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