Vintage photograph depicting Gladios Louisa Baldridge wearing a pink hat and fur stole.

OPINION | How My Black and Indigenous Ancestry Guides My Perception of Generational Wealth

by Lauryn Bray

When I was 18, my grandfather told me that in 1936, the U.S. government cut a check to my great-grandmother for $2,000 and took her land in Oklahoma. She had inherited a farmhouse that sat on several acres. This property had been in my family for decades, and from what I understand, it did not go willingly. $2,000 in 1936 — when my great-grandmother would have had custody of this property — is worth about $42,879 now. Needless to say, she was ripped off.

My great-grandmother’s name was Gladios Louisa Baldridge. She was a fair-skinned woman with white hair. I only knew her as Great Nanny Gladys, a sweet and small old lady with an even smaller voice. Despite her stature, her presence filled the whole room. She was regal, and my grandfather worshiped her. 

Gladios Louisa Baldridge. (Photo: Paul Dean McLemore, Sr., courtesy of Lauryn Bray.)

Great Nanny Gladys was born on Oct. 16, 1916. Not only was she a descendant of slaves, but her ancestry had roots in both the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes. Her father, John Baldridge, is listed under the Dawes Rolls, a census conducted from 1898 to 1914 that determined tribal membership for the Five Tribes, as a Cherokee Freedman. He was listed at the age of 15. 

The Cherokee Freedmen are descendants of slaves who married members of the Cherokee tribe. John’s mother, Nancy Baldridge, was born Nancy Barlow. His father was Jack Talawka Baldridge. Jack’s parents were Talawka Baldridge and Lettie Vann. Nancy’s father was John Makwetho Barlow, a mestizo Mexican who emigrated to the U.S. and married into the Shawnee Tribe. He was enlisted in Company C of the 13th Regiment of the Kansas Militia, a group of all Shawnee men who fought for the Union during the Civil War. He fought from April 1861 to June 1865 and went on to achieve the rank of corporal. John Baldridge was most likely named after him. Before Gladys died in 2007, the Shawnee Tribe held a ceremony naming her the matriarch of our family and recognizing her as the last living Baldridge. She lived to be 91 years old.

The Dawes Rolls were conducted to determine which Natives were entitled to which benefits. Although Black Cherokees were just as entitled to benefits from the U.S. government as full-blooded Cherokees, they were deliberately listed as Cherokee Freedmen to distinguish them from full-blooded Cherokees and limit their benefits. Both the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation did not want Black people to receive benefits under the Dawes Act. It is unknown if my great-grandmother’s land was given to my family through the Dawes Act of 1887, but it is possible. Regardless, due to her inability to keep up with the rising property taxes and her inability to work the arid land, she was forced to sell the property to the U.S. government. Unfortunately, this was the case for many Natives who were allotted land through this act. 

Additionally, the Dawes Rolls is the origin of the term “$5 Indians” — this phenomenon is why I am skeptical of white people who cite Cherokee heritage. During the Dawes Rolls, white people learned that there was a census being taken amongst Native Americans to determine who was and was not entitled to benefits from the State. White people then bribed the government with $5 to get their names added to the Dawes Rolls under “Cherokee by blood,” which determined them as full-blooded Cherokee even though they were fully white. They were able to do this with other tribes as well. This worked perfectly because the government would be able to keep the land away from actual Native Americans and Black Cherokees.

Many people believe that Black people who claim Indigenous ancestry are the descendants of children from relationships between an escaped slave and a tribal member; however, this is not entirely the case for my ancestors and I. Many people do not know that the Cherokee tribe once owned slaves, and even fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War; like their white counterparts, they risked capture, torture, and death to keep their slaves. Many Cherokee had sexual relationships with their slaves, creating children who were both Black and Cherokee. The Shawnee Tribe, on the other hand, fought for the Union.

There is another misconception that most Black people who claim to have Indigenous heritage do so because they want to exotify and distance themselves from Blackness. This is also not the case for me. I love being Black — it’s the first thing you’ll notice about me. But also, there’s something else there that I don’t want to be forgotten or overlooked. 

After my great-grandmother sold her land, she chose not to move onto the reservation. During the latter half of the Great Depression, she met my great-grandfather and started a family. They stayed in Oklahoma briefly before leaving my grandfather with his grandmother, Rachel, while my great-grandparents worked as servants in Hollywood for cosmetics mogul Max Factor. 

I often wonder what would have come of that old farmhouse in Oklahoma if it had stayed in my family. Today it would be worth well over $43,000. A huge part of me mourns the loss of this property and what it might have meant for my family. However, my great-grandmother used the money to give my grandfather the tools he needed to be successful. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, became the first Black State Trooper in New Jersey, and became a judge. He then was able to give my mother the tools she needed to be successful, and she went on to become president, vice president, CEO, and COO of multiple nonprofit organizations. 

My family does not have material wealth passed down from generation to generation. We have neither land nor thousands of dollars in jewelry and precious heirlooms bought by wealthy family members long before the last generation was born. As the elders die, we are rarely left with anything to hold. 

Generational wealth in my family exists through knowledge, culture, and experience. I am the descendant of slaves and of Native peoples who have been here for thousands and thousands of years. I represent an ancient lineage of people who had to fight for me to be here without bondage and without suffering, and I am blessed with the ability to show them they succeeded.

This series is supported by the City of Seattle’s Generational Wealth Initiative. The South Seattle Emerald and its contributors maintain full editorial control over all its coverage.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

📸 Featured Image: Gladios Louisa Baldridge. (Photo: Paul Dean McLemore, Sr., courtesy of Lauryn Bray.)

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