When I ascended to the top floor of the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Five Points, I had the Western Legacies gallery all to myself, except for the voices (1) talking about the Black Seminoles in a video and (2) greeting customers entering a barbershop run by a black resident of Denver.Blair Caldwell Library museum barber Denver Sep 2009

Despite the competing recordings, I lingered in the exhibit for the barbershop. The mirrors (not shown in the photograph) magnified the space, and there was something elegiac about the chair sitting there empty.

The exhibit honors Robert Smith, an early Denver barber who freed his family from slavery and brought them West. His son followed in his footsteps as a barber in Denver, one of the independent occupations open to black men in the first part of the twentieth century.

Next to that room is another, smaller room describing the career of James Presley Ball, “one of the earliest and most accomplished African American photographers of the 19th century.”

There is so much more than these two rooms I’ve described. I have to confess I spent so much time in that part of the museum that I didn’t have the energy to explore the rest in any detail. Here are a few things I learned while watching the video about the Black Seminoles:

  • They were slaves who escaped to Seminole territory in Florida and lived among the Seminole Indians in separate villages.
  • The Seminoles comprised members of such southeastern tribes as the Muscogee Creek, Miccosukee, and Apalachicola.
  • Describing the status of Black Seminoles is complicated, because some of the Indians in Florida owned slaves, but their concept of slavery was generally less draconian than that practiced in the British colonies.
  • The Seminoles were expelled from Florida in 1838 and embarked on the Trail of Tears, which led to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Black Seminoles who survived were threatened with slavery once again. In the 1840s, a few Seminoles escaped to Mexico, where the government employed them as militia fighting, ironically enough, the Indians.
  • In the 1870s, the US government employed Black Seminoles as army scouts in the Texas Indian wars. Many eventually settled in Brackettville, Texas.
  • Recently, the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma decided to exclude the Black Seminoles (called Seminole Freedmen) from membership, thus denying the Freedmen any share of the compensation the US government gave the tribe for its expulsion from Florida.
  • Nowadays Black Seminoles live from Oklahoma to Texas to Mexico to Florida to Andros Island in the Bahamas.

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