Sunday, April 3, 2011
On the banks of the Manatee River near Sarasota, Florida, is a site that was once a refuge for as many as 700 runaway slaves (aka Black Seminoles) and Seminole Indians in the early part of the 19th Century.
The settlement was known as Angola, after the country on the southwest coast of Africa where many slaves’ journeys began. Long before the Civil War, Maroons (runaway slaves) from South Carolina, Georgia and Northern Florida sought refuge further south in Spanish La Florida. Even though most slaves escaped to the north, some found their way to the southern peninsula in their quest for liberty. This site in southwest Florida is one such. The region’s dense Oak forests and mangrove swamps afforded Maroons safe harbor from slave hunters. Considering the conditions that would have prevailed at the time, one can only imagine how brave and tenacious these souls were in their pursuit of freedom.
Angola is believed to have been occupied between 1812 and 1821. The settlement was ransacked and burned to the ground in a surprise attack by a war party of Coweta Creek Indians reputedly following orders from General Andrew Jackson in April of 1821, the year that Florida became a territory of the United States. Jackson’s goal was to eliminate independent black settlements in the Floridian peninsula. Although most of the inhabitants of Angola were taken prisoner, about 300 of them managed to escape through the virtually impenetrable Everglades to the Florida Keys. Some of the former slaves ultimately made their way to Red Bays in the Bahamas, where their descendants still live today.
Starting in 2005, a dedicated team of experts now based at Sarasota’s New College has employed the dual disciplines of archaeology and ethnography to research the history of the site and to search for artifacts in an ongoing effort to pinpoint the location of Angola. Project leader and journalist, Vickie Oldham, initiated the search after being commissioned to write an article about the history of Sarasota’s black community. She soon learned that this important piece of history had been left out of the story. Angola was only known from scant references in books about the period and through oral history.
Oldham was inspired to apply for a research grant and was awarded the first one five years ago. An archaeological dig was organized and the research project “Looking for Angola” was launched. So far, each time funding is realized, another step of this journey is completed. Oldham went with anthropologist Rosalyn Howard on one of her many trips to the Bahamas to record interviews with the mainly elderly Angola descendents in Red Bays, before the oral history could leave this earth with them.
To date, artifacts including pottery shards have been found and are awaiting verification, hopefully resulting in the declaration of the site as a historical monument.
Florida A&M University historian Canter Brown Jr., University of Central Florida anthropologist Rosalyn Howard, New College of Florida historical archaeologist Uzi Baram, University of South Carolina archaeologist Terrance Weik, independent archaeologist Bill Burger, UCF history professor Vibert White and Sarasota educator Louis Robison complete the multi-disciplinary collaborative team that has been assisted by donors, volunteers, the media and students in the area.
I attended a panel discussion titled “Five Years of Looking for Angola – a Restrospective on the Journey and Future Paths to Explore.” The presentation commenced appropriately with an opening ceremony in the Kwanzaa tradition featuring the beat of a drum and a verbal invocation to welcome the spirits of the ancestors.
These particular ancestors lived a tumultuous and courageous life - the intention of this project is to bring their history to light so that their descendants and all the citizens of Florida and the rest of this country can recognise the part they played in our mutual history, starting with the evidence buried right under our feet. Much of the approximately 200 acres the team is in the process of examining is urban; encompassing homes, roads, and underground utility lines, and is privately owned - requiring owners' permission to test the land.
In essence, this is a painstaking search for evidence of a people who had very little in the way of possessions and whose very existence depended on their ability to hide themselves. The project aims to recognise the existence of these people and their experiences by unearthing and officially acknowledging the home that they made in Florida.
Of this long term project, Oldham says that the existence of Angola and its inhabitants was little known and almost forgotten and that "(their) story of courage, determination and enterprise deserves preservation and commemoration."
The story of Angola shows us once again what human beings are capable of when faced with adversity – a reminder of the past that can surely stand us in good stead as we plot our course in the world today.