Rest Assured, Gov. DeSantis: Black History is Secure in Florida’s National Parks
At the beginning of Black History Month, with the controversy being stoked by Governor DeSantis who is purportedly striving to “ban Black history,” I feel privileged to take you and the governor on a tour through the National Park System where the evidence of Black contributions to the development, sustenance and defense of the United States is enshrined on the land. There is no possibility of Black history being erased in Florida or anywhere else in America. [...] The post Rest Assured, Gov. DeSantis: Black History is Secure in Florida’s National Parks appeared first on The Westside Gazette.
By Audrey Peterman
I love the State of Florida with all my heart. Especially South Florida, which is the place my daughter and I fled to when winters in New York became intolerable for this Jamaican immigrant in 1985. It’s where I could go to the beach every weekend, pick mangoes in my backyard, as well as grapefruit and avocadoes and ackees for that glorious Jamaican national dish, ackee and saltfish. South Florida is also where I met my beloved husband Frank and became attached to his family and friends including Levi Henry Jr., founder of the Historically Black Westside Gazette Newspaper where I worked, and still freelance.
At the beginning of Black History Month, with the controversy being stoked by Governor DeSantis who is purportedly striving to “ban Black history,” I feel privileged to take you and the governor on a tour through the National Park System where the evidence of Black contributions to the development, sustenance and defense of the United States is enshrined on the land. There is no possibility of Black history being erased in Florida or anywhere else in America.
For the governor of the most vulnerable state in America to the dangers of sea level rise to focus instead on something so easily disproved increases my concern for the people of my beloved state. I hope that the Governor will turn his focus to addressing the effects of climate change that are bearing down on our shores.
Hang on for the ride as I take you through some of the incontrovertible evidence of Black history in Florida at the places where it happened, and which you can visit too.
Did you ever imagine yourself getting into your vehicle and driving around the entire country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with no itinerary and no particular destination in mind? Frank and I took that magical journey in 1995 and in the process I “discovered” the National Park System. I’d heard of the Grand Canyon and dreamed of seeing it someday, but I knew nothing about it being a national park. Same for Yellowstone, Yosemite and other world-famous names that I learned were also “national parks.”
This led to a lifetime of exploration that has brought us more joy than we could conceive of. The icing on the cake was learning that many of the units are historical sites that preserve some of the most special places in America, from Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia where the first Africans were traded onto US shores in 1619, to Independence Hall in Philadelphia where where the Constitution was debated and signed, to Camp Hale Continental Divide National Monument created by President Biden last October to honor Indigenous people and veterans.
There are now 424 units in the National Park System which protects our natural, cultural and historic legacy for the benefit of this and future generations, and has done so since 1916. Frank and I have visited 185 units from the Virgin Islands National Park to Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The experience has cost us relatively little (many parks don’t even have entrance fees) and we’ve enjoyed accommodations from sleeping in our tent to staying at the Historic Ahwahnee Hotel in the middle of the Yosemite Valley where Queen Elizabeth and Presidents Kennedy and Obama have stayed.
One of the best things that we’ve found besides the awe-inspiring beauty is the living history of the contributions of Americans of every race and ethnic group. From the Caribbean Sea at the southernmost tip of Florida to the top of Mount Denali, the highest point on the North American continent, Black Americans have left their footprints and legacy of redoubtable deeds. The fact that everyone is not flocking to these experiences I can only conclude is because many people don’t know that such opportunities exist, just like I didn’t know.
Since Florida is apparently ground zero for this conversation, let’s take a quick trip to some of the national park sites in the state where Americans of African descent left their mark in tabby, brick and mortar.
First stop – the Kingsley Plantation/Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve outside Jacksonville. This plantation’s unique history includes its Mistress being a Black Senegalese princess, Anna Madgigine Jai, who was sold into enslavement in Cuba. Zephaniah Kingsley who “acquired” and later married her, also liberated her and their children from the institution of slavery. In the businessman’s frequent absences Mrs. Kingsley ran the plantation and made it profitable.
What makes a visit to this site most poignant for me is to be able to walk into the tabby cabins that the enslaved people built for their lodging, and to place my hands upon those walls. In that moment I feel as if 200 years have rolled away, and I’m touching the hands that made tabby out of sand and shells; that grew the cotton and the indigo as well as food that powered the plantation economy. I feel a kind of ecstasy that I can communicate to them from the depths of my soul, “Thank you for all you invested in our country that my generation and everyone benefits from.”
The famous “Beach Lady,” opera singer MaVynee Betsch who gave away her fortune to support conservation efforts, and her sister, Johnetta Cole, former President of Spelman College and world renowned scholar, descended from the Kingsley family. The year before her death in 2005 MaVynee succeeded in getting the eight-and-a-half acre, 60-foot sand dunes where she played as a child added to the park. A museum on American Beach now tells part of the incredible story.
At the very bottom of the state we find the Dry Tortugas National Park, a collection of seven islands with the dominant feature being Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. The mammoth fort built with 16 million bricks was once the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere.
