Archive for June, 2012

Freedom Road Spotlights the Many Hues of St. Augustine History

A St. Augustine company is trying to reshape the American story – not to rewrite history, but to retell it.

Derek Hankerson, the man at the helm of Freedom Road, grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., learning the same tales of America’s birthplace that are told in children’s textbooks throughout the United States. But he often visited relatives in St. Augustine  and could never reconcile the history he found there with what he learned in school.

"The sign in St. Augustine said, ‘Established in 1565,’ and then I go back to school, and I don’t see a thing about Florida. I don’t see a thing about blacks,” Hankerson said. "All I see is 1776.”
Hankerson spotted that disparity when he was about 10 years old, and announced to his family that he planned to correct it. He wanted to help educate people not only about Spanish Florida, but about the diverse groups who contributed to the country’s founding.

Today, Hankerson is the managing partner of Freedom Road, which offers in-depth bus tours of northeast Florida that give visitors insight into an early American story that might be new to many of them.

"Our tours deal with five centuries of history,” Hankerson said. "This is history related to the New World. I say ‘the New World’ because that’s different than the United States of America. We’re talking pre-United States of America.”

The company offers a diverse array of services, such as producing documentaries, designing museum displays and planning conferences that highlight that history. But visitors can best tap into this knowledge through the tours, which include busloads of 30 or 40 people and cost $600 per group for a four-hour tour. A six-hour tour is $800.

The Freedom Road tours particularly appeal to family groups or large tour groups of African-American visitors.

"When people leave here who’ve had tours with us,” Hankerson said, "they are so inspired, and they say they had no idea so much history existed in Florida. They especially did not know that there would be so much history related to them.”

The Freedom Road tour spotlights some of the St. Augustine area’s most critical historical sites. Hankerson emphasizes that these sites are not simply important to African-American and Native American history; they were important to the New World, and those traditionally marginalized groups were paramount to their success.

Among them is Fort Mose (Mo-ZAY), just two miles north of St. Augustine, recognized as the first community of freed blacks in the United States and the home of a black militia that helped protect St. Augustine from invaders; and the Fountain of Youth, built as a Florida roadside attraction but now an archaeological site that is believed to be the original site of a Timucuan Indian village where Native Americans offered refuge to Spanish explorers.

James Bullock, the creative director for Freedom Road, is typically the guide for the tours. Dressed in period costume, he walks guests through how different cultures – Spanish, African, Native American, German, Irish, Greek – made their lives in the New World.

"When the people who visit hear these words, in this place, told by a professional interpreter,” Bullock said, "they can see it, touch it, feel it. A person will come away from this place with a better understanding of different cultures and how America became.”

And Bullock and Hankerson stress that while much of U.S. history has focused on the separation of races, Spanish Florida brought a different culture to the New World. Even the geography of the Old World played a role: Only 11 miles separate Spain from Africa at their closest point, so trade, relationships and inter-marrying were common even before the groups came across the Atlantic.

"Our story, the story about 500 years of Spanish history, is all-inclusive,” Hankerson said. "This isn’t a black-and-white story; it’s a gray story. All of it came out of the Southeast region of the United States, with St. Augustine at the epicenter. Not Plymouth Rock, not Jamestown – St. Augustine was the epicenter, and has been ever since.”

For more information about Freedom Road, call 904-217-2780 or visit freedomroadtrail.org.

Continue reading Freedom Road Spotlights the Many Hues of St. Augustine History »

Along Florida's Underground Railroad, Slaves Won Freedom for Themselves

In the years before the Civil War, American slaves fleeing bondage in the South didn’t always head northward. Sometimes, the closest path to freedom led them deeper into the South and into Spanish Florida.
         
Today, visitors to Florida can explore some of the notable stops on that journey, from a militia post where freed slaves helped defend St. Augustine against the advancing British, to points in South Florida where groups of runaway slaves escaped American soil for freedom on Caribbean islands.

This southern leg of the Underground Railroad isn’t commonly explored in history books, which commonly chart former slaves’ flight to freedom with help from benevolent northerners on their way. The Florida story is different, say historians, because it focuses on how former slaves won freedom for themselves.
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“It’s important to bring to light and elevate that the Underground Railroad wasn’t just simply people escaping to Canada,” says Carol Miller, national program manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a National Park Service program. “People also sought to determine their own futures by escaping into frontier borderland areas, and Florida during that time was such a place.”
         
The Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service brought the National Underground Railroad Conference to the South for the first time in 2012. Organizers chose St. Augustine, rich in history of the New World as well as for black Americans, as the site.
         
For Derek Hankerson, who helped organize the event as executive director of St. Augustine’s Freedom Road, the conference provided an opportunity to reshape the traditional underground railroad story.
         
“I want Americans to realize what it is to pursue happiness, what it is to seek out your life and liberty,” Hankerson says.
         
Several Florida locales help tell this story for visitors. Together, they help make up Florida’s Black Heritage Trail and the National Park Service’s National Underground Network to Freedom:

Fort Mose

The allure of freedom in Florida sprang from the pledge of the king of Spain, who decreed in 1693 that African-born slaves who reached St. Augustine and converted to Catholicism would be granted freedom.
         
That promise led to the founding of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, commonly known as Fort Mose, the first legally sanctioned community of free blacks in what would become the United States. The community was established in 1739, 120 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
         
The militia outpost was manned by freed blacks who helped protect St. Augustine from British invaders. The people who lived there developed a community of soldiers, craftsmen and artisans, and the settlement saw bloodshed in 1740, when it protected the fort against the advancing British in a skirmish known as the “Battle of Bloody Mose.”
         
Today, nothing remains of the original fort or wooden structures that made up the Fort Mose community. But the 23-acre Fort Mose Historic State Park includes a visitor center and museum that tells the settlement’s story, plus a boardwalk visitors can use to explore the grounds.

Cape Florida

Eighty years after Fort Mose was founded, Florida became a U.S. territory, popular among runaway slaves not because of its favorable laws but because of its access to other ports of freedom.
         
Today, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne is a beachgoers’ paradise, where visitors sunbathe and swim on the one-mile stretch of oceanfront sand. But in the 1820s, it was an important rendezvous point for people seeking freedom.
         
Even the famous lighthouse on the beach — the oldest remaining structure in Miami-Dade County, it was built in 1825 and rebuilt in 1846 — isn’t as old as the earliest stories of Seminole Indians and runaway slaves who set sail from here to reach the Bahamas.
         
Even today, the community of Red Bays in the Bahamas, founded by Florida runaways, still exists. And though the lighthouse remains one of the biggest tourist attractions on Key Biscayne, the building and usage of it “kind of ended that as a place where people could go and surreptitiously escape,” says Miller, of the National Park Service.

Dry Tortugas

The Fort Jefferson National Monument, part of picturesque Dry Tortugas National Park in Key West, honors one of the largest coastal forts ever constructed — and the site of a failed slave escape.
         
The fort was built largely with the help of enslaved blacks. And in 1847, seven slaves plotted an intricate escape that involved stealing all four of the fort’s seafaring vessels, including a tiny boat owned by the lighthouse keeper. The men were captured two days later, 120 miles from the Dry Tortugas, likely on their way to the Bahamas.
         
Visitors from around the world seek out this national park for its ample snorkeling, fishing, birdwatching and beaches, and visitors can explore the historic 19th century fort.
         
Two other Florida sites on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom include the Southeast Archaeological Center in Tallahassee and the Family Heritage House Museum in Bradenton.
         
At the Family Heritage House Museum, visitors can explore African-American history and achievements, including a research center devoted to the underground railroad. The Southeast Archaeological Center contains extensive collections of artifacts and research relevant to the underground railroad.

Continue reading Along Florida's Underground Railroad, Slaves Won Freedom for Themselves »

Along Florida's Underground Railroad, Slaves Won Freedom for Themselves

In the years before the Civil War, American slaves fleeing bondage in the South didn’t always head northward. Sometimes, the closest path to freedom led them deeper into the South and into Spanish Florida.
         
Today, visitors to Florida can explore some of the notable stops on that journey, from a militia post where freed slaves helped defend St. Augustine against the advancing British, to points in South Florida where groups of runaway slaves escaped American soil for freedom on Caribbean islands.

This southern leg of the Underground Railroad isn’t commonly explored in history books, which commonly chart former slaves’ flight to freedom with help from benevolent northerners on their way. The Florida story is different, say historians, because it focuses on how former slaves won freedom for themselves.
{pullquote}         
“It’s important to bring to light and elevate that the Underground Railroad wasn’t just simply people escaping to Canada,” says Carol Miller, national program manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a National Park Service program. “People also sought to determine their own futures by escaping into frontier borderland areas, and Florida during that time was such a place.”
         
The Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service brought the National Underground Railroad Conference to the South for the first time in 2012. Organizers chose St. Augustine, rich in history of the New World as well as for black Americans, as the site.
         
For Derek Hankerson, who helped organize the event as executive director of St. Augustine’s Freedom Road, the conference provided an opportunity to reshape the traditional underground railroad story.
         
“I want Americans to realize what it is to pursue happiness, what it is to seek out your life and liberty,” Hankerson says.
         
Several Florida locales help tell this story for visitors. Together, they help make up Florida’s Black Heritage Trail and the National Park Service’s National Underground Network to Freedom:

Fort Mose

The allure of freedom in Florida sprang from the pledge of the king of Spain, who decreed in 1693 that African-born slaves who reached St. Augustine and converted to Catholicism would be granted freedom.
         
That promise led to the founding of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, commonly known as Fort Mose, the first legally sanctioned community of free blacks in what would become the United States. The community was established in 1739, 120 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
         
The militia outpost was manned by freed blacks who helped protect St. Augustine from British invaders. The people who lived there developed a community of soldiers, craftsmen and artisans, and the settlement saw bloodshed in 1740, when it protected the fort against the advancing British in a skirmish known as the “Battle of Bloody Mose.”
         
Today, nothing remains of the original fort or wooden structures that made up the Fort Mose community. But the 23-acre Fort Mose Historic State Park includes a visitor center and museum that tells the settlement’s story, plus a boardwalk visitors can use to explore the grounds.

Cape Florida

Eighty years after Fort Mose was founded, Florida became a U.S. territory, popular among runaway slaves not because of its favorable laws but because of its access to other ports of freedom.
         
Today, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne is a beachgoers’ paradise, where visitors sunbathe and swim on the one-mile stretch of oceanfront sand. But in the 1820s, it was an important rendezvous point for people seeking freedom.
         
Even the famous lighthouse on the beach — the oldest remaining structure in Miami-Dade County, it was built in 1825 and rebuilt in 1846 — isn’t as old as the earliest stories of Seminole Indians and runaway slaves who set sail from here to reach the Bahamas.
         
Even today, the community of Red Bays in the Bahamas, founded by Florida runaways, still exists. And though the lighthouse remains one of the biggest tourist attractions on Key Biscayne, the building and usage of it “kind of ended that as a place where people could go and surreptitiously escape,” says Miller, of the National Park Service.

Dry Tortugas

The Fort Jefferson National Monument, part of picturesque Dry Tortugas National Park in Key West, honors one of the largest coastal forts ever constructed — and the site of a failed slave escape.
         
The fort was built largely with the help of enslaved blacks. And in 1847, seven slaves plotted an intricate escape that involved stealing all four of the fort’s seafaring vessels, including a tiny boat owned by the lighthouse keeper. The men were captured two days later, 120 miles from the Dry Tortugas, likely on their way to the Bahamas.
         
Visitors from around the world seek out this national park for its ample snorkeling, fishing, birdwatching and beaches, and visitors can explore the historic 19th century fort.
         
Two other Florida sites on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom include the Southeast Archaeological Center in Tallahassee and the Family Heritage House Museum in Bradenton.
         
At the Family Heritage House Museum, visitors can explore African-American history and achievements, including a research center devoted to the underground railroad. The Southeast Archaeological Center contains extensive collections of artifacts and research relevant to the underground railroad.

Continue reading Along Florida's Underground Railroad, Slaves Won Freedom for Themselves »

Trails with a Twist

Specialty trails depart from the mainstream, revealing a lesser-known side of Florida. Here, visitors can make like an ancient Calusa warrior, join the circus (or tour its Floridian roots), explore architectural treasures and listen to nature sounds on command.

Situated along Wildlife Drive at J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, the iNature Trail’s 10 signs feature 23 QR (Quick Response) codes. When scanned with smartphone or tablet apps, the codes link to interactive videos and informative websites that allow visitors, young and old, to learn more about the refuge.

They’ve also jumped on the QR trend at Gainesville’s University of Florida. Visitors to the Natural Area Teaching Lab trails at the Thomas J. Walker Conservation Area can scan more than 50 codes to gain insight into the area’s ecological diversity. Hear recordings of katydids, crickets and birds; or watch videos of other wildlife filmed on-site.

Moving from smartphones to quirky Old Florida, the Circus Heritage Trail self-driving tour explores Sarasota County’s “big top” heritage. Stops include the Circus Bridge in Venice and the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, mansion and circus museum on Sarasota Bay.

