As reported in the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union, "Built on Slavery: Africans played a far greater role in Florida's history than Hollywood's viewpoint suggests, by Nicole Johnson McGill, on 9 December 2001 -- Slavery in America often conjures images of antebellum plantations with sprawling fields worked by weary black folks picking cotton or tobacco under the hot sun and the watchful eye of a whip-yielding white overseer.
This, after all, is the picture of slavery most often presented to us in books, on television and in the movies.
But the history of slavery in Florida challenges that cliche and reveals that black people were a diverse lot. Sure, they worked the fields, and yes, they were mammies, too. But they were also warriors and talented artisans who played vital roles in shaping Florida history. They could earn money and buy their own freedom. Slaves helped build cities, and while few structures remain, traces of their work still can be seen throughout Northeast Florida.
"I don't think people think of bridges and seawalls and forts as being constructed by slaves," said Jane Landers, a history professor at Vanderbilt University and author of Black Society in Spanish Florida (University of Illinois, $19.95). "But from the very beginning, slaves were responsible for building all of the major forts, the main public works, bridges and seawalls. All of those were constructed by enslaved Africans."
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in the New World, a landmark that has caused many to look back on the legacy of slavery in America.
Call it the Gone With the Wind phenomenon, said University of North Florida history professor Carolyn Williams, referring to the way Hollywood has shaped the American perception of slavery. "We don't see how complex it was and the rich contributions of black people from slavery through freedom."
To perpetuate the story of plantation slavery in the antebellum South as the whole truth is to distort history, said Landers of Vanderbilt, and ultimately to deny African-Americans a past rich in resourcefulness, entrepreneurial spirit, leadership and resistance.
The earliest contributions of blacks were documented in the meticulously detailed records of the Spanish, who controlled Florida during two periods -- from 1565-1763 and from 1784-1821.
When Spanish explorers started arriving in the New World, both free and enslaved Africans journeyed with them as they conquered the Caribbean, and black people were among the first to settle in North America.
Spanish records show that African-born slaves worked alongside Indians and Europeans. Some of their work still stands in St. Augustine, such as the city's seawalls and the Castillo de San Marcos, which was built from 1672-1695. Slaves served in Spain's militia, too, defending Florida from the British and later from the United States.
"My hero was Capt. Francisco Menendez," said Landers. In 1740 Menendez, an African slave who served in the militia, petitioned the Spanish king for the rank of captain and the salary that would accompany the title. As proof of his loyalty, he proudly listed all of his accomplishments, including a victory he led against the British as commander of the Mose Militia and renovations he did on the fort in St. Augustine.
"He tells the Spanish crown that he did construction work on a specific part of the Castillo de San Marcos for free," Landers said.
Fight for control
Florida was a sanctuary for runaway slaves from British colonies, and later the United States.
"The enslaved people who crossed the international border, across the St. Marys River, knew there was a difference," Landers said.
In Spanish Florida, slavery was not as severe as it was in British colonies or even in plantations in Latin America. Because of the growing threat of the British to the north, it was in Florida's best interest to offer refuge to runaways and to build a population that would be eager to aid in the colony's defense.
Like slavery in African countries, it was not necessarily a permanent situation, either. Slaves had some rights and could work their way out of bondage. The Catholic church and Castilian law provided for this because slavery was considered an "unnatural condition."
"If they were an enslaved person there also was a way for them to earn money," Landers said. "The Catholic calendar was full of holy days [when slaves didn't have to work] so even slaves had their own little businesses going on."
Most black slaves in the New World were West Africans, people who were desirable because of the skills they possessed, said Williams of UNF.
African masonry and metalworking techniques were used in the Castillo de San Marcos, as well as forts at ports in Havana, Santo Domingo, San Juan, Cartagena, Portobelo and Acapulco.
"They were skilled craftsmen," she said. "They got those skills from their African ancestors. People think that slaves had only marginal agricultural skills, but they knew about rice cultivation, they knew carpentry and metallurgy. They knew a lot of things."
Many African slaves also were quick to learn new languages, including English, Spanish and French. They also could communicate with various Indian tribes, said Williams. Many served as translators and middlemen during transactions between the various traders in the New World.
