Rice’s Fay Yarbrough wins NEH grant to research Choctaws in the Civil War

Fay Yarbrough wasn’t expecting to make the sort of discovery that would win her a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant when she first began sorting through Choctaw Indian archives at the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City in 2006. An associate professor of history, Yarbrough was tracing a story she’d learned from a genealogy buff she’d met there in 2000 — a story of intermarriage between a Choctaw man and an enslaved woman so salacious, so full of plot twists, it could have been made into a Lifetime movie, she laughed.

Fay Yarbrough

Fay Yarbrough

“And then as historians often are, I was taken on a sort of tangent,” said Yarbrough, a historian of the 19th century, specifically the intersection of Southern history, African-American history and Native American history. “I started looking at these Choctaw records and found in the Choctaw legislature they kept saying, ‘We’ve got to do things to help the Confederates,’ and ‘We’re raising a cavalry to send to the Confederate Army.’”

The question of what accounts for this Choctaw enthusiasm is at the heart of the project Yarbrough proposed when she applied for the NEH grant this past spring. Yarbrough’s project is one of 253 (and one of only 74 grants in the Fellowship category) that will be funded by the $12.8 million in grants to advance humanities research. The winners were announced Dec. 13.

The Choctaw Nation went all in on their commitment to the South, sending that cavalry and attempting to pass laws compelling all white people in the nation to swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy; saying anything against the Confederacy could constitute an act of treason. Choctaw companies fought the Union from 1861 until the war ended in 1865.

Many native groups both held slaves and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. But given that the Choctaw had been forcibly removed from Southern states, including Alabama and Mississippi, not too many years prior to the Civil War, their unbridled enthusiasm for joining the Confederacy was a revelation, to say the least.

“I can’t claim to be discovering something new in terms of knowing that they sided with the Confederacy,” Yarbrough said. “But I think the level of commitment of the Choctaws is surprising to even people who do native history. That’s a different story, because the story that’s usually told is that the Choctaws side with the Confederacy but they’re forced to do it.”

Yarbrough argues that the Choctaw saw real benefits to their decision at the time. “They’re slaveholders, and they want to maintain their property and continue owning slaves, plus they see an analog between states’ rights rhetoric and Native sovereignty, and the Confederates are promising to recognize that,” Yarbrough said. “So, is there pressure? Yes – but I think that they’re also making a strategic decision themselves.”

Fellow Rice Associate Professor of History Caleb McDaniel was awarded an NEH grant in 2016 for his own work on Southern history in 19th-century America. This year, it’s Yarbrough’s turn — a success she attributes in part to her colleagues at Rice. “This is not my first time to apply for an NEH grant; I’ve been rejected in the past,” she said. “What’s really helped is that I participated in a proposal workshop with Phyllis McBride’s office.”

The workshop, held in the fall of 2016 through the Office of Proposal Development (of which McBride is director), included researchers across disciplines and departments, bringing fresh eyes and perspectives to each professor’s grant proposal as they met each week to refine their work. “You learn all kinds of interesting things just from participating,” Yarbrough said, “but you get all this valuable feedback as well.”

In conjunction with a Rice University Humanities Research Center teaching release Yarbrough won for the spring of 2018, this NEH grant will allow her to spend the next 18 months researching Choctaw-Confederate connections and writing what will she hopes will become her second book. Her first, “Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the 19th Century,” explored the relationship between the construction of sexual boundaries and the formation of tribal and racial identities.

Even Yarbrough’s 11-year-old daughter was inspired by her NEH grant win, recently leaving her mother a sticky note that read: “Mom, you inspire me to want to be an author because I know you write books too.” And with this NEH grant, that second book will come much sooner than it would have before.

“Professionally and in terms of my career the fellowship is a huge honor, but I think that it will also allow me to tell an important story for other scholars of the Civil War, of Native history, of 19th-century American history to hear,” Yarbrough said. “But just at home, I will be excited to be able to show my daughter the book and say, ‘This is what I’ve been working on all this time!’”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.