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Excavators seeking freedom pioneers

A project in Manatee County digs up clues about Angola, an early 1800s refuge for blacks who refused to be slaves.

By MARCUS FRANKLIN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2005

The details, though few in number, intrigued Vickie Oldham.

She knew an all-black settlement existed in the early 19th century somewhere along the Manatee River. She knew nearby Cuban fishermen referred to the area as Angola.

She knew it was destroyed, perhaps under orders from Gen. Andrew Jackson, in the early 1820s. She knew direct descendants live in the Bahamas today.

But those fragmentary facts weren't enough. Oldham wanted more information - for herself and for others.

So the Sarasota woman launched "Looking for Angola," an ambitious project she expects will shed more light on a mysterious community that she, historians and archaeologists agree is poorly documented in history books, if at all.

In December, the Angola project took a major step forward when an archaeologist and a handful of volunteers began "exploratory digs" and shovel tests in what today is East Bradenton. The digs and tests could lead to extensive excavations if they indicate there's something significant below ground.

"It signaled something historic," Oldham, 46, said of the start of the digs and tests. "The beginning of a long-term project. The beginning of a journey. God only knows what we're going to find. I believe beyond any doubt that evidence of Angola exists underground and ... (the) team will find it. It's just a matter of when, not if.

"The story of their lives, courage, determination and enterprise deserves preservation and commemoration."

Through March 29, a series of free public discussions about Angola and any new discoveries will be held at various locations in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

In addition, Oldham, a documentarian who raised more than $92,000 in state grants and private in-kind donations for the project, also plans to make a documentary about Angola and create an international cultural exchange based on it, she said.

"To know about this local story of people who lived right in my community, to know of their courage, the risks they took, how determined they were to survive on their own with nothing but what they could carry on their back, that to me was just incredibly empowering," said Oldham, who found out about the settlement 15 years ago while working on a documentary about African-Americans in Sarasota.

The public discussions will feature the archaeologist leading the digs and tests, and anthropologists and historians such as Florida A&M University professor Canter Brown, who has spent 17 years researching, writing and lecturing about Angola.

In an interview, Brown said as many as 750 people lived in the settlement. Many had fought with the British in the War of 1812, and others in the earliest Seminole Wars against Gen. Andrew Jackson during whites' violent removal of Indians from Florida.

Still others probably were survivors of the destruction of the Negro Fort, now Fort Gadsden State Park, which served as a base for British recruitment of Indians and blacks during the War of 1812, Brown said.

Land title claims filed before the United States took possession of Florida from Spain reference Angola, Brown said. But so far, no one knows what the residents called it nor anything about day-to-day life, the professor said.

"Those who recorded Florida's early history were not interested in preserving the memory of heroic black people, in particular heroic runaway slaves, who were more than willing to die to preserve their freedom and the freedom of their loved ones," Brown said. "We've got a lot yet to find out."

Based on the little that is known, Brown said, Angola is "one of the most significant historical sites in Florida if not the United States. It illustrates the role Florida played as a refuge ... for slaves and their courage to get and keep their freedom."

In 1821, the year the United States acquired Florida from Spain, Jackson became the state's first provisional governor. He challenged the freedom of Angola's inhabitants, Brown said, and ordered the settlement destroyed.

The raiders captured more than 250 people. Some residents fled into other parts of the territory. Others traveled south, eventually taking canoes and wreckers to the Bahamas, where historians and anthropologists say descendants live.

Several years after Angola's ruin, in 1828, John Lee Williams, an early Florida historian, explored the Manatee River. He reported seeing ruined cabins and scattered belongings, Brown said.

"There is a real possibility we're going to make exciting discoveries," the professor said.

Bill Burger, an independent archaeologist Oldham contracted to conduct the shovel tests, and his half-dozen volunteers have made discoveries of cultural artifacts such as pottery. But they're prehistoric and Civil War era, and not related to Angola, Burger said.

Finding physical evidence of Angola's existence will be difficult, the archaeologist said.

"We're talking about people who didn't have a lot of material possessions to lose or throw away," he said.

Much of the 150 to 200 acres he and the volunteers are examining is urban - homes, roads, and underground utility lines - and privately owned. The project continues to get owners' permission to test the land, he said.

"It's not an easy project but I'm optimistic we will find evidence, however sparse."

[Last modified February 7, 2005, 01:44:19]

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