The real-life stories of Jacksonville’s Kingsley Plantation will change the way you think of America’s history with slavery forever.
If you had asked me what I knew about slavery before I visited the plantation, I would have thought back to books I read in school and made-for-TV movies I’d seen. Now, I think of the ruins of two dozen small cabins that housed over 80 men, women and children at a time, just a stone’s throw from a gorgeous home alongside the Fort George River. Built in 1798, it is the oldest plantation house still standing in all of Florida.
The historic plantation occupies a 1,000-acre island that was once cleared of trees and used to farm numerous crops. Slaves lived hard lives there, always in fear of the punishments their owners would inflict if they didn’t do everything as expected. Their children learned to work, too, as soon as they were able, also in grave fear that their parents would be punished if they didn’t do as they were told.
But there is much more to the plantation’s story that makes it one-of-a-kind. It eventually came into the hands of Zephaniah Kingsley, who freed and then married his slave Anna. The African woman went on to manage the plantation and own slaves, herself, before they eventually freed 50 slaves and moved with them to Haiti, which was a free black republic.
There is so much to Kingsley Plantation’s history and the way it is presented. You can read the words of slaves who lived there during hard times; walk past the ruins of their makeshift homes; peer into the kitchen where they cooked for their owners. You can take in the beautiful view from the breezy site where the master’s home is set, and on some days, the National Park Service offers tours inside the house. In season, the plantation even features a small garden with the crops that were typically grown at the plantation.
My family visited Kingsley Plantation on a Sunday afternoon with my small children, ages 4 and 1. Honestly, and not surprisingly, the kids were just too young to have any clue what we were looking at. Nevertheless, they were excited to have a place to run around and stayed safely occupied inspecting the grounds during our visit as the grown-ups took everything in. For an older child learning about slavery in school, however, I think visiting the plantation would be an incredibly powerful experience.The property includes:
- the tabby ruins of 25 slave cabins, which formed a semi-circle similar to the way homes were arranged in West Africa;
- the kitchen area, a separate building from the master’s house;
- a barn that had multiple uses including storage, animal housing and even slave housing; and
- the main plantation house, designed with large windows on all sides to catch the breeze from the river.
Some tips if you go:
You are absolutely welcome to tour the grounds on your own. When you drive in, you’ll first drive past the slave cabins, and then if you continue driving, you’ll come to a parking area near the plantation house. There is also a gift shop and there are restrooms.
Make sure you’re traveling in a vehicle rugged enough to handle the bumpy terrain to get back to the house. The dirt roads are loaded with potholes — the incredible jostling we got on the way there was my son’s favorite part.
Also, don’t forget bug spray. Especially close to the slaves’ cabins, there are swarms of mosquitoes during the warmer months.
If you want to go:
Where: 11676 Palmetto Avenue, Jacksonville, FL. If you’re starting from Amelia Island, head south on First Coast Highway. The park entrance will be on your right just after you pass the Mayport Ferry.
Tours: As of this writing, free tours of the plantation house were offered on a reservations-only basis at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. A ranger program is offered at 2 p.m. on weekdays.
Contact: Call 904-251-3537 or 904-251-3626
For more information: Visit www.nps.gov/timu/historyculture/kp.htm