Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2007
Story of early Florida black settlement emerging
A forgotten 19th century black settlement in mid-Florida is reemerging as a compelling story.
Posted on Tue, Oct. 16, 2007
BY AUDRA D.S. BURCH
CHARLES TRAINOR JR/MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Vicki Oldham stands next to a Civil War era house in Bradenton. She is part of an effort to help preserve an area on the Manatee River where an African-American settlement flourished in the early to mid 1800s. The area, named Angola, has been an interest to archaeologists who have been surveying the area with equipment used at Ground Zero in new York. The area where she is standing was part of the survey.
- Video | Scientists search for a lost settlement of blacks and Seminoles named Angola
- Audio | Interview with documentary film maker Vickie Oldham
BRADENTON — For 10 years, they fought, hid and prayed for freedom here by the river, those 750 fugitive slaves, free blacks and black Seminoles who drifted west from the middle of Florida to form the largest community of its kind in the early 19th century South. Then, in 1821, their settlement, which they had named Angola after its kindred region in West Africa, was burned and looted and destroyed, probably by order of Gen. Andrew Jackson.
For the past five years, documentary producer Vickie Oldham has searched for the forgotten story of this self-sufficient village, which survived war, invasion and the threat of capture long enough to form one of the most extraordinary chapters of Florida history.
Now, Oldham and a team of scientists and historians believe they have found the bones of the Angola story lying beneath a several-mile stretch where the Manatee and Braden rivers meet, secrets suspended under a tranquil trailer park, under the tabby ruins of a plantation owner’s castle, under a playground near a mineral spring.
They call the project — as much spiritual journey as science — Looking for Angola.
”I am looking for my own history. I am looking for the elders who came here centuries ago,” says Oldham, 49, an African-American free spirit driven by the possibilities of the past. “Something about this story of survival and strength spoke to me. Everybody deserves to know this chapter in history.”
Now, finally, after years of research and excavations, after slow learning and cautious hope and a PBS documentary, radar technology is exhuming the truth.
The same sophisticated lasers that detected underground infrastructure damage near the World Trade Center site after 9/11 is starting to uncover Angola’s historical residue.
For years, the settlement’s reality has remained cloaked in a patchwork of historical documents and scholarly journals. Now, workers have found faint physical signs of its past underground.
”There’s evidence of a good deal of materials in a three-acre area,” says Uzi Baram, the archaeologist heading up the project. “We now know the past is right under our feet.”
So close, four feet at the most, that it can be scooped with shovels.
Earlier this summer, Witten Technologies, an underground mapping company based in Tampa, and the Army Corps of Engineers performed an archaeological survey between the river and Manatee Mineral Spring in east Bradenton.
Witten ‘s Radar Tomography system is essentially a John Deere lawn mower chassis retrofitted with 17 radar antennas. Moving at 2 mph, the device produces 3-D images of underground material.
”Think of this as a CAT scan or MRI of the underground,” says Andrew Lund, Witten’s business development manager. “We found hundreds of objects of interest, so the next step is for us to show the team where to start digging.”
Over two days in July, Witten workers scanned a field framed by old playground swings and trees dripping chandeliers of moss.
”We are essentially looking for an invisible community, trying to piece together a settlement that was quite ephemeral,” says Baram, an associate professor of anthropology at New College of Florida in Sarasota. “They did not make a large imprint on the landscape by design, but we know something is there.”
Oldham was 400 miles away sitting in her office at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, where she serves as a marketing director, waiting for updates by phone. These days had been 15 years in the making. She knew the results would be nuanced, not much more than shadows, but she had fretted that nothing would be found, that Angola would remain alive only in the minds of historians and archaeologists and anthropologists.
”I was excited, I felt like we were about to become part of redefining history,” Oldham says. “But I also felt this was urgent, that we had to find the physical evidence to bolster the historical stuff we already knew.”
Canter Brown Jr., a professor of history at Fort Valley, and other team members characterize the settlement as one of the most significant historical sites in Florida.
”It illustrates the role Florida played as a refuge of freedom for slaves and their courage to get and keep their freedom,” says Brown, author of Florida’s Peace River Frontier, which includes one of the earliest mentions of Angola.
Angola was one of about 50 documented maroon communities — underground, autonomous villages of fugitive Negro slaves — in the country during the early colonial period.
Oldham first heard about it in 1992 while working on a documentary about the history of African Americans in nearby Sarasota.
”I knew instantly that I wanted to know more, and that I wanted to prove Angola was real,” Oldham says. “It just struck me as a story of empowerment that should be shared.”
But it would be almost 10 years before Oldham actually went to work on the project. First, she had to learn how much of the story was known. There had been no substantial research, no excavations for artifacts, detailed record of the labors, the struggles, the lives of Florida’s blacks before the Civil War.
The few facts that have emerged: The Angola settlers migrated from Central and North Florida, some as survivors the War of 1812 and other skirmishes. They settled as far north as Tampa Bay but concentrated mostly here along the banks of the Manatee River, near what is now I-75.
The village was carved from thick vegetation along the river banks. Its protected location, rich soil and abundant fresh water made it a haven for escaped slaves. As a thriving seaport, it came to be known as Negro Point. It was prosperous and popular, and some historians refer to it as Florida’s first black town.
Scholars believe that Andrew Jackson, the ruthless and ambitious army general who had just been appointed provisional governor, ordered his allies, the Lower Creek Indians, to destroy all Seminole and black villages as revenge for their dogged resistance to his control.
In the 1821 raid that destroyed Angola, an estimated 300 villagers were captured and returned to slavery. The rest were killed or fled to the Bahamas, where their descendants live today.
In 2003, Oldham received a $25,000 state preservation grant to finance her research. She quickly recruited a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians.
Within the year, the team conducted its first explorations. Volunteers dug in the front yard of a white Civil War-era clapboard house owned by preservationists Jeff and Trudy Williams.
”We always suspected that somebody had been here well before us,” says Trudy Williams, a neighborhood resident for 30 years.
Nothing much emerged from that first effort except a single bottle, but Oldham was undeterred. She coordinated several more digs, including an underwater search in the river.
And she told the Angola story in churches and at community centers and libraries, told it to anyone who would listen. Oldham also went looking for living history, traveling to Red Bay on Andros Island in the Bahamas to meet the descendants of Angola’s settlers who spoke of Florida as a long-lost home.
In 2005, she wrote, narrated and produced a 22-minute documentary on the project that aired on the Tampa PBS affiliate the next year. The History Channel also awarded Oldham a $10,000 grant to help incorporate the Angola story into the curriculum of some Florida schools.
But it wasn’t until this summer that the search for Angola yielded real results. Now, after team members finish studying the radar reports, and if another state grant is approved, they will dig this winter.
They will dig for pottery, fishing lines and tools — dig for the 19th century.
”I want to see monuments to Angola in Florida. I want to see its mention in history books,” Oldham says. “I want to celebrate Angola.”
Associate Director of Public Affairs
/ Media Relations
New College of Florida
5800 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota , FL 34243-2109