The Final Call Online Edition



WEB POSTED 12-11-2001




Revisiting history at a Florida slave plantation

by Lamont Muhammad

FORT GEORGE ISLAND, Fla. (—The Kingsley Plantation was established here when the southeastern coast of the United States stopped at Georgia, and Florida was a "Promised Land" for free Blacks, indigenous people and runaway slaves.

Plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. was born in Bristol, England, in 1765, but was reared in a Quaker household in Charleston, S.C. In that predominately African, or Gullah, community he learned what makes things happen and who knows how to get things done.

The slave trader and planter purchased this lush island off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., in 1814 when slavery was legal in the U.S. but importation of African slaves had been outlawed. Here, under a Spanish coat of arms at the time, he could import and export slaves and agricultural products to the rest of the world at will.

Palm trees lined the broad avenues that led to precious fields of Sea Island cotton, corn, indigo and sugar cane here during the era. The slaves who worked Mr. Kingsley’s fields lived a fifth of a mile from the main house in a wide, tabby cement, 32 cabin semi-circle divided in half by the main road.

Today, the U.S. National Park Service uses this historic preserve as a model of a slave-era plantation and a stage for discussions and reenactments of events here that shaped modern history. Some slaves who labored here, for example, went on to own slaves, plants, trade and even moved with their former master, to an independent Haiti after America purchased East Florida, a Parks Service brochure said. One, whom Mr. Kingsley sold, "became famous as an important lieutenant in the Denmark Vesey slave uprising," it said.

At the Kingsley Heritage Celebration 2001, earlier this year, the Parks Service sponsored lectures, demonstrations, book signings, traditional storytelling and featured a presentation by a descendent of Mr. Kingsley and the former African slave he freed and married by the time they moved here 203-years ago. This was possible under the Spanish flag, with its three-caste society of whites, free people of color and slaves. Inside the encroaching U.S. there were "free whites and enslaved Blacks, with no place for free Blacks," a presenter here argued.

"Blacks and Seminoles kept the British and Americans out of Spanish territory" and protected her booty-laden ships bound for export, explained Parks Ranger Ralph Smith, a Black Seminole, draped in full regalia. They defeated the U.S. Marines in 1812.

"But in 1821 Florida became a part of U.S. territory and the plantation owners in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Carolinas petitioned the U.S. government stating that Florida was a haven for runaways and they wanted to do something about it. The Indian Removal Act had already been imposed elsewhere. When it came to Florida it had a new twist. All Native Americans would be pushed out to Arkansas, now known as Oklahoma, and all Black people would go back into slavery. We fought for seven years," he said.

Some resisted U.S. troops and distinguished themselves so well they were hired by Mexico to patrol the border. Later, some were hired as Buffalo Soldiers who protected white settlers in the west from indigenous people fighting to protect their land. The history is full of contradictions.

In 1837, Mr. Kingsley fled Florida and established a colony for his family and some of his former slaves in Haiti, the Parks Service brochure said.

By 1842 the U.S. government had declared war on all dark people who refused to submit here, in lower Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. In "The Negro War," as it was called, the government massacred men, women and children and marched survivors to Oklahoma at gunpoint. Later the script flipped when the Union required the assistance of Black people to defeat the Confederacy.

A surviving Civil War structure associated with Black Union Army troops is across the St. Johns River here at Dames Point.

Chaplin Clifford Pierce is a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Re-Enactors Company "I" of Glory fame, "the first Blacks to fight in the Civil War." Two sons of Fredrick Douglass and one of Sojourner Truth were among the "88 percent learned men" who comprised the celebrated unit, he explained.

There were a total of 170 U.S. Colored Troop Units organized during the war. There were as many as 200,000 Black soldiers. An estimated 7,000 white officers volunteered to serve in the Bureau of Colored Troops. Troops here at Yellow Bluff Fort controlled ship access along the river.

Baba Ishangi was in Jacksonville to work on a "Living African History Exhibit" in the city. Invited to attend and read at the Kingsley Plantation event, he was not very impressed with the Parks Service spin on history.

"I’m a descendent of a great African people. I haven’t seen any of them here yet. Everybody they mention here married somebody white or was given this or given that. The man (Black Seminole) told me the Seminole had Irish in ’em. If I listen any longer I’m gonna go get a flag and run down the road chanting ‘thank God for slavery.’" He left to get something to eat.

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