Florida's Black Heritage Trail Takes Interesting Turns In Northeast Corner
By Karen Rubin
In 1828, Florida had just been purchased by the U.S. from the Spanish and Kingsley, a slave owner, was horrified at the prospect of imposing the oppressive American laws governing slavery. He petitioned Congress on Jan. 28, 1833, objecting to "cruel, unnecessary and impolitic laws" and wrote a treatise appealing for a system that was more like indentured servitude, where slavery was not an eternal condition and where families were preserved.
I look at the document on the wall and then at a picture of Anna Madgigine Jai, originally from Senegal, West Africa, whom Kingsley purchased as a slave. She became his wife and won freedom for herself and their three children in 1811, and become a formidable business woman and manager of the Kingsley Plantation, a slaveowner, as well. Here, in this relatively obscure national site, I am struck by the "what if" consequences of Kingsley's petition-would slavery have died out of its own accord and the Civil War been avoided?--and by this encounter with this extraordinary family, heroic figures, really. The Kingsley Plantation is also extraordinary for the insights into slavery and slave culture, through artifacts, photographs and documents and, rarest of all, 23 standing tabby cabins that had been slave dwellings.
I hadn't intended to take Florida's Black Heritage Trail, but I found myself fascinated by every turn.
In a locale better known for beaches and boating, I was lured by history and nature, both aspects brilliantly displayed on Florida's northeast corner, with famous places like St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied city in America, Amelia Island and Jacksonville.
We started off in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island's northern tip, a historic district with stunning Victorian homes and a true jewel, Fort Clinch State Park, a Civil War-era bastion. But as we set off further south, traveling beside fantastic nature preserves, we came to Kingsley Plantation, set within the Timucuan Preserve, that provided this extraordinary encounter with a part of American history that is rarely discussed, especially from this human perspective. Moving on to Jacksonville, we visited a new museum, converted from a movie house, The Ritz, dedicated to James Weldon Johnson, which tells the story of accomplished African-American professionals and a thriving middle-class community. And coming into St. Augustine, we learned of an entire city of free men established when Florida was still under Spanish rule, Ft. Mose.
Kingsley Plantation was a stunning encounter, much as the television series "Roots" stirred the sensibilities of "mainstream" because it provided more than a mere telling of history, but rather, provided portraits of people who played a key role in those times. My previous experience in visiting a plantation was more focused on the architectural features and furnishings of the mansion home rather than the social, economic and historical and human implications of plantation system. Here at Kingsley Plantation, it was as if coming face-to-face with extraordinary, yet enigmatic individuals. This was a travel experience at its best, to be exposed to something entirely new to one's own experience and be personally affected by new awareness.
With the imposition of the slave laws, Kingsley and his family moved to Haiti in 1837, where he established a free colony for his family and some of his former slaves.
The National Park Service guides here note that Kingsley Plantation, the oldest remaining plantation house in Florida, encapsulates a period of time and provides a context. But even in this relatively benign and "enlightened" environment (slavery here was not necessarily considered a permanent condition), though, you feel bile in your abdomen at the concept of people owning other people much as cattle, and not so many generations ago.
Though the site had been occupied since 1798, the park service interprets the Kingsley period because the family owned it the longest and were representative of a major change, as Florida went from being part of Spain to the United States. Also, there is excellent documentation of the family and the time.
You can visit the Planter's Residence, which was built by John McQueen in 1798 and was occupied by Zephaniah Kingsley and other owners (actually quite a modest home, hardly a mansion). It is used for historical exhibits which are absolutely fascinating. One display, with photos and artifacts, describes "the Daily life of a slave child." You also visit the kitchen house, the garden, the barn and most significantly, the ruins of 23 tabby cabins which served as slave quarters (tabby is the term for the crude concrete). It is fascinating to realize that in its day, the cotton plantation, on Ft. George Island, was reached only by boat from Fort George River and Intracoastal Waterway. (Free. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m, 904-251-3537; interpretive programs are available).
The setting of Kingsley Plantation is extraordinary, in itself. It is located at the edge of the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, a sprawling 46,000 acre preserve established to protect one of the last unspoiled coastal wetlands on the Atlantic Coast and to preserve historic and prehistoric sites within the area. The estuarine ecosystem includes salt marsh, coastal dunes, hardwood hammock, as well as salt, fresh, and brackish waters, all rich in native vegetation and animal life. The preserve, which was inhabited by the native Timucuan people over four thousand years before the arrival of the first Europeans, provides an opportunity to see Florida as it must have looked when Ponce de Leon first arrived. The area has seen more than four centuries of exploration, colonization, agriculture, and commerce under the flags of France, Spain, England, the Confederacy, and the United States.
