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.