Music plays throughout
Emily Palmer, Park Ranger National Park Service
Palmer: We stand here today under this impressive oak tree. It's impossible for me to wrap my arms around its girth, and it's difficult for me to wrap my mind around what this tree has played a witness to. This tree has seen emancipation, slavery, a war. This tree has seen history, and for that reason we call it a witness tree. This tree watched over this island as the Kingsley's came to in 1814. This tree saw the construction of these cabins and in these cabins enslaved men,women, and children lead their lives, lives dominated by the fields of cotton that lay beyond and by an intense labor system that exploited their bodies.
Kingsley Plantation: Days of Discovery
Voice of: Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Descendent. Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Museum
Cole: You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. This [system] of an African burial ground, a ground of enslaved people helps all of us to better understand where as a nation we have been and then where and how we must go forth.
Barbara Goodman, Superintendent, National Park Service
Goodman: We have the opportunity to learn about how you honor those who lived and died at Kingsley Plantation. Ultimately, your thoughts will inform us on our formal decision making process where you'll be invited to comment on potential changes to Kingsley Plantation. But that's not what we're doing today. Today we're here to listen and to learn.
Voice of: Roger Clark, Park Ranger, Timucuan Preserve
Clark: Kingsley Plantation is located on Fort George Island which is the southern most of the sea island plantations which extended from Georgetown, South Carolina. Zephaniah Kingsley was born in Bristol England in 1765. He became a prominent merchant. He was a slave trader, however, and that's how he made his early fortunes. By the early 1800s he decided to move to Spanish Florida and become a plantation owner. He acquired over 32,000 acres of property and hundreds of enslaved African men, women, and children. He purposely came to Spanish Florida because it was a very different system of society here than was found at that time in the United States. Now the United States was a two-tiered system of society: whites and blacks. And, whether you were a slave or a free black person in the North or the South, your civil liberties were severely restricted. That was much different than here in Spanish Florida where free blacks shared virtually the same interests as the white people and civil liberties. And, we need only look to Anna Kingsley as an example. Here was not only a woman, but a black woman who shared most of the same rights and civil liberties as white men.
Dr. James Davidson, Associate Professor, Anthropology and African-American Studies University of Florida
Davidson: When you arrive a Kingsley Plantation, there you'll see 27 standing slave cabins which is quite unusual. The reason they're standing is because they were built out of tabby which is a crude form of concrete using shell and sand from the island. In 1968, Charles Fairbanks was the first person to ever stick a shovel in a slave cabin and ask questions about those peoples' lives, and it was done at Kingsley Plantation. So when I arrived at the University of Florida in 2004, I was very keen to look at the previous work that Fairbanks had done and the collections there at the museum, but also to consider the possibility of going to Kingsley and beginning new research questions that we could explore over a series of summer field schools. I started that in 2006. We're attempting to fill in some of the gaps that we have in the history of these people. After becoming more immersed in the archival literature, the records and references to the 19th century Fort George Island, I became increasingly convinced that I thought I had some idea where the Kingsley era slave cemetery was located. There are two references that I could find in the archival records. One of them is an article from the New Scribner's monthly magazine 1878. It describes the landscape as it would have been during the Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley era, so 1814 to 1839. And it says that the cemetery is located between the slave quarters and the barn. Well, the slave quarters are still standing and the barn is still standing. And so, we have some idea within those parameters where it might have been. We also have a reference from Hannah Rollins who was the wife of John Rollins. The Rollins were from New Hampshire, and they purchased the island in 1869. In around 1903/1904, it appears that Hannah Rollins was asked to write down her reminiscences of what she remembered of the island when she arrived that first year in 1869. One of the things she says is that there were no trees between the slave quarters and the main house except for a large oak tree under which was still visible a black cemetery.
Palmer: This tree marks the site of the slave graveyard at Kingsley Plantation. How many people are buried here? What were their funeral practices? Only the oak knows for sure.
Davidson: In 2009 we put in a series of test units along Palmetto Avenue in the vicinity of this oak tree. We also put in some auger tests, some augerholes looking for any of such features, and we did not find anything. We went back in 2010, during the 2010 field school and put in additional units on the other side of the road, on the east side of the road opposite the oak tree. And in fact, we did find a rectilinear stain in the soil that was certainly suggestive of a human burial.
Palmer: From what we know about traditions at Kingsley Plantation and from what previous archaeological investigations have revealed we can presume that they were buried according to some semblance of their African traditions. Grave markers included a large whelk shell, a sad iron which is an old iron heated on the stove and used to press clothing, and large iron deposits similar to those found strategically placed throughout the cabins. These grave goods represent traditions from the various ethnic groups represented by the slave population at Kingsley Plantation.
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Descendent. Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Museum
Cole: We need to know much more about that burial ground, and we no doubt will. But this we do know, that the sheer discovery of it helps us to begin hopefully to use what is there in the ground, to use that reality, to use what was probably the expression of lives so difficultly lived, let us use all of that to begin to heal the deep divisions that even today reflect those horrific divisions constructed during enslavement in America.
Davidson: I think it gives us all the opportunity to acknowledge these people, to recognize their contribution to the creation of that landscape, and it gives the descendent community-both the larger African American community of this country who visit that park and also the lineal descendants, those people who actually are related to these people-the ability to pay their respects.
Voice of: Barbara Goodman, Superintendent, National ParkService
Goodman: We are being provided with an opportunity to connect in a deeper and more meaningful way with specific individuals who were once so tied to the earth in this place we now call Kingsley Plantation.
Cole: May knowledge about this burial ground come forth to help us better understand the universal cry for freedom.
Last updated: April 14, 2015