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J. Coody Johnson – The Black Panther of Wewoka (1864-1927)

This giant of territorial and statehood Oklahoma lived one of the most unique and accomplished lives in the history of the Sooner State. He rose to high prominence among Creeks, Seminoles, African-Americans, and Oklahoma itself while living in a time of raging racial prejudice against blacks.

Well known Oklahoma educator, civic leader, and Johnson biographer John R. Hargrave ably set the framework for Johnson’s life: “The grandson of a slave belonging to William McIntosh, the great Coweta chief of the Creek Nation, Johnson was esteemed by Creek and Seminole as ‘the Black Panther.’ He was intimately familiar with the language, laws, and customs of the Creek and Seminole.”

Born at Fort Gibson in 1864, where his mother had refuged during the brutal Indian Territory campaigns of the War Between the States, he attended the Presbyterian mission school north of Wewoka. His African Creek father Robert served as language interpreter for the Seminole nation, a foreshadowing of Coody Johnson’s lifelong involvement with both tribes, who had begun as one. The Seminoles then sponsored his education at Lincoln University in Chester, Pennsylvania. After graduating, he returned to the southwest and cowboyed, as did thousands of other African-Americans in that era.

In 1886, Judge Isaac Parker, the legendary Fort Smith, Arkansas-based “Hanging Judge,” whose federal district included Indian Territory and its many thousands of Creeks and Seminoles, hired him as his interpreter. Parleying innate talent, intelligence, and drive with opportunity as he would do throughout his life, Johnson studied law under Parker, earned admittance to practice in federal courts, and gained the rare distinction as a freedman of dual Creek and Seminole citizenship. His skills as a multi-lingual interpreter fueled his rise into both the exalted office of Secretary of the Creeks and a position in the tribe’s elite Creek House of Warriors, as well as official interpreter for the Seminole nation and private secretary (chief of staff in modern terms) to their Principal Chief, Halputta Micc