A mystery of ethnic identity

I’ll start this off with a quote about Native-American identity from the Web site for the Four Winds Tribe, the Louisiana Cherokee confederacy, which is based in DeRidder, La.:

“American Indians of western Louisiana agreed to publicly identify themselves appropriately, in 1995. These people had long been oppressed and out of fear of retaliation from the federal government had chosen to hide their true identities. Earlier there could be no public acknowledgement of their rich heritage.

“Those who owned land feared it would be taken from them if they admitted they were American Indian, so therefore, many many census records reflect the racial status as ‘White, Free Person of Color, Black or Free Person,’ obviously an incorrect category. These people were denied the right to be proud (publicly) of their roots. Several generations have been deprived of their human rights due to this extreme injustice.”

The quote addresses a theme that runs through Native-American history, a very tragic and heart-rending theme — that of the racial, ethnic and cultural identity of the American Indian. As I wrote in this post about Cyclone Joe Williams’ ethnic make-up, as well as this article I turned out about how Native-American baseball player Jim Toy, who spent virtually his entire life, and certainly his baseball career, “passing” as white.

The gist is very basic — life for many Native-Americans has historic been so difficult and rife with racial prejudice that Indians were frequently hiding their cultural roots from the public and “pass” for other races, even identifying as African-Americans, who as it was didn’t exactly have an easy row of it in American history.

Enter Wabishaw Spencer Wiley, a catcher for the legendary Lincoln Giants teams of the 1910s who served as the primary receiver for Williams and Dick Redding, among others all-time great black pitchers.

It’s thus an interesting quirk of baseball history that Hall of Famer Joe Williams, whose ethnic makeup walks the line between black and Indian, would form a battery with Wabishaw Wiley, a respected player of his era who would spend his entire life wavering between identifying as African-American and Native-American. Why would Wiley at times officially list himself as black while at other times calling himself Indian? Because, as several other cases in baseball history illustrate, American citizens were frequently better off identifying as something they, in reality, weren’t.

Wiley is a perfect example of such hindsight-derived public confusion. In essence, was this man who played in black baseball during the pre-Negro Leagues era African-American, or was he Native-American?

In some official documents, such as the 1910 and 1920 Censuses, Wiley described himself as “mulatto.” On other forms, like the 1940 Census, he states that he’s “Indian.” And on still other forms, like the 1930 Census and his World War I draft card, he called himself “Negro” or “African.”

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Tied up in his racial birth identity is the issue of where and when he was born. Many documents state that he was from Oklahoma — Muskogee, to be precise — but a few others say he was from Louisiana, a fact that makes me even more interested in his case, given my affinity for Louisiana black baseball.

Take, for example, Wiley’s WWI draft card, which states that he was born in “Vernon, “La.,” and the 1910 Census — at the time he’s a student at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, Ark. — lists him as a native Louisianian.

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Now, there isn’t a town or similar municipality in Louisiana named Vernon, but there is a Vernon Parish. Today, Vernon Parish is best known as the home of the Army’s massive Fort Polk. But it’s also part of the region that, in history, served as the hone of a significant Native-American population — like, for example, the Four Winds Confederacy discussed at the start of this post.

The area that now comprises Vernon Parish, as well as a handful of other modern parishes, was frequently a sort of way station for Native-Americans from the southeastern U.S. as they migrated — once in a while voluntarily, but much more often forced to do so by our own government — from their ancestral homelands to the lower Midwestern states, particularly Oklahoma. However, there were also several tribes who were from western Louisiana historically as well.

So, if Wabishaw Wiley was, in fact, Louisianian by birth, there’s a decent chance that he could have been Native-American. There’s other (admittedly quite circumstantial) evidence, such as the presence in past Census records of Wiley families scattered throughout Vernon and its neighboring parishes, and the fact that several turn-of-the-century federal tribal rolls include a bunch of Wileys (as well as Wylys).

And of course, if Wiley was born in Oklahoma, where today thousands of citizens of indigenous descent live on reservations and in other communities thanks to the aforementioned forced relocation, there’s possibly an even better chance that Wiley was Indian, mixed-race or a free person of color living among native tribes.

In a future post, I’ll try to go into detail about Wabishaw Wiley’s life, especially his second career as a much-honored dentist, and his roots, both geographic and ethnic.

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One thought on “A mystery of ethnic identity

  1. Pingback: More on Wabishaw Wiley … and more mystery? | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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