The annual McPherson-Mitchell Lecture in Southern History on Thursday, Jan. 19, focused on the importance of education to a Native American tribe in Alabama and their struggle for equal educational and civil rights.
Dr. Deidra Suwanee Dees, tribal archivist for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and director of the tribe’s Office of Archives and Records Management in Atmore, Alabama, spoke to students, faculty and staff at TROY about the Muscogee Education Movement that took place from the 1920s to the 1940s.
From a young age, Dees’ father instilled in her the importance of the education that he was denied.
“If you come from a family that didn’t get to have an education, go as far as you can go,” she said. “Kick that door down.”
After gaining a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Alabama and a master’s degree from Cornell University, she decided to pursue a doctorate degree in cross-cultural education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Now an expert in Native American studies, she returned home and began tracing the history of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians through recorded documents in their tribal archives and found a hard-fought journey for equality dating back to the late 1700s.
Dees said that the Muscogee Education Movement was born in oppression through fear, a cycle of poverty and rampant crimes against the tribe.
“A lot of the traditional people were targeted for removal, targeted for extinction and targeted to be killed,” she said.
Through government intervention and creative ways of self-defense, like putting sugar in the gas tanks of those who came to their homes to cause harm and calling the men’s wives to come pick them up, the tribe eventually settled into a sense of peace; however, they were still denied access to schools in the area.
A collective sense of community and a strong belief in justice spurred tribal elders and parents of the children who were refused an education to seek political action, despite the lack of any civil rights laws during this time.
“Chief [Calvin] McGhee filed a lawsuit against the Escambia County Board of Education,” she said. “He couldn’t file one for segregated schools because there were no laws on the books, but he did file one for discrimination about not giving children bus service.”
The documents Dees studied revealed a bond with Episcopalian church leaders, a positive force behind the Education Movement who also helped to develop the first Creek Indian School-Church.
“What he [the Rev. Calvin Edwards] did for the community has lasting impressions today,” she said.
The McPherson-Mitchell Lecture is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences through the History Department and by the Phi Alpha Theta honor society to honor professors Dr. Milton McPherson and Dr. Norma Taylor who taught at TROY from 1968 to 1989 and from 1979 to 1999.