When we first approached it on the commercial ferry from Key West, we could see the fort rising like a mirage in the distance. Upon closer approach and observing the intricate brickwork, Frank said, “I bet Black men did this work.”
“What makes you think so?” I asked.
“It’s hot, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous . . .” he said.
Sure enough, we found that many of the men and women that worked on the fort were enslaved Africans. The records show that “slave owners were paid $1.12 a day for the work their slaves provided.” We also found reports that the enslaved people tried to take their freedom by boat.
The Fort was built as part of America’s coastal defense system starting in the early 1800s. Before Fort Jefferson could be completed, the British developed armaments that could pierce even those thick walls. At one-point Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was implicated in the assassination of President Lincoln, was imprisoned there. He won his freedom after successfully treating an outbreak of yellow fever at the fort.
The profusion of exotic birds and marine life on Garden Key complete an unforgettable visit. Approaching the Fort, the ferry passes nearby Bird Key, where Magnificent Frigate Birds and other exotic species nest. The sight of the males soaring over the fort in breeding season with their red pouch expanded is something to behold. The females are equally mesmerizing with their white throats. The cacophony of sound and the profusion of birdlife – including male and female Painted Buntings that are definitely among the most colorful birds on Earth – is like an orchestra to a bird lover’s ears.
Frank and I felt right at home sleeping in our tent on the beach, listening to the susurrating sounds of the waves and watching the stars through our tent flap. There are no accommodations on the island, and rainwater is caught in a cistern as there’s no fresh water source.
Under the moonlight we walked with our friends around the moat surrounding the fort, amazed by the profusion of life swimming in and out of the sea. A Queen Conch moved slowly on the bottom. A blue parrot fish spun a slimy cocoon around itself as it slept, and a spiny lobster jumped from spot to spot.
Next morning Frank found turtle tracks right by our tent, and followed them up the beach. A park ranger doing research on the island told us she was probably around 250 pounds and may have come ashore to scope out a nest to lay her eggs.
From the Dry Tortugas National Park, we could go north up the coast from to Biscayne National Park, which became a park thanks to the Joneses, an African American family that bought their first island in Biscayne Bay in 1897. The patriarch Israel Lafayette “Pahson” Jones named his sons King Arthur and Sir Lancelot Jones in hopes of inspiring them to do lofty deeds, and they lived up to his intent when Sir Lancelot defended the islands from developers who wanted to turn it into a second Miami Beach, selling his land to the National Park Service instead so that it could be protected.
Thus began Biscayne Monument which was later expanded into Biscayne National Park, the largest marine park in the entire National Park System. The cistern the family used to catch water still stands on the island of Porgy Key, and we were able to go there and touch it. When the outdoors group “Mahogany Youth” persuaded State Legislators to declare October 12 “Sir Lancelot Jones Day” and the road into the park was renamed Sir Lancelot Jones Way, we were there for that too.
Now we go west to Everglades National Park which is part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and includes an encampment where Black Civilian Conservation Corps members worked to strengthen the park near the middle of the 20th century. Freedom seeking Black Americans lived in the swamp with Seminole Indians, braving the stinging, biting denizens as they made their way south to freedom, which they found at places such as Red Bay in the Bahamas.
We could stop here, or go farther west to the Big Cypress National Preserve, where in the middle of the 20th Century Black and Native Americans worked in snake infested waters sometimes up to their neck to cut down Big Cypress trees, known as “the wood eternal” that helped build America’s infrastructure. The trees were so durable that they were prized over giant sequoia trees which were brought in from California for the loggers’ housing. More than half a century later some of those trees that could not be retrieved, are still laying in the water where they fell.
I could take you across the entire country to the places from which the Buffalo Soldiers fought against the indigenous people to protect the white migrants heading west, such as Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas, where you can see the same view they looked at and touch the beds where they slept.
We could go up to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in California where the Buffalo Soldiers protected the parks at the turn of the 20th century.
I could take you to Diamond, Missouri and the George Washington Carver National Monument which protects the birthplace of the iconic leader born into slavery who never knew his parents, yet rose to become the savior of the US economy with his agricultural brilliance. He became THE FIRST INDIVIDUAL OTHER THAN A PRESIDENT to have a unit of the National Park System named for him. I have walked reverently on the land thinking that wherever I put my foot could be the place he called his “Secret Garden” where he conducted many of his experiments as a young child and said the plants communicated their secrets to him.
We could continue west to the Presidio of San Francisco that was built with the labor of Hispanic and Afro-Hispanic peoples and the indigenous Ohlone tribe as part of our defense system in the mid-1700s. Or we could go up to Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Alaska where the Buffalo Soldiers kept the peace in the Gold Rush.
I’m becoming a little weary from downloading all this information out of my head and feeling the emotions brought back by the memory of standing in all those sacred places. I hope that I’ve made the point that American history is the sum total of everything that has happened on the land of this country, so no group’s legacy can be erased. Unless of course, you don’t know about it. I hope I’ve helped to cure that.
(Audrey Peterman is the author of three books about the US National Park System, her latest being From My Jamaican Gully to the World and Back, (2022.) She is also the winner of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Centennial Leader Award. 2022.
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