Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Owner

February 20, 2017

By Daniel L. Schafer (University Press of Florida, 2003)

schafer-annaI’ve lived all my life in western and northern sections of the United States where cultural practices of white people like me have restricted people of color. Although I have been aware of discrimination because of race, it has been difficult for me to understand the harsher patterns that existed in southern states—slavery for more than a century and legal segregation for another hundred years.

A winter sojourn on Amelia Island, which is one of several barrier islands between Florida’s northeastern coast and the Atlantic Ocean, is providing the opportunity and incentive to explore several aspects of the history of slavery that is so much a part of the American story.

In 1808 the United States prohibited the importing of slaves, but in East Florida which remained under Spanish sovereignty until 1821, slaves could still be imported and sold. Because of its deep-water port, Fernandina on Amelia Island became the primary location where ships continued to bring slaves who would be smuggled into Georgia and other states where slavery was still the law of the land.

During the years when Spanish law prevailed in East Florida, two types of slavery existed in close proximity and there was an intense struggle over which would prevail. Although the Spanish three-caste system (enslaved black, free black, and white) lost to the Southern States two-caste system (enslaved black and white), the history of this struggle needs to be kept alive.

Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley was a central figure in this period of American history. She was born in Senegal in 1793 into a family of the ruling class and captured and enslaved by a rival African ethnic group in 1806. She was one of a shipload of slaves bought by an American slaver and transported to Havanna. Thirteen years of age, she was purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., who was himself active in the transatlantic slave trade and a major plantation owner in Florida.

During the next five years, she gave birth to three children whom Kingsley fathered. He claimed them as his family and in 1811 granted Anna and her children their freedom. For the next thirty-seven years, Kingsley referred to her as his wife and “lived openly with her and their mixed-race children” (Schafer, p. 25). During much of this time, Kingsley also cohabited with other enslaved teenaged women, openly acknowledged their children as his own, and granted them freedom, too.

Kingsley appointed Anna as overseer of Laurel Hill, his large plantation on Fort George Island about thirty miles south of Fernandina and she directed operations during his frequent and long absences. She organized slave quarters and managed affairs in ways that were similar to those she had experienced among her own people in Senegal.

slave-quarters

After Spain ceded East Florida to the United States, the freedom and security of Kingsley’s African and mixed-race family were severely threatened. American law did not recognize their free status or their rights to inherit and own property. They constantly faced the threat of being sold again into slavery.

In order to secure their safety, Kingsley bought large holdings in the Republic of Haiti, then a free black country, and in 1836 moved his large and complex family moved to this safe location. In 1843, Kingsley died in New York at the age of seventy-eight. Anna was fifty. Three years later, she decided to return to Florida where her husband had retained large holdings.

As struggles over slavery, states rights, and southern sovereignty continued, her life became more difficult. Until her death in 1870, she was surrounded by her large, mixed race family and lived as a free woman. The war had wiped out her holdings and she “resided with one of her daughters, bereft of resources save a loving family” (Schafer, p. 111). She is buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton Cemetery in the Jacksonville suburb Arlington.

One of Anna’s great grand-daughters married A. L. Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and of American Beach on Amelia Island, a community where African Americans in the segregated South would have access to the beach.

The history of this era is complex, and an impressive body of scholarly literature is emerging to help us understand it. I am grateful for the slender biography of Anna Kingsley that historian Daniel L. Schafer has written. In easily understood language he describes the slavery patterns already existing in Africa, outlines the transatlantic slave trade, explains the economic and political conflicts in the United States that led to the Civil War, and pieces together the life story of Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley.

His narrative is only 131 pages long, followed by another twenty pages of notes, bibliography, and index.  Schafer’s exhaustive, scholarly research is clear, but because his focus is the life story of a remarkable woman, the book is alive and deeply moving. In 2013 he published a much longer, more technical biography, Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. and the Atlantic Slave Trade (University Press of Florida, 2013).

