Saturday, March 05, 2005

Key Biscayne - Underground Railroad Stop

Key Biscayne site a little-known station on the Underground Railroad

By Margo Harakas
Staff Writer
Posted February 22 2005




Joan Gill Blank was sailing the Bahamas in 1962 when she dropped anchor in Nicolls Town on Andros Island. Even then, she says, it was an out of the way place.

When asked by a couple of locals where she was from, she replied, "Cape Florida." It was where she and her family had set sail.

"The same, m'on," they replied in unison. "The same."

"They told their fragmented histories," she recalls, "but at that time I knew nothing about this heroic journey from slavery to freedom."

Today, more than 40 years later, the connection between those Andros islanders and the stretch of beach off the southern tip of Key Biscayne will be commemorated when Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is officially designated a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site. The only other designated Florida site is Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, 68 miles west of Key West.

Blank, a Key Biscayne resident and author who co-wrote the site application, learned of the historic slave-era significance of Cape Florida while researching her book Key Biscayne: A History of Miami's Tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse, published in 1996.

We generally think of slave-era Southern blacks fleeing north to free states and Canada to gain freedom. But Blank tells of runaway slaves from Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, and North and Central Florida making their way down the long peninsula in the early 1800s, eventually crossing the bay to the barrier island of Key Biscayne.

"There they rendezvoused with Bahamian captains, bartering on the beaches to establish the cost of passage on this perilous journey across the Gulf Stream," she wrote.

The blacks, trying to evade the slave-catchers, were often joined in their flight to the Bahamas by black Seminoles (the offspring of unions between the two groups) and Seminoles, who even then, a decade before the Indian Removal Act, talked about being hunted like "wild deer" by the U.S. troops and their allies. Sometimes, the treacherous voyage was undertaken in nothing more than a dugout canoe fitted with sails.

A map in a kiosk, to be erected not far from the park's lighthouse, will trace the passage of those dauntless freedom seekers.

Were it not for the curiosity and determination of Kristopher Smith, of Miami, it might have been left to history books alone to mark this spur of the Underground Railroad.

It was on a family trip to Kingsley Plantation, near Jacksonville, that Smith heard about a national parks program established in 1998 to identify Underground Railroad sites around the country.

When he learned little was being done to identify sites in Florida, Smith sprang into action, eventually founding the Florida Underground Railroad Project.

"I'm not a historian," says Smith, who is employed by the city of Miami as NET Administrator for Overtown. (He too works on neighborhood issues and serves as a liaison with City Hall.)

When he got back to Miami, Smith made some phone calls and was quickly referred to Blank.

"I called Joan and she agreed to meet with me," recalls Smith. "I told her I was doing this research on the Underground Railroad in Florida and the Caribbean. As we talked, it became clear here was an Underground Railroad site right under our noses. She agreed to help flesh out the story ... And we began to work with park staff on developing an application."

At the same time, Smith organized community meetings and workshops throughout the state to gain support and participation in the project. Within two years, the Cape Florida site won designation.

No one knows how many made their leap for freedom from Cape Florida shores. Estimates range from about 100 to 300 or more.

The first eyewitness reports date from 1821, says Blank. Spotted on a single day were 60 Indians, an equal number of runaway slaves and 27 Bahamian ships.

Two years later, says Blank, another book referred to 300 Seminole Indians, black Seminoles and runaways waiting for passage from Cape Florida to the British Bahamas.

"Freedom was in the wind," says Blank. "The British had by that time stopped the trading of slaves. But they hadn't yet done away with slavery officially in the islands. That would be declared later."

The primary destination appears to be the northwestern tip of Andros Island, in the area of Red Bays and Nicolls Town.

One of those who made the crossing in a dugout canoe was a black Seminole named Scipio Bowlegs, whose surname is prevalent among Florida Seminoles and residents of Andros. "It was the most daring venture possible," says Blank.

Anthropologist Rosalyn Howard, professor at the University of Central Florida, lived for a year on Andros researching her book Black Seminoles in the Bahamas. Among those she focused on were descendants of those who left via Cape Florida.

The Red Bays area was chosen, says Howard, because of its sparse population and its shallow, muddy and generally inhospitable setting. Such a place lessened the chances of being recaptured.

The 1821 arrival date is clear, says Howard, because of a letter found in the Bahamian archives "in which a British customs officer `discovered' these people living in the area of Red Bays and took 97 of them to Nassau."

The letter, dated 1828, lists the names of those in custody, and notes, says Howard, that the people had been on the island for seven years, on their own and raising crops.

After about a year, says Howard, the detainees were "returned to the island and allowed to live in freedom."

One reason for rounding up the residents was the fear they may have been dropped off on the island by Spanish privateers who would return later to enslave them. That theory was dispelled when several of the detainees produced certificates of good conduct granted them by the British for their service against the Americans in the War of 1812.

There is still much research yet to be done, says Howard, who is presently engaged in "Looking for Angola," a project that may turn out to be the prequel to the Cape Florida story.

In 1821, near Sarasota, a settlement of primarily free blacks and runaways was overrun and destroyed by the American militia and their Indian allies. Called Angola, it is referred to on old maps as Negro Point. Howard has documents listing the names of some of the inhabitants of Angola. She thinks the Angola survivors may have fled to Cape Florida, and ultimately to Andros.

Construction of the lighthouse in 1825 essentially shut off Cape Florida as an escape route, says Blank. The federal presence forced those fleeing local shores to launch their vessels farther south, from Tavernier in the Keys.

Tavernier is one of several additional Florida locations Smith hopes to get recognized as an Underground Railroad site.

Howard, Blank and Smith will be on hand along with various dignitaries today for the ceremony at Cape Florida.

Smith finds the history inspirational. The stories "resonate with me living in South Florida," he says.

The danger faced, the effort made to resist enslavement, is not only a testament to the freedom seekers' courage, but offers a lesson for today, Smith notes.

"This was a group effort," he notes, undertaken in a cooperative manner by people who did not necessarily look the same or speak the same language. "Yet they bound together to do this. It really sets the groundwork for what we have today, which is a multicultural society. And it says if those folks could overcome those obstacles, we ought to be able to deal with the conditions that we face today together.

"It seems like a model that works."

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November 6, 2005 at 10:49 AM  

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