About 150 people gathered on a warm, starry night at Kingsley Plantation last week to learn more about slavery and other aspects of African-Americans' experiences in America.
The people heard the works of great 19th century poets and spiritual music from the Edward Waters College choir.
They walked in the darkness from the plantation house to the line of coquina slave cabins near the property's perimeter, guided by park rangers and flashlights.
The event, called Candlelight Night, was intended as a poetic journey of the emotional experiences of Africans in America, said park ranger Martha Rozier, who organized the Thursday night event.
"Last year, the program covered what life was like for the slaves and slave owners at the plantation," Rozier said. "This year, it is an expression of that life, not just the details of daily living. It's a broader expression."
The plantation, located on Fort George Island across the St. Johns River from Mayport, was established as a sea island cotton plantation in 1814 by Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave owner and the husband of former slave Anna Kingsley. The plantation, operated by the National Park Service, is part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
Visitors Thursday night were given flashlights to make their way safely from the parking lot to the small stage set between the kitchen house and the interpretive garden near the plantation owner's house. Rangers also supplied bug spray to help ward off the sand gnats on the calm, warm night.
Jerome Spates, a graduate of Edward Waters College who attended the event with his wife, Gladys, wanted to hear his alma mater's 18-member chorale and get a sense of the history of the plantation and plantation life. It was his first visit.
"I've been by here a thousand times and never came in," Spates said. "Tonight, I wanted to get the historical perspective. Sometimes you don't know what's in your own back yard."
Replicas of oak barrels and lanterns of Kingsley's era flanked the small stage. Sir Spencer Cobb, Sylvia Chase, Clarey Walker Jr. and Kasana Griffin gave dramatic readings of works by poets Langston Hughes, Paul Dunbar, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and others.
The readers' voices, reflecting the anguish and pain of slavery, echoed into the quiet night as crickets chirped and owls hooted. Signs of the 21st century interrupted only twice -- once with a helicopter flying overhead and another with the ringing of a cell phone.
One visitor, Larry Solomon, defined his experience at the event as a reattachment to his history.
"This is my first time coming here, to be able to touch a part of my genesis, the historical aspect of my people," he said. "It's very spiritual in feeling. And I am more than overjoyed to see that it was indeed a mixed crowd," he said.
Kimberly Wise of Arlington arranged for her family to attend. …