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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

They Dared to Dream

I write this column on Mondays, and yesterday was Mother’s Day. Although I’ve had bad experiences with mussels before, I nonetheless ate some – and my tummy still is reeling, with my head floating about a foot away from my shoulders. Thus, in a complete switch of topics that will become clear soon:

I recently got the first copies of my newest book, but the official publication date is not until the 26th, so I’ve been holding off on showing it to all but a few friends. If you want to pre-order it, though, you can do so at the website for the University Press of Florida. It’s called They Dared to Dream: Florida Women Who Shaped History. It begins with our peninsula’s prehistoric tribes, who varied significantly from north and south – and the roles of women varied, too. In almost all, however, it was women who were the primary farmers, home constructors, garment makers, and certainly child deliverers. Without women, history ends in a generation.

Women, too, were more prevalent among Florida’s European explorers than most of us were led to believe in badly taught high school history classes. At least two women were with Ponce de Leon, the first expedition in 1513 (more than a century prior to the Pilgrims, by the way, who didn’t arrive in Massachusetts until 1620). Women were part of each of the six major expeditions that attempted to colonize Florida, from 1513 to 1565, when a successful permanent settlement began at St. Augustine. Immodest though it may sound, I think that I may be the first historian to grasp that fact and to emphasize these women.

That is why I want to go to Cuba: Havana was the capital of the eastern Spanish Empire; Mexico City played the same role for the western and southern part of the empire. I’d love to find out more about the women who went on the earliest voyages, and records there are the best possible source. What I know so far raises almost as many questions as it answers, and I am hopeful that soon I can go to Havana sans compulsory tour groups, independently visiting the archives that I want to explore. When others are going to factories and health clinics, I want to sit quietly (with an interpreter) reading dusty documents.

But that is for another day. I say all this today as a way of introducing this week’s topic: while my head reunites with my body, I’m going to take it easy on myself by again using some of the sidebars that were cut from the new book. The two below are from Chapter Two, which covers the years from Spanish exploration (1513) to American takeover (1821). Yes, that is a long time and there’s a lot to say, but these three centuries got compacted. Here are two bits (of differing lengths) that were cut. Both demonstrate the higher status that blacks held under Spanish law, significantly higher than they would have under later US governance.

* * *

In 1804, the year after the Louisiana Purchase, Julee Panton bought a new four-room house with an upper loft – but what made this purchase unusual was that she was a free woman of color. At a time when most black people were enslaved and most states restricted their right to own property, Panton and many other black Pensacolans invested in land, homes, and businesses.

The man from whom she bought also reflected the town’s mixed ethnicity: seller Francisco Heindenburg had a Spanish first name and a German surname. Pensacola, which would become Florida’s first capital in 1821, was uncommonly diverse and tolerant.

Some free blacks there were so wealthy and so accepting of local standards that they themselves owned slaves. Julee Panton, however, probably did not follow this trend, as it is believed that instead, she bought freedom for other blacks. Panton paid $300 for her lot and house, which still can be seen from Pensacola’s Zaragoza Street.

* * *

Born in the African country of Senegal, probably in 1793, Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley became a powerful figure in the area south of modern Jacksonville. Her original name probably was Anta Majigeen Ndiaye, and her father was of royal lineage. She lived in a compound of huts that her mother shared with others of her father’s wives until 1806, when another tribe captured and sold her. (Let us remember that similar evil goes on today.)

Taken on a slave ship to Havana, she was bought by a wealthy white Floridian, Zephaniah Kingsley. He also had several wives and mixed-race children, but Anna proved the most entrepreneurial. She soon supervised Laurel Grove, a plantation on the St. Johns River across from Mandarin and directly south of Cowford, which would become Jacksonville. Zephaniah Kingsley frequently traveled on business – often on his own ship that was completely staffed by black sailors, some of them slaves – and so his frequent absences may have been a factor in his legal emancipation of Anna and her children on March 4, 1811.

Being free had its hazards, as, in 1812, war between Britain and the new United States gave Georgians and Carolinians an excuse to raid Spanish Florida for slaves. Anna Kingsley, of course, sided with the Spanish -- who not only were the legal government in Florida, but also were much better about protecting black rights than Anglos, whether British or American. To prevent them from using Laurel Grove as a headquarters, she even set fire to its buildings, for which Spanish official Jose Antonio Moreno recommended reimbursement from the government.

The War of 1812 ended early in 1815, but soon Florida’s free blacks were threatened even more seriously. Unable to govern and eager for cash, Spain sold its colony to the United States in 1819. Many Spanish people -- white and black and shades in between -- left prior to the 1821 completion of the deal. The Kingsleys, however, were sufficiently accepted in their area that they hung on at Amelia Island until 1836. By then, the status of blacks was becoming more difficult, so Zephaniah Kingsley bought 36,000 acres in Haiti. Anna and her now-adult children lived there in luxury, continuing to manage plantations.

But in 1843, Zephaniah did not return from one of his business trips, and his sister sued to disinherit the black and mixed-race members of the family – including her own grandchild. Anna Kingsley returned from Haiti to Florida in 1846 to fight for her rights under Zephaniah’s will. It is to the credit of both her powerful intelligence and the state of Florida that the black woman won the case. The white woman even had to pay the court costs.

Her only living son chose to stay in Haiti, and Kingsley returned to managing the family’s Florida fortune. She purchased a farm on east side of the St. Johns River called Chesterfield: it was between the plantations of her daughters, both of whom married white men, and now the land is Jacksonville University’s Arlington campus. She farmed and flourished – and bought and sold other blacks as slaves. A thorough businesswoman, she was no abolitionist or champion of liberty.

Like many people of the era and the area, Kingsley seems to have dealt with the Civil War by simply trying to live her usual life. The Jacksonville area switched back and forth between Union and Confederate control, and exactly how she coped appears uncertain. Nor is her death date exactly known. Different documents point to a death as early as 1860 or as late as 1870. It is probable, however, that the abolition of slavery bankrupted this African American, as she was buried in an unmarked grave on the plantation of her married daughter.

Another daughter was widowed, and it was she that Kingsley chose as executor of her will. Most strikingly, three of the will’s four witnesses were women; the man may have been included because other such documents had been successfully challenged when there were no male witnesses. She also gave her property exclusively to daughters and granddaughters, probably intending to demonstrate a life-learned feminism: virtually all cultures stack the deck against women, and she wanted to balance the cards in favor of her family’s females. In any case, the will that she wrote in Florida in 1860 reflected a very different time and place from her birth in the Africa of 1793.

And history is complicated. Doing a good job of writing it requires much dedication and sacrifice, usually without significant financial reward. Historian Daniel Schafer of Jacksonville spent twenty-five years writing his biography of Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley prior to its 2003 publication by the University Press of Florida, and I thank him for that. You might also enjoy reading a fictionalized account of the Kingsley children during the War of 1812, when they lived with the daily fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Written by M.C. Finotti, it is The Treasure of Amelia Island and is available from Sarasota’s Pineapple Press.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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