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Bicycling on Amelia Island: the Franklintown church and cemetery

February 10, 2017

a1a

Florida’s North Coast Highway A1A is one of the nation’s most scenic roads. As it runs through the southern half of Amelia Island, in the northeastern tip of the state, it has much to offer a contemplative cyclotourist. The two-lane highway has well-marked bike lanes, in addition to a bike trail for recreational cyclists. Up-scale residential communities and resorts flourish on both sides of the highway, but the roadway itself is tree-lined, protected from the wind, and restful.

This little stretch of coastal highway also provides the opportunity to delve into the continuing interaction of race, religion, and money in the development of American culture. Part of that story is kept alive by Franklintown United Methodist Church on Lewis Street just west of A1A and four miles north of the bridge over Nassau Sound.

The story begins in 1790 when the Robert Harrison family came to the southern tip of Amelia Island and in 1796 received a 600-acre land grant from the Spanish government. Two related families acquired neighboring grants. Each plantation owned slaves, as many as one hundred, to raise crops of rice, cattle, corn, and sea island cotton.

In his 1939 account of old families and plantations of Nassau County, recorded in the WPA Federal Writers’ Program, J. J. G. Cooper wrote that the Harrison plantation had a machine that separated the seed from cotton. His presumption, based on what people told him, was that the planters had learned about this machine from Eli Whitney who had travelled on nearby Cumberland Island in 1790 or 1792.

At the time of the Civil War, the Harrison plantation had grown to 1,000 acres. Union army soldiers swept through the region in 1862, freeing the slaves, but the Harrison family deeded small tracts on the southern edge of the plantation to slaves who remained loyal to the family. Others moved a little to the north and established the community of Franklintown.

frank-placque

In 1880 Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, an African American congregation in Fernandina Beach, the town on the northern part of Amelia Island, organized Franklintown Chapel. Eight years later, Gabriel Means, an ex-slave and Union army soldier, and his wife Edith Drummond Means donated land to the church. In 1892 a small frame building was constructed. In 1949, it was demolished because of highway A1A construction and a new frame church was built.

In 1935 a small group of black businessmen from Jacksonville established American Beach, a residential community with beach access. Their purpose was to provide a place on the ocean for African Americans who could not enjoy public beaches in the segregated south. It was just north of Franklintown and for the next thirty years these two communities lived side by side.

In 1972 a company based on Hilton Head Island bought much of Franklintown and took the initial steps to establish an elaborate ocean-fronting resort and luxury condominiums. The church had to move and was relocated on Lewis Street, near A1A in the northern portion of American Beach. A new brick chapel was constructed and the 1949 frame building was relocated to the new site and serves as the church’s fellowship hall. I am puzzled by the sign posted on this building that refers to the Franklintown Episcopal Methodist Church, which reverses the order of Methodist and Episcopal from the normal title used through history by Methodists in this country.

cem-2I have not yet learned the earlier location of this church, but I have found the original Franklintown cemetery, which is located in Plantation Point, a gated community just south of Lewis Street. On a cul-de-sac of $500,000 homes, there is one vacant lot that provides access to the cemetery. Most of the graves are unmarked, but the purpose of this tiny tract of land is made clear by those that are still identified. I was especially moved by the grave of Ola A. Williams, September 12, 1879 — August 15, 1991.

In her book The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Annette McCollough Myers describes challenges facing American Beach (and Franklintown) because of the influx of wealthy people, most of them white and from other parts of the nation. The people I see while cycling through Franklintown are just like me, white and alien to the territory. Realty reports online describe Franklintown as one of the wealthiest communities in the nation.

Perhaps because of the wealth, there also is despair. I talked briefly with one old African American man sitting in the shade near a convenience grocery on A1A, within sight of the church. He sat with his back to the road, staring at the ground, munching on chips from a ripped open bag. His speech was difficult to understand, but over and over again he repeated this simple refrain: “I want to go, but I don’t want to kill myself.”

Myers, Annette McCollough. The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Second Edition (Jacksonville, FL: High-Pitched Hum Publications, 2011). This book describes the history of American Beach from the 1980s through the early 2000s.


