Kingsley holds a special place in history for archaeologists interested in the African Diaspora as it is one of the earliest sites to be dug specifically to understand the enslaved Africans and African-Americans that labored on the plantations of the South. In 1968, Dr. Charles Fairbanks, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, began excavations at Kingsley in order to understand the nature of cultural transformations that enslaved Africans went through after they arrived in the Americas. Fairbanks was looking for “Africanisms“–cultural traits retained from the myriad of African cultures from which the slaves came.
Why did Fairbanks choose Kingsley to look for these Africanisms? Well, here’s a bit of information on Kingsley Plantation… The Kingsley Plantation, now administered by the National Park Service, is located on Fort George Island (near Jacksonville, Florida) and includes the plantation house, a kitchen house, a barn, and the ruins of 25 of the original slave cabins. The Kingsley Plantation was named for one of several plantation owners, Zephaniah Kingsley, who operated the property from 1813-1839. Kingsley operated under a “task” system, which allowed slaves to work at a craft or tend their own gardens once the specified task for the day was completed. Proceeds from the sale of produce or craft items were usually kept by the slaves. Also, Zephaniah–born as a Quaker–didn’t seem too sympathetic to Christianity…he ran off missionaries and encouraged the enslaved folks to practice whatever religion they claimed as their own. Moreover, Kingsley’s wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, was purchased as a slave, but freed in 1811. She was active in plantation management and became a successful businesswoman owning her own property. As an American territory, Florida passed laws that discriminated against free blacks and placed harsh restrictions on African slaves. This prompted Kingsley to move his family, impacted by these laws, to Haiti, now the Dominican Republic, where descendants of Anna and Zephaniah live today.
Fairbanks thought that these unusually circumstances of enslavement might help Africanisms flourish…After his excavations, however, he confessed that deciding what is and what is not an Africanism is a tricky business. In retrospect we can see Fairbanks’ approach to as fairly simplistic in the way that it reifies and essentializes African (and African-American) culture. Nevertheless, he was a pioneer and his moral mission to understand the lives of the enslaved can still be admired.
Now my old friend and colleague James Davidson attempts to fill the rather large shoes that Dr. Fairbanks left behind–both at the University of Florida and at the Kingsley Plantation. Davidson ran his first University of Florida archaeological field school this summer at Kingsley and, from what I saw during my visit, it was a success. Davidson has uncovered the floors of two of the tabby slave cabins and lots of interesting facts and artifacts are coming to light.
I’m fighting the temptation to write about all of the interesting things Davidson is uncovering, but I don’t want to either “jump the gun” with preliminary interpretations nor “steal his glory” so I’ll leave the specifics to another day. Suffice it to say, that I had a good time excavating with the UF field school…a great group of students and a very competent group of graduate students.