Slaves' lot in life took a turn for the worse in 1763, when Florida became a British colony during a 21-year stretch between the two periods of Spanish rule. The British brought with them their chattel-based system of enslavement, in which blacks were treated as property.
The number of slaves imported from Africa increased dramatically during those years, Landers said, and British plantations sprouted up along the St. Johns River and throughout Florida. "When ranches got developed in the late 1700s, black slaves and some who were free were overseers on plantations," Landers said, adding that slaves also worked as sailors, rowers and riverboat pilots.
"All of the wharf jobs and all of the steamship and shipping labor, they would have handled as well," Landers said. "They were the backbone of all of that."
Spain regained power in Florida in 1784 and ceded the territory to the United States in 1821.
In Jacksonville area
In the mid to late 1850s, railroad companies in the Jacksonville area, such as Florida Atlantic & Gulf Central linking Lake City and Jacksonville and the Florida Railroad Co. out of Fernandina, relied on both free and enslaved blacks to build some of the tracks and track beds that can still be seen today, said Joel McEachin of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission.
"Slaves helped build Old Plank Road, the first paved road out of Jacksonville going toward Lake City," McEachin said. "I'm sure that when the British were here, they helped build Old Kings Road. There was so much that was done in relation to the slave plantations, whether it was building docks or digging canals for rice cultivation."
The Red Bank plantation was built with slave labor in 1854. The home, on Greenridge Road on the Southside, is one of a handful of pre-Civil War structures still standing in Jacksonville.
In the 1930s, in interviews for the Federal Writers' Project, life on the Red Bank plantation was described in great detail. Slaves there used a large kiln to fire clay found on the plantation to make the bricks. In addition to growing cotton and other crops, they tended to horses in the stables and worked in the plantation's blacksmith and carpenter shops.
Dave Nelson of Uncle Davey's Americana on St. Augustine Road has several books on slavery, abolitionist newspapers and artifacts such as copper tags worn about the necks of slaves in Charleston. The tags identified the various occupations of slaves -- carpenter, mechanic, blacksmith. Nelson also has shackles from that era.
"That's sort of ironic, that they actually made their own shackles," said Nelson.
If something needed to be done, slaves and free blacks were likely the ones to do it, said Williams of UNF. The black workers were good craftsmen and came cheaper than white workers.
"That's part of the reason why whites who had those skills resented blacks," she said. "These are the jobs they would have had."
Blacks found ways to work the system, writes Florida A&M University professor Larry Eugene Rivers, in his book Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation (University Press of Florida, $29.95). In many instances, after serving their masters, they worked other jobs in their off hours to earn extra money.
"Probate records, estate sales records, advertisements and runaway notices suggest that many if not most of them commonly worked under hire," Rivers wrote. "In doing so they labored as carpenters, longshoremen and mechanics; they also staffed timber mills and cotton warehouses."
Whether or not they kept all of their wages depended on the agreement they had with their masters.
During the Civil War, when many slaves took advantage of the opportunity to escape, blacks served with the Union army and helped build the defensive infrastructure in Jacksonville, said McEachin of the preservation commission.
"They were Union soldiers recruited from the Battle of Olustee," he said, "and they came back to Jacksonville to fortify the city."
After the war, those soldiers, along with their families and countless other former slaves, settled in black communities -- LaVilla near Jacksonville, Franklintown on Amelia Island, in Mandarin along San Jose and Orange Pickers Road, and in places such as Lincolnville in St. Augustine and Rosewood west of Gainesville -- where they continued to build and leave their mark.
Historian and author Jane Landers said LaVilla was settled by many families that had been enslaved.
"Basically those are the people [LaVillans] who were freed after the Civil War. They become the businessmen and the founders of that community."
Even though they were free, they faced a new system of bondage, Williams said, in the form of segregation, discrimination and Jim Crow laws, that would deny them a fair opportunity to make a good living utilizing the very skills that had made them so desirable through centuries of slavery. (source: Jacksonville Florida Times-Union; Staff writer Nicole Johnson McGill )