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Unearthing Florida’s Slave History
“If you want to see what slavery was like in Florida, Kingsley Plantation is the best venue for that,” says James Davidson, assistant professor of anthropology and African American studies. “You can go to another plantation that might have three bricks sticking out of the ground where a slave cabin once stood, but if you can walk through the walls of a slave residence that is something altogether different.”
Building on the legacy of former UF anthropologist Charles Fairbanks, who in 1968 became the first in the U.S. to excavate slave quarters when he broke soil at Kingsley, Davidson and Ph.D. students Erika Roberts and Clete Rooney have returned to Kingsley to learn more about the history of the plantation and the slaves who kept it running.
The Kingsley Plantation, located on Fort George Island north of Jacksonville, is named after one of several of its former owners, Zephaniah Kingsley, who operated on the property from 1813–1839 under the task system, which allowed slaves to work on a craft or tend to their own gardens once the specified task for the day was completed.
An anomaly among slave owners, Kingsley allowed his slaves to own guns and work their own crops and even freed and married one of them—Anna Madgigine Jai. In written documents he spoke out against prejudice, but in practice he profited from the exploitation of slave labor. “Kingsley, in all his descriptions of slaves, seemed to be more than ordinarily fond of them,” says Davidson. “He thought they were wonderful people—well-built, attractive, hard-working. He held social events and dances for them, gave them two days off work a week, and participated in their lives as much as possible. It should be stressed, however, that while those who labored under him may have had greater autonomy than most slaves of the period, they were still enslaved—with all of the horrors, anxieties and uncertainties this state conveys.”
Today, the plantation is owned by the National Park Service and is open daily for the public to tour, free of charge. The main house, kitchen house, barn and ruins of 25 slave cabins are still standing. To train the next generation of researchers, Davidson has established an archeology field school at Kingsley where anthropology students from across the state can gain hands-on experience excavating the footprints of seven additional cabins, completely hidden under the earth of an overgrown wood.
The students live on site at a lodge built in the 1920s, a mere 300 yards from the excavation site, and gain practical archeology skills—from shovel testing to stringing off and creating an excavation unit. “It’s easy to read about the end results of archeology, but to see how that data is derived is important,” says Davidson. “They learn the process and a little about themselves and whether they want to do this as a career.”