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Fay Yarbrough: Expert in Cherokee History Happy to Be at UK

by Jeff Worley
Photo by Alicia Gregory

Asked how and why she came to the University of Kentucky, Fay Yarbrough doesn't hesitate. "Bill Freehling is to blame for it," she says with an ironic smile. "I met him at the Historical Society conference when I was a grad student at Emory. He asked me to tell him what I was working on. He was really interested, and invited me to come to UK and give a lecture. Who wouldn't, as a grad student, jump at the chance—some well-known professional wanted to hear what I was working on!"

Photo of Fay Yarbrough"I knew after talking to Fay for five minutes that we had to have her," says Freehling, co-holder of the Singletary Endowed Chair in the Humanities at UK. "First of all, she had a rare clarity in talking about her area of interest, which, traditionally, has rarely combined black and native American history in important ways. Secondly, she had a rare freshness and charm about her, and total self confidence without a wisp of arrogance. What a hire she was!" Freeling, a full professor of history, is an expert in 19th-century American history and the Antebellum South.

So as a grad student, Yarbrough came to UK, gave a talk on marriage law and identity in the 19th-century Cherokee Nation ("I think it went really well"), and in 2003 graduated from Emory University with a Ph.D. Heavily recruited by UK, she joined the faculty in the fall of 2003 as an assistant professor.

Yarbrough says her interest in Cherokee history was an unexpected accident. She had gone to Emory in the first place, she explains, to study African-American women under the tutelage of the well-known scholar and writer Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, the Eléonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory. For a paper she needed to write in one of her other classes, Yarbrough settled on the topic of interracial sex from the perspective of slaves, and the research and writing that followed put Yarbrough on an unexpectedly new academic path.

"How did the bi-racial sons and daughters of slaves feel? We have traditionally gotten these accounts from only the perspective of the white person," Yarbrough says. Her first challenge in writing such a paper was to find the raw material to work from. She relied heavily on Works Progress Administration narratives from the 1930s, the result of interviews of former slaves.

"When most people hear about WPA work, they think strictly about the public highways, schools and parks built by people who were out of work. But there were also a lot of out-of-work authors. So the government, realizing that the ex-slaves were getting pretty old, had these authors talk to them and ask them about their lives under slavery," Yarbrough explains, adding, "Lucky for us—how would any of these experiences been preserved otherwise?

"In reading these accounts, I kept hearing the ex-slaves say, 'Oh, I'm part Indian. I'm part Cherokee, part Choctaw.' This really sparked my interest in American Indian history. I wanted to bring to the forefront voices and perspectives you rarely hear." Yarbrough has focused her subsequent studies on the Cherokee, in part because this group wrote down so much of their history in the 19th century, and a lot of it in English.

In her research, the issue of slavery was paramount: What was the connection between and among whites, blacks and Indians?

"Early in our country's history, whites owned Indian slaves, but by the end of the 18th century, whites decided that having Indian slaves wasn't such a good idea," Yarbrough explains. "They would run away too often, for one thing, and they knew where to run away—they knew the land. Also they had people who helped them get away." She stresses that when whites dropped the practice of having Indian slaves, this wasn't a decision based on morality; owning Indian slaves just wasn't practical. Another insight Yarbrough gained through her research was that many Indian groups in the 1800s owned black slaves. "The Cherokee, the Creek, the Seminoles, Choctaw, and Chickasaw owned slaves. One reason they did this was purely economical. Some Indian groups had large, profitable Southern plantations and needed labor. A second reason was to send a strong, strategic message to whites: we're free like you, we can own slaves just as any free people can," she says.

"These tribes wanted to sharply demarcate the line between blacks and themselves," Yarbrough explains, "which is a central argument I make in my manuscript [titled "Those Disgracefull and Unnatural Matches": Interracial Sex and Cherokee Society in the Nineteenth Century]. The Indians had a very clear understanding of their precarious position. They kept getting pushed further west, and treaty obligations with the U.S. weren't being honored. The message to whites was: 'You should treat us like the peer group we are.'"

The Cherokee played this note long and loud, she says, in an attempt to coexist with whites. What many people don't realize now, Yarbrough says, is that the Cherokee Nation was a sovereign nation. It wrote its own constitution, had its own government, legal system, and judges. Like the United States, the Cherokee Nation had three branches of government: a chief instead of president; a council instead of Congress; and a judiciary divided into district courts and a supreme court. "The Cherokee, in the early 19th century, did everything they could to establish themselves legally in ways the United States would recognize," Yarbrough says.

"The Cherokee printed their own newspaper, which did exactly what other contemporary newspapers did," she continues. "Their papers included sections of news from abroad, recipes, little treatises on good manners, how children should behave, and so forth. They even put part of it in Cherokee and part in English, to also appeal to American readers." She says that these newspapers were prevalent from the 1820s, when the Cherokee were still occupying parts of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, until 1838, when the Indians were pushed along the Trail of Tears into Indian Territory, present-day eastern Oklahoma.

Although it's clear Yarbrough is excited about her work in this area—she's downright effusive when she talks with you about it—she says that some of her findings don't always play too well in social situations.

"I think any time you're talking about race, it's hard. People have such strong reactions. I was at a dinner party last week, for example, where an African American who knows the work I do said, 'My family is part Cherokee.' And he asked me questions about my research, and I had to say at some point, 'Well, you know the Cherokees were slave holders.' That didn't go over too well."

Yarbrough goes on to say that it's not only this unexpected and racially charged fact that tends to aggravate someone; it's also the fact that she's shattering a myth. "There's the myth that the Indians always helped the slaves, helped them run away, that they saw each others as equals, both as oppressed. That all of their relationships were consensual, and here I am disrupting that. A lot of people want the world to be simple, and it's not."

Yarbrough says that what continues to excite her most about her scholarship is that it resonates so well today. "What's exciting are these connections between the past and what's happening now. The slaves' stories are so alive even though they're 150 years old. Mostly this is true, I think, because a lot of these issues haven't been resolved. We still can't agree how to filtrate the fact of racial difference in this country, how to think about and treat people racially different from ourselves.