allegory he had to memorize to be able to read, reminded the commissioners that the Creeks had once been a mighty empire of 55 towns before the Americans destroyed their way of life.
Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged Jerusalem and carried off most of the Jews. When the Jews finally returned, the tiny band of their brethren who escaped removal had built up Jerusalem’s walls again, McGhee related to the commission.

“We’re been building the walls of the Creek nation back up,” he said, and the commission’s opposition melted.
Lenore Thompson, at 70 still a busy lawyer in Bay Minette, Ala., interrupted a thriving law career in 1947 to work for McGhee’s penniless band because of ancestral guilt.

His great-grandfather commanded a Georgia militia group in the 1800s that was formed to push Creeks off their land. “I felt someone in my lineage ought to do something for them,” Thompson said.

Times have changed, and now the white businessmen of Atmore are eager to attract tourists by Creek museums and the like. For a long time after Calvin’s suit against the school board, “merchants would stand with their backs to me on the streets,” Thompson said.

Calvin, who died in 1970, never lived to see the $112 checks the Creek descendants received in 1972 from his victory before the Indian Claims commission. But his friends and relatives in Poarch were now getting high school diplomas, working in Atmore's carpet and lingerie factories, and trading their rotting shacks for brick houses.
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