Another trail with distinct Florida charm, South Beach’s Art Deco Walking Tour shows off the district’s trademark early 20th century gems – saved from bulldozers by local building-huggers – on daily guided tours. The urban trail features more than 100 historic structures to view during 90 minutes and 20 stops.

Step way back in time on Pine Island’s Calusa Heritage Trail to tread the path of Florida’s original peoples. Climbing to the top of a 2,500-year-old shell mound is one highlight along this 3,700-foot interpretive walkway that leads through the Pineland archaeological site.

Continue reading Trails with a Twist »

Photo: Waterfall at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota

A waterfall feeds the koi pond at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

Continue reading Photo: Waterfall at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota »

Photo: Florida Botanical Gardens, Largo

Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo is 182 acres of waterfalls, herbs, tropical fruit trees and more.

Continue reading Photo: Florida Botanical Gardens, Largo »

Photo: Banyans at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota

Take shelter in the shade of the banyans at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

Continue reading Photo: Banyans at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota »

Photo: Cape Florida Lighthouse, Key Biscayne, 1928

Cape Florida Lighthouse in Key Biscayne, in this photo from 1928.

Continue reading Photo: Cape Florida Lighthouse, Key Biscayne, 1928 »

Photo: Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando

Harry P. Leu Gardens is a 50-acre oasis in Orlando.

Continue reading Photo: Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando »

Feast of Flowers: Florida's Botanic Gardens

Florida is always in bloom, and its array of flora is showcased in tranquil parks and sprawling gardens across the state.

Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales

Dutch immigrant Edward Bok created this idyllic garden sanctuary, topping it off with a 205-foot bell tower made of Georgia marble and Florida coquina rock. Stroll along the garden paths, lie upon the lawn, feel the breeze and take in the beauty of azaleas, camellias, magnolias, ferns, palms, oaks and pines, while listening to the 60-bell Singing Tower during afternoon carillon concerts.

Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando

Near downtown, this 50-acre oasis is accented with oak-shaded walkways and delightful gardens adorned with azaleas, camellias, roses and palms, as well as beautyberries, bottle brushes, bromeliads, firecracker plants, flame vines, plumbago, primrose, snapdragon, tabebuia
and violas. Soothing and serene, it’s an ideal retreat anytime, but especially during musical moonlight strolls in April and October.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville

A 1.5-mile walkway through Kanapaha’s 62 acres leads to 24 major collections that include Florida’s largest public display of bamboo, the Southeast’s largest herb garden, a hummingbird garden, rose garden, Asian garden, water lily garden and a rock garden dotted with colorful cacti. A popular setting for weddings, Kanapaha’s Summer House is ideally suited for receptions and events.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park, Tallahassee

Alfred B. Maclay had such a soft spot for camellias that he sent men to scour the Southeast for them. When he died, his wife continued his dream. Today, Maclay’s home is surrounded by this outstanding collection of camellias and azaleas. Of the park’s 1,200 acres, 28 are tended gardens that also include dogwoods, oriental magnolias, tulips, irises, banana shrubs, honeysuckle, silverbell trees and pansies, all nestled beside placid Lake Hall.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables

In South Florida, tropical and subtropical plants grow year round, making this 83-acre haven a hot spot for horticulturalists. Explore the Vine Pergola, where flowering vines, including the Jade Vine, bloom year round, or seek shelter among the rainforest's soothing waterfalls and shady trees. Stop for a photo in the Bailey Palm Glade, Palm Allée or the Overlook, where sun-dappled passages open up to magnificent lake and lowland views. Time it right to enjoy festivals celebrating chocolate, orchids and mangos.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota

Alluring walkways wind through this 14-acre bayfront garden. Among its enchantments are orchids, hibiscus, a bonsai display, bromeliad garden and the world’s most outstanding collection of epiphytes (air plants). The grounds also feature a banyan grove, waterfall, koi pond, fernery, palm grove, bamboo garden and butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Events include the Lights in Bloom Holiday and Tropical Fourth of July celebrations.

Florida Botanical Gardens, Largo

This park covers 182 acres, nearly half of it a permanently protected preservation area. Here, you'll find topiaries, waterfalls, herbs, tropical fruits and native plants, plus more than 300 varieties of bromeliads. The park also features demonstrations on the natural process of composting, a cottage accented by an Old World garden and programs on cultivating your own Florida-friendly garden.

Continue reading Feast of Flowers: Florida's Botanic Gardens »