Erika Roberts and James Davidson study one of the many artifacts—a French gunflint—they have discovered while excavating the floors of two slave cabins

(Above)
Erika Roberts and James Davidson study one of the many artifacts—a French gunflint—they have discovered while excavating the floors of two slave cabins.

Unearthing Florida's Slave History

Article Originally published in the June 2006 issue of CLASnotes.

You can visit an antebellum courthouse in a small Southern town, or tour a columned mansion owned by a wealthy plantation family, but where can you go to learn about the lives of the slaves who built the South? The UF Department of Anthropology has the answer. This summer, a new field school has been established at Jacksonville’s Kingsley Plantation, one of the few places you can find slave quarters still standing and the site where UF pioneered the field of African-American archeology.

“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 US to excavate slave quarters when he broke soil at Kingsley, Davidson and PhD 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 lush 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. The cash crop of sea island cotton, valued for its long silky fibers, had to be worked entirely by hand.

The new field school is open to all anthropology undergraduates nationwide, but preference is given to Florida studentsThe new field school is open to all anthropology undergraduates nationwide, but preference is given to Florida students. This summer, 15 budding researchers from UF and the University of South Florida are living on the plantation and working full time at their first archeological excavation.

Kingsley was an anomaly among slave owners. While most Southern plantation proprietors had grown up in the culture, he was a Briton who chose the lifestyle apparently, in part, because of an intellectual interest in African culture. More lenient than the norm, he allowed his slaves to own guns, work their own crops and even freed and married one, 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.”

Kingsley’s unorthodox views on slavery came under scrutiny when Florida became a state and began passing oppressive race laws to squelch potential slave rebellions. Fearful for the wellbeing of his wife and sons, Kingsley moved to Haiti in 1837, the only free black settlement at that time in the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to the new opportunity at Kingsley Plantation, CLAS also offers the following archaeological field schools to prepare tomorrow’s anthropologists

Dig This...

In addition to the new opportunity at Kingsley Plantation, CLAS also offers the following archaeological field schools to prepare tomorrow’s anthropologists:

Amazonian Adventures

Formed by the active flood plain of the Amazon River, the Lake of Quistococha near Iquitos, Peru has been dated between 500 BC and 700 AD, but the cultural characteristics of the people that lived in this location are currently unknown. A new six-week field school has been established at this site by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo.

Medieval Times

Located in one of the most picturesque regions of southern Italy, the Medieval Archaeology Field Practicum in Salento offers a first-rate excavation experience led by Associate Professor of History Florin Curta.

Valley People

The valley of Florida’s St. Johns River was home to prehistoric hunter-gatherers for more than 11,000 years and offers a wealth of research opportunities, not too far from campus. Currently in hiatus, the St. Johns Archaeological Field School is the brainchild of Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology Ken Sassaman, who plans to resume the school in summer 2007.

The Yucatan Experience

A fixture among UF study abroad opportunities, the Yucatan Program in Merida, Mexico offers a cultural anthropology tract emphasizing Mesoamerican archaeology led each summer by Anthropology Professor Allan Burns.

Today, the plantation is owned by the National Park Service and its main house, kitchen house, barn and the ruins of 25 standing slave cabins are open daily for the public to visit, free of charge. The footprints of seven additional cabins, completely hidden under the earth of an overgrown wood, are being excavated by the UF team.

To train the next generation of researchers, Davidson has established a historical archaeological field school at Kingsley this summer where ten anthropology undergraduates from UF and the University of South Florida are getting hands-on experience by excavating the floors of two tabby-wall slave cabins during Summer A.

“I am seriously considering a career in archeology, and I thought this would be a good opportunity, not too far from home, that would give me an understanding of how it is to be out in the field,” says anthropology and Asian studies senior Kelly Christensen. “I’ve never done anything like this, and I know it’s not for everybody. I have learned you have to be very patient to be an archeologist, but I think the payoff is really good. You know you are going to produce quality results people will be able to trust if you take your time.”

Students are gaining practical archeology skills—from shovel testing to stringing off and creating an excavation unit. They have learned how to read a map, use survey instruments, screen materials and keep up with tedious paperwork. Within the first few weeks of digging they uncovered several slave-owned artifacts, including a hoe blade, clay smoking pipes, French gunflints, lead shot and sprue, and sinker weights for fishing.

Field school participants live on site at a lodge built in the 1920s, a mere 300 yards from the excavation site. On a typical day, they work from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm and keep a field book detailing their findings. For their labor, they receive nine hours of course credit and vital hands-on experience. “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.”

Davidson remembers his first field school well. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 1989—when the final installment of a trilogy of Indiana Jones blockbuster films had Americans newly interested in archeology— Davidson participated in his first dig at a prehistoric, hunter-gatherer site in the Sabinal River Canyon in Utopia, Texas.

Later, to earn money for graduate school, he helped excavate Freedman’s Cemetery in downtown Dallas, exhuming 1,157 bodies from the African-American community’s primary place of burial from 1869 to 1907. “It changed my life,” Davidson says. “I thought it was such an interesting and worthwhile project that I never left and, in a sense, I still haven’t left. I have continued to do African-American archeology ever since.”

Hired at UF in 2004, Davidson is continuing his work on the experiences of Dallas African Americans. He is also beginning North Florida projects such as the site at Kingsley, where one of his long-term goals is to locate the slave cemetery so that proper markers can be erected to both commemorate the dead and protect it from future development within the park. He also plans to research the nearby Rosewood community, a former African-American town outside Cedar Key which was destroyed by a white mob in 1923.

“The reason people do historical archeology, for the most part, is to give voice to people who had no voice in the past,” Davidson says. “If this is the case, then African-American archeology, particularly plantation archeology, is most vital. It gives voice to the most oppressed, the most voiceless, in American history.”

Credits

Writer

Buffy Lockette

Photos

Jane Dominguez

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