Kingsley Plantation: Journey through time offers living lesson

Plantation is complex piece of history preserved on Fort George Island

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Kingsley Plantation is the oldest standing plantation in Florida.

It’s where Anna Kingsley, an African woman who became a slave, went on to become a slave owner herself.

“It is a beautiful place, yes. But it is also a horrible place. It is a place of hope but also a place of tragedy. It represents all of this and I think that it is important to factor all of that in,” said Josh Salestrom, a park ranger with the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve. “When we tell the story when we understand this story -- that yes, it is a beautiful site, but it’s important to never forget that this site was constructed on the backs of misery.”

The plantation, which spanned about 600 acres, is where Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley's family lived from 1814 to 1837. (Provided by Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve)

It’s a complex part of over 200 years of living, breathing history preserved on Fort George Island.

“The legacy is probably more important and that is the story that we tell, that we teach our children about -- the things that happened here,” Salestrom said. “The way these enslaved people in particular lived their lives. So that we don’t think the same way or make the same mistakes as we pass it on to future generations.”

The plantation, which spanned about 600 acres, is where Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley’s family lived from 1814 to 1837.

“Zephaniah was a white European trader merchant. He traded and sold a variety of commodities from cotton to human beings,” Salestrom explained. “Anna, his wife, was an African woman from Senegal, what is now today Senegal. He purchased her at a slave auction in Cuba when she was very young and married her.”

Anna Kingsley, one of Zephaniah’s four wives, would go on to run Kingsley Plantation by herself in his absence; something that was unheard of for a Black woman at that time.

“A remarkable act of survival. When you consider where Anna came from, you know that she was stolen into slavery. Sold at slave market in Cuba and she, through much of her own sheer force of will, established a life here that was not something that an average enslaved person, especially an enslaved woman, would have been able to accomplish,” Salestrom said.

Kingsley Plantation is a complex part of over 200 years of living, breathing history preserved on Fort George Island. (Provided by Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve)

Walking on Kingsley Plantation is like taking a journey back in time.

There are “witness trees” on the site that tell a story of the past without ever using words.

“We know they’re important because here at Kingsley Plantation the enslaved people buried their dead oriented around one of these trees. To me, it’s a very powerful symbol that this tree is still alive. This tree was there, and it was important to the enslaved population that lived here, but it’s still something you can come and see today as a living link to show that this was not that long ago,” Salestrom said. “This was something that we need to understand and learn and grow from.”

All the structures at the plantation are original. From the wood on the barn to the seashells in the slave cabins, history is etched in every corner.

A complex history used as a living lesson.

“We try to give voice to the people that have been traditionally voiceless. So very much of what we do here is to better understand the various complicated relationships, try to learn about as many of the people as we can that lived here and toiled here,” Salestrom said. “And so that’s what we do on a day-to-day basis. We never stop learning.”

A painful, difficult past wrapped in nature’s beauty, Kingsley Plantation serves as more than just a history lesson.

All the structures at the plantation are original. (Provided by Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve)

Only through understanding our past, can we build a better future, Salestrom said.

“What you have here is a place that represents hope; it also represents the lack of hope. It represents futility, but it also represents ingenuity and adaptability,” Salestrom said. “And I think that you see that, as this story is told, that, yes, it’s a story of human bondage and in most cases misery, but there are instances of hope, ingenuity, and adaptation.”

On Feb. 27 the annual Kingsley Heritage Celebration will go virtual this year due to the pandemic.

The plantation will be releasing short videos about the history of the area, a podcast from some of the descendants of the Kingsley enslaved people, an animation piece that focuses on the lives of six enslaved people, and much more.

For more information on the event, click here.

If you want to learn more about the Kingsley Plantation, you can head to the site’s Facebook page or go to http://www.nps.gov/timu.

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