About 75 percent of the preserve-which contains federal, state and city park lands as well as more than 300 private landowners-- is water and wetlands, making boats, canoes and kayaks a popular means of access, when you may well see oyster beds, fish, dolphins, manatees, bald eagles, ospreys and blue herons. There are also hiking trails through the preserve.
At Fort Caroline National Memorial within the preserve, you can explore the interpretive rendering of Fort Caroline, and the adjacent one-mile self guided nature trail. Visitor Center exhibits include a Native American log canoe and other artifacts from the Timucuan period.
A favorite spot in the preserve is the 600-acre Theodore Roosevelt area, with four miles of hiking trails that wind through a maritime hammock forest and along ancient sand dune bluffs. The area offers a ranger-guided Saltmarsh Program, which includes a demonstration of seine net fishing (subject to weather and tide conditions). (Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve open daily, 8 a.m.-sunset; free; 904-221-5568, www.nps.gov/timu).
Jacksonville is the largest city in the United States in area-84 square miles. In the downtown area, very close to Jacksonville Landing, we continued our Black Heritage Trail journey at The Ritz Theater & LaVilla Museum. Here, too, was an amazing revelation in being introduced to Jacksonville native son James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosamond Johnson, who authored the song, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which became the national anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The museum and 400-seat theater are set in the historical LaVilla area of downtown Jacksonville, where once there was the Ritz movie theater built in 1929. Only the neon sign (the first in Jacksonville), is original; everything else has been newly constructed. The first Friday of the month is amateur night (kids amateur night every third month, $5.50/ticket).
The centerpiece of the museum is an animatronic production by Sally Corp. (a company which creates robotics for Disney), which features lifesize robotic characters of James Weldon Johnson and his brother.
Their father was the headwaiter at a prominent restaurant at the St. James Hotel; their mother was the first public school teacher of color in Florida. James (1871-1938) was an educator (the principal of the Stanton High School, the first public high school for black children in Florida), a lawyer (the first Negro to pass the Florida Bar, in 1897), a diplomat (he became Consul to Venezuela), and a songwriter, who with his brother (who wrote with Oscar Hammerstein and was a founder of ASCAP), wrote this inspiring song.
After the 15 minute program, you go through a permanent exhibit, "Crossroads: African American Heritage in Northeast Florida," which traces this community's history from the early explorers through the golden era of the mid 1900s to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Much of the exhibit is presented like a street of shops and offices, where you walk in and see artifacts, photos, of black middle class professionals and shopowners. One section is devoted to a prominent photographer whose photographs of graduations, family events provide a link to those times.
The museum also offers special exhibits; at the time of our visit, there was an exhibit of African art and there are cultural activities, concerts and special events presented on the theater stage. (The Ritz Theatre & La Villa Museum, 829 N. Davis St., Downtown, 904-632-5555, $4/$2 admission).
Near to St. Augustine, another key site on the Florida Black Heritage Trail is Fort Mose (Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose), located two miles north of St. Augustine just off US 1. This was the first legally sanctioned African American community in the United States.
People are more familiar with the Underground Railroad which escaped slaves used to get to Canada. But before that, some found their way to Spanish Florida where they could get freedom, if they converted to Roman Catholicism. The men would be inducted into the Spanish militia.
Ft. Mose became the first line of defense for St. Augustine, and indeed, these were Florida's first national guardsmen.
In 1763, the British leveled Fort Mose and erased all evidence. The community moved to Cuba. But the Spanish got Florida back in 1783, with the Treaty of Paris, and many of the families returned.
Old Florida Museum, a hands-on museum in downtown St. Augustine, tells the story of Fort Mose, the first Free Black settlement in colonial America, which played a unique role in protecting the city. Other sections depicts the Timucuan Indians and an 1800s Pioneer homestead (800-813-3208, www.oldfloridamuseum.com).
Also in downtown St. Augustine, Lincolnville Historic District, located west of Cordova St. and south of Bridge St., became a free slave settlement in 1866 and flourished as a community with schools, churches and businesses. It contains Victorian-era homes and is one the National Register of Historic Places.
St. Mary's Missionary Baptist Church, 69 Washington St. in the historic Lincolnville area is where on June 9, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rallied supporters for a sit-in demonstration. Also in the district, St. Paul A.M.E. Church at 85 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. served as a gathering point for demonstrations against segregated facilities in 1964. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, was arrested in downtown St. Augustine, trying to desegregate a lunch counter.