Cycling Florida’s Sea Islands

February 18, 2016
Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

A mid-winter sojourn on Amelia Island, Florida, had two purposes: a visit with Mike and Diane, my cycling son and his wife, and vigorous bicycling in preparation for two weeks of even harder cycling events in Arizona. Rainy days, low temperatures, and blustery wind limited the miles I could ride, but made it possible to delve into the geography, history, and culture of this unique little place.

Most of my coastal experience has been in Oregon, where beaches provide a narrow and contested interface of mountains and rocky headlands with the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, I faced a geographical challenge in order to understand the roadways that the north Florida seaboard offers cyclists.

Amelia Island is one of one of a string of small, sandy islands that front the Atlantic Ocean, beginning in South Carolina and extending down the Florida coast. Hilton Head and St. Simons Island are part of this chain. Thirteen miles long and less than four miles wide at its widest point, Amelia is less than half the acreage of Hilton Head. It is separated from Georgia by the St. Mary’s River, and from the Florida mainland by the Amelia River and Nassau Sound.

Immediately north of the St. Mary’s River is Cumberland Island and south of Nassau sound are Big Talbot, Little Talbot, and Ft. George’s Islands. Together with Amelia Island, they are sometimes called the Sea Islands. South of Ft. George’s Island, the St. John’s River, Florida’s longest waterway, reaches the Atlantic. It is part of an inland lagoon system made possible by the barrier islands which, as sea levels dropped long ago, “became an obstacle that prevented water from flowing east to the ocean” (St. John’s River Water Management District).

Amelia Island is long and narrow and one arterial highway, Florida’s coastal highway A1A, runs its full length. Only a few miles from its northern terminus, A1A crosses the Amelia River near the widest part of the island, travels north a short distance to the deep harbor and historic town of Fernandina Beach, and crosses over to the Atlantic. After hugging the beach for several miles, it angles inland and continues south, leaving Amelia on a bridge over Nassau Sound.

During Amelia Island’s earlier history, A1A provided access to communities that have long been important to African-Americans. Since World War II, expensive resorts and condominiums have become the most prominent features of this stretch of highway.

For ten miles on Amelia Island and another fifteen as it continues south over the three smaller Sea Islands, this highway provides delightful cycling: smooth surfaces, good bike lanes, and virtually no elevation gain or loss. Much of the highway travels through wooded, swampy countryside, with the ocean beaches out of sight.

Big Talbot Sign

Part of Amelia and virtually all of the lower islands are state parks, which makes the cycling even more pleasing, especially to an out-of-shape cyclist like me. Recreational cyclists prefer the off-road bike trail that parallels A1A much of this distance.

With Mike and by myself, I bicycled along this corridor several times, staying on the highway bike lanes, and became acquainted with some of the history of Amelia Island, especially that of American Beach, which for several generations was a nationally important haven for African Americans who were suffering under segregation laws and customs. In another blog, where I review An American Beach for African Americans by Marsha Dean Phelts, I have described this part of my cycling experience.

Cyclists cannot help but pay attention to the string of expensive resort and residential communities on Amelia. Not only have they encroached upon long-existing African American sections of the island, but they have brought large numbers of winter residents, vacationers, and permanent residents. The character of the island is changing.

My contact with this new population took place at the Starbucks a mile from my son’s home, south of Fernandina Beach and north of American Beach and the new resort communities. It is the one new-style coffee shop on the island that I have seen, and in the mornings when I and my computer spent time there, the people I met were mostly my age, white, and from places like Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York. Like me, some of them value the New York Times and its “New York values,” but unlike me they seem to have little interest in the distinctive history of this part of the American South.

During my two weeks in the Sea Islands, I rode 275 miles at a pace that pushed my conditioning forward, thus fulfilling my needs as aggressive cylist. What pleases me even more is that a new part of America, previously unknown to me, has been revealed, so that my identity as contemplative cyclist is growing stronger, too. I’m sure that I’ll be back!

