Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Finding Florida's Lost Settlement

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Finding Florida's Lost Settlement

Article excerpt

A six-member team is searching for evidence of a community of former African slaves and American Indians.

The sound waves bouncing back to the underwater sonar device revealed a massive object laying at the murky bottom of the Manatee River, near East Bradenton, Fla. While the indistinct image could have been nothing more than normal debris, the six-member team of marine archaeologists, divers and volunteers hoped they'd discovered physical evidence of a "maroon" community of former African slaves and Seminole Indians. The object, they thought, could be a wharf used by British ships bringing supplies to the community.

Two divers from the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, an independent marine laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., recently took to the water to find out.

It wasn't a wharf. But the underwater survey has produced other images that have yet to be studied. The community known as Angola may still be nearby.

"Often times, when you do this work you rule out one area and look at another area," says Dr. J. "Coz" Cozzi, a nautical archaeologist at Mote. "It could take years to find something as specific as Angola. This is a process, and you have to start somewhere."

What the divers found at the bottom of the river was the remains of a railroad trestle built 105 years ago. The multidisciplinary research team, with representatives from four universities, spent 12 days combing the river in hopes of finding the lost community.

Finding Angola has been project director Vicki Oldham's quest since the early 1990s, when she was working on a documentary about Blacks in Sarasota. Since then, Oldham, a Sarasota native and a producer of local historical documentaries, has raised more than $200,000 in state grants and in-kind donations for the project. She's assembled five researchers with expertise in history, archaeology, underwater archaeology and anthropology to work on a project called "Looking for Angola."

"I have always known that this is a long-term project," says Oldham. "This work is tedious. To find something early in the search process would have been wonderful. What I am excited about is the fact that we are moving forward. The community is more knowledgeable about Angola now. So I have all sorts of reasons to be optimistic about this project."

Oldham is looking for the physical evidence to prove that Angola is not a fable. "We have diaries, military and historic records and newspaper accounts, but no physical evidence," she says.

"To know about this local story of people who lived right in my community, to know of their courage, the risks they took, how determined they were to survive on their own with nothing but what they could carry on their back, that to me was just incredibly empowering," she adds.

While the Manatee River survey didn't yield the proof they were looking for, the researchers resumed looking on land for Angola late last month. Witten Technologies in St Petersburg has volunteered to provide a sensitive sonar device to do underground mapping of previous digs.

Dr. Canter Brown Jr., a historian at Fort Valley State University and the lead historian for the project, calls Angola one of the most significant historical sites in Florida, if not the United States.

"It illustrates the role Florida played as a refuge of freedom for slaves, and their courage to get and keep their freedom," he says. …

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