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Looking for Angola, she finds her life

The struggle of black settlers near Sarasota in the early 1800s helps a TV journalist triumph over her own setback.

By RODNEY THRASH
Published February 23, 2006


[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Archaeologist Bill Burger and project director Vickie Oldham inspect a piece of glass found while digging early last year in search of Angola, a community of black settlers believed to have lived along the Manatee River in the 1800s.

SARASOTA

She could hear their cries, their prayers, the pitter-patter of their feet running through burning brush and scrub.

The setting was Myakka River State Park, May 2005, but it felt like Angola, circa 1821.

"We were actually taken to the period," Vickie Oldham said of the day she shot scenes for Looking for Angola, a PBS documentary premiering tonight at 9:30 on WEDU-Ch. 3. "I could feel the fear that the people of Angola must have felt knowing that they had to get out of there when their settlement was burned."

Little is known about Angola, except for brief references in old newspaper clippings, other historical documents and oral histories. Its precise location remains a mystery, though anthropologists and historians believe it was somewhere along the Manatee River.

What is known is that black slaves and Seminole Indians escaped to west-central Florida and created a community. They called it Angola, after the region in West Africa of the same name. It was looted and burned in 1821, perhaps under orders from a then rising political figure, Gen. Andrew Jackson. Survivors escaped to the Bahamas.

Oldham, 48, first learned about Angola in 1991 while working on a documentary about black Sarasota. During her research, she discovered that Dr. Canter Brown Jr., a Florida A&M University historian, had written a book, Florida's Peace River Frontier. Brown, in a 1 1/2-page mention, places blacks in Sarasota as early as 1812.

The news amazed Oldham. Except for college, she'd spent her entire life in Sarasota, reared in the largely African-American Newtown community. Yet she was unaware that such a place existed.

"Our presence was here," she said. "That may not mean a whole lot to others not in our culture, but it meant something to me, that we were here and that we were settling in these areas. We just didn't come later on. It meant something because I know that African-Americans contributed something, too - and early.

"I thought it was an incredible story."

As incredible as it was, she didn't have the time to delve into Angola's history. She was the host of a popular Sunday morning public affairs program and had dreams of becoming a news anchor.

A decade later, Oldham was asked to rewrite the script of another documentary, this one about Sarasota. She noticed no mention of black people until after the Civil War.

"That was late," she said. "I knew they were here before then, long before then. That's what caused me to go back to Canter's book after 10 years."

Oldham corrected the script, and the documentary was released. But she couldn't get Angola out of her mind. It tugged at her, all hours of the day. She felt a bond with the people of Angola, because now she understood a little more what it was like to struggle.

In 1997, she and four other black women accused the Sarasota ABC affiliate of racial and gender discrimination. Oldham filed a civil lawsuit that was settled in July 2001. That same month, her show was taken off the air. For the first time in more than 20 years, she wasn't a working TV journalist. Instead she was doing freelance work on documentaries.

"That made me nervous," Oldham said. "I had no 9-to-5, with all the things that go along with a 9-to-5: stability, that regular paycheck that you can count on every two weeks, a corporate entity to depend on for sustenance. I was basically making it on my own, drumming up my own accounts, developing my own contacts, networking."

She was at a crossroads, and she didn't know which way to turn. Should she look for work outside Sarasota, the only home she'd really known? Or should she stay and wait for a sign, anything that would give her a new sense of purpose?

Right about then, she picked up Brown's book and saw again his reference to Angola.

"I was just reading the story and . . . a particular theme kept playing over and over in my mind, that these people were making it on their own," Oldham said. "They had nobody to reach back to. If they could do what they did with so little, then, heck, I could make it on my own, too."

She decided to tell the story of the lost settlement. Initially, she envisioned a 10-minute documentary. Looking for Angola quickly mushroomed into a multimedia, multidiscipline project. She consulted with historians and learned that no archaeological digs of Angola had been done. She learned how to write grant proposals to fund the digs and her research. To promote awareness of Angola's history, she organized a series of discussions at libraries and other places in Sarasota and Manatee counties. She traveled to the Bahamas, where descendants of Angola live today, and accompanied an anthropologist who had lived with them for a year.

Last year, through a state grant, digging began in Bradenton. No significant artifacts were found.

"I wasn't deterred in the least bit," said Oldham, noting that efforts to locate the settlement will continue when - and if - more funding becomes available. Because Angola is believed to have stood somewhere along the Manatee River, the research may require underwater tests.

The History Channel recently awarded Oldham a grant that will help her and others integrate the history of the settlement into the curriculum of three area schools. And when they find Angola, Oldham wants to apply for national historic designation.

"You don't have time to hear all my ideas," she said.

For now, the focus is the documentary, which Oldham produced, wrote and narrated. The 25-minute program features time-appropriate music, old photographs and newspaper clippings, interviews with Florida historians and anthropologists, and recreated scenes with bay area actors.

"It allowed me to really appreciate, to feel the history," said Cabrina Adams, one of the Sarasota actors who participated in the documentary, along with her two daughters and son. "Being in the environment - we actually saw an alligator that day - those are the things that they would have had to go through."

Adams and Oldham said they hope Looking for Angola does for others what it did for them.

"That nervousness that I felt about making it on my own, moving from contract to contract, I was no longer nervous about it," Oldham said. "I figured I could do this. Those who might be facing challenges, no matter what they are, those who need a little push, a little determination to get to the next point in their lives, I hope this story speaks to them."

She said she is humbled that PBS found the documentary worthy of broadcast.

"I feel like a nervous parent about to send my baby out into the world," she said. "Is she or he ready? These are questions that I ask myself. Well, she's as ready as she's going to get at this time, and she'll grow and come into her own."

- Contact Rodney Thrash at (727) 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 23, 2006, 08:22:56]


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