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island


“An American Beach for African Americans”

February 15, 2016

Reviewing An American Beach for African Americans, by Marsha Dean Phelts (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997)

AmericanBeachAmelia Island is the northeastern-most tip of Florida, separated from Georgia by the St. Mary’s River. From the earliest period of European activity, this thirteen-mile long barrier island experienced interaction, often serious conflict, between differing groups of people: Native American vs. European, Spanish explorers vs. English and French, slave owners vs. slaves, European Americans vs. African Americans, North vs. South, established families vs. vacationers

My interest in Amelia Island’s history developed during a two-week cycling and family vacation, and Marsha Dean Phelts’ book about a community on the southern part of the island became a source of information and insight.

Amelia Island’s sheltered, deep water port and its separation from but nearness to Florida’s mainland and the American South attracted seafarers of all kinds. Its commercial and residential activities were centered in the town of Fernandina Beach, at one time a center for the slave trade and a location for importing African slaves even after the practice had been outlawed by the United States.

Amelia was also a productive agricultural site. In 1796, Samuel Harrison applied for a land grant for property on the island that he had homesteaded, including a 700-acre site at the mouth of the Nassau River.

Despite President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slaves on Amelia Island did not gain freedom until the arrival of Union soldiers during the war. In 1865, Major General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which reserved land for the settlement of Negro communities. This order set apart the “islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, . . .for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States” (Phelts, p. 15).

Former slaves on the Harrison Plantation were able to acquire land and eke out a living by farming. They clustered in in a self-sufficient community named Franklin Town. This little community had its own school and a Methodist Church, which still is functioning.

Segregation laws during the Jim Crow era, allowed Black Americans on public beaches only as employees of whites, and they were not allowed to engage in recreational activities. Much of this was to change because of the vision and work of Abraham Lincoln Lewis (1865-1947) and his wife Mary Sammis, who was the great-granddaughter of another barrier island planter, the controversial Zephaniah Kingsley and his Senegalese wife Anna Jai.

With six other men at the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in Jacksonville, he founded the Afro-American Industrial and Benefit Association (later renamed the Afro-American Insurance Company). The company and its staff prospered, and Lewis decided to establish a community at the beach where African-Americans could come with freedom and without humiliation.

He and his colleagues settled on Amelia Island. It was reasonable close to Jacksonville, land could be acquired, and they could develop it according to principles that they chose for themselves rather than those dictated by the dominant, white society. They acquired a tract of land, with 1,000 feet of beach frontage, and in 1935 established American Beach.

Lewis and his colleagues and friends built houses and the community prospered. American Beach became a haven and destination point for African Americans all over the country. Some of the nation’s most celebrated figures in business, education, religion, and the entertainment world came to American Beach during its years of greatest prominence.

The passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 made it possible for African Americans to use all of the public beaches that formerly had been closed to them, which reduced some of the reasons for going to this haven. Immediately thereafter Hurricane Dora damaged many structures, again changing the dynamics of life in American Beach. In recent decades the encroachment of costly privately owned resort and condominium communities has also changed the social dynamics on this part of Amelia Island. Even so, American Beach continues to be a significant beacon for African-American history and life.

During her childhood Marsha Dean Phelts’ family vacationed here and in 1997, when she published her book, she lived in American  Beach. Her historical account is one of the book’s values, but equally interesting is her enthusiastic presentation of the human side of the experience, both the highs and the lows.

In the latter part of the book Phelts intertwines stories of American Beach families with their favorite recipes. ”Daddy Charlie’s Jamaican Con Pollo, with chicken, shrimp, ham, and boiled blue crabs, I could imagine eating, but not Super Bowl Pork Pot, with its twenty-nine pounds of of small pig ears, hog maws, pig tails and pig feet.

When she published this book, Phelts was a school librarian and a librarian in the Genealogical Department of the Jacksonville Public Library. Two decades have passed since then, but this is one of the best guides to Amelia Island’s history and continuing importance.