By Renée S. Gordon
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered”
A large portion of one of the most intriguing episodes in African Diaspora history took place just 20-miles from Jacksonville on Fort George Island. It is a tale that began several hundred years ago in Senegal but its repercussions continue to be evident today.
Kingsley Plantation, the oldest and best preserved existing slave plantation complex in Florida is replete with stories of those who lived and worked there and is one of the most interesting heritage sites in the country.
The Timucuan Indians who settled there originally knew Fort George Island as Alicamani. The Spanish erected a mission on what they called San Juan in the late 16th-century and in 1792 it was part of a land grant given to Don Juan (John) McQueen, a revolutionary veteran, by the King of Spain. He had been forced to leave Charleston, South Carolina because of debts and he and relocated to the island with 300 slaves.
In 1798, construction on the architecturally unique plantation house began. Using slave labor, the main, 2-story, residence was built with a central room and a square pavilion on each corner.
McQueen ran a sawmill and planted Sea Island cotton but it was not enough. In 1804 he was again in debt and sold the house to John McIntosh. McIntosh continued planting cotton and became one of the wealthiest men in the territory. In 1812, he joined the Patriot’s Revolt to free Florida from Spanish domination. After being unsuccessful he returned to Georgia in 1814.
Zephaniah Kingsley was a white slave trader who married Anna Madgigne Jai a native of Senegal in Africa. He purchased her in Cuba as a gift for his mother and he married her when she was thirteen years old.
Originally he settled near what is now Orange Park, Florida where Anna managed his mercantile business and a farm. She was a polyglot, speaking at least three languages and several African dialects and owned property and slaves in her own right. In 1811 Kingsley freed her and their three children.
When the Patriot’s Rebellion broke out the Kinsley’s were on the side of the Spanish and Anna Jai emerged as a heroine of the conflict. She approached the Kingsley property by water, having her slaves row her and set incendiary devices to destroy the house, outbuildings and arsenal. The loss of these vital resources affected the patriot’s ability to sustain their efforts.
In 1814, Kingsley rented the 750-acre plantation on Fort George Island and moved there with his family. In 1817, he purchased the land and established the southernmost of the Sea Island cotton plantations. His sixty slaves also cultivated rice, sugarcane and citrus. The Fort George plantation was one of four he owned, for a total of 32,000-acres, and 200 slaves.
Kingsley had three other African wives on the plantation, Flora, Munsilna, and Sarah, and a total of ten children. All of his wives and children were freed, acknowledged and the children were educated. His fourth child with Anna Jai was born in 1824.
The Florida Territory was ceded to the US in 1821 and though in the original treaty the Spanish included clauses that related to the US government honoring the rights and property of free blacks it was only a matter of time before harsh laws were enacted. Kingsley wrote a series of documents prevailing upon society to refrain from race-based prejudice to no avail. In 1837, he left the U.S. for Haiti, taking with him his family and 53 slaves. There, in the only free black republic in the hemisphere, he founded a colony.
Upon Kinsley’s death in 1843, Anna Jai returned to Florida in 1846 to wage a legal battle against his white relatives who contested her inheritance. Martha Kingsley Whistler, better known as “Whistler’s Mother,” was among those who fought a 10-year court battle and lost. His fortune, in the millions, was divided among his wives and children. Anna settled, along with more than 50 slaves, in Jacksonville in the 1840s. She died there in 1870.
After the Civil War, the Freedman’s Bureau took over the island. They allowed newly freed blacks to farm plots and reside in the former slave dwellings. The slave quarters transitioned into a tourist attraction when the land became an upscale hotel in the latter part of the 19th-century. The state took over the property in 1955, it was listed on the National Register in 1970 and the National Park Service acquired it in 1991.
The tour of Kingsley Plantation begins as you turn off the highway and onto Palmetto, the road that winds you back in time amidst moss-draped cypress trees and dense foliage. The insularity is apparent and it is not difficult to imagine why Kingsley chose this place as a home for his multiracial family.
Self-guided and ranger-led tours are offered and interpretive plaques are positioned in or near every important location.
The plantation house is open for a limited number of visitors. Constructed of wood and tabby, a combination of oyster shells, sand and water used in construction in West Africa, the house is unfurnished. It is the finest example of tabby architecture in the country. There is a roof deck and porches on both sides of the house. One veranda faces a sloping lawn that leads to the inlet, the other faces the dependencies and the barely visible slave quarters. The residence has a full, walk-in basement that, even after two centuries, remains watertight.
A 2-story kitchen referred to as the “Ma’am Anna House” is near the main house. Built in the 1820s, this building functioned as the kitchen and on the upper level the home of Anna and her children. All of Kinsley’s wives had separate residences in the style of African polygamous marriages. The barn features displays that interpret the lives of the enslaved that worked there.
One-fifth of a mile from the house, set in a semi-circle on either side of the road, were 32 slave cabins, 23 of which survive. The cabins are the most intact examples of their kind. They were constructed of tabby with cedar roof shingles and 14-inch thick walls. In the one complete restoration visitors will note that the cabins were spacious, consisting of two rooms, a sleeping loft and a fireplace.
Archeologists began researching the quarters in the ’60s, the earliest digs of an African American site in the U.S.
Each year for the past twelve years, the Kingsley Heritage Celebration has been held over several weekends in February. The schedule of events includes music, storytelling, lectures and thematic tours. This is a wonderful event and one you should, if possible, plan to attend.
Admission is free and Kingsley is open year round. 11676 Palmetto Avenue. www.nps.gov/timu
In the 1930s, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and Florida’s first black millionaire, purchased a tract of land on Amelia Island. Originally he bought the beach property so that his employees and associates, who were not given access to the white-only beaches, would have a place of their own. He initially acquired 2500-ft of shoreline, 30-acres, and named it American Beach. Located 40-miles northeast of Jacksonville it remained one of the South’s most important African American recreation areas for more than 30-years. Eventually Lewis sold 50-ft. by 100-ft. lots to his friends who built summer homes, approximately 50 of which remain.
Ninety-minute walking tours of American Beach, the first stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, are offered by Marsha Phelts by reservation only. A resident of the community, she brings the era to life with accounts of visits by Ossie Davis, Billy Eckstein and the Beach Lady and a stop at “Nana,” or “The Great Dune,” the tallest in the state.
On a final note, A. L. Lewis’ wife, Mary Kingsley Sammis, was the great-granddaughter of Zephaniah Kingsley and Anna Jai. Johnette Cole, renowned scholar and former President of Spellman, was the grandchild of Lewis and Sammis.
Jacksonville provides the perfect blend of outdoor activities and heritage tourism. Maps and guides are plentiful and trails are clearly marked. Plan a vacation today. www.visitjacksonville.com
I wish you smooth and harmonious travels!