Thursday, August 25, 2016

Kingsley Plantation at Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Within the National Park system, there are many intriguing sites preserved.  One such site is embedded within Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville, FL:  A cotton plantation called Kingsley Plantation.  Now, you might think that there are any number of southern plantations preserved for touring or that they're simply monuments heralding a time in our history we would like to forget ever happened.  But, as you would expect from the National Park Service, there are several things that make this site unique.

The House in the Background with the Kitchen Building in Front

The View from the Plantation House

First, the owner, Zephaniah Kingsley purchased a slave from Senegal, named Anna, whom he later freed and married.  In 1814, when they moved to Fort George Island, where they built their plantation, she, in turn, became Zephaniah's business partner, taking an active role in managing the plantation slaves despite being a slave herself only a few years before.

Second, the 1000-acre plantation grew a variety of crops, including sugar cane, corn, beans, and potatoes, but the primary cash crop was Sea Island cotton.  Cotton plantations certainly weren't unique for the time period, but Sea Island cotton was considered the cashmere of cotton because its fibers were long and silky.  Importantly, though, the seeds could not be removed from the bolls using a cotton gin because the fibers were too long and fragile and would thus mutilate the cotton.  As a result, slaves were required to remove the seeds by hand.  The more seeds remaining in the cotton, or the more mutilated the cotton, or the less cotton processed at the end of the day, the more the slaves were punished.  Let me restate that a more direct way:  A slave's reward for turning out enough perfectly seeded cotton by hand was no punishment.

Slaves were given a specific task requirement for each day.  For example, the field hands might be given one or more quarter-acre plots of cotton to pick or to produce five pounds of seed-free cotton.  Obviously, the tasks were designed to take the vast majority of each day.  Once complete, only then could the slaves complete their own personal tasks, like tending to their personal garden, hunting/fishing, cooking their own meals, or doing their own laundry.  Slave quarters were generally two-room houses:  One room with a fireplace for cooking, and a room for the entire family to sleep in.  Most were tiny with dirt floors.  A few were bigger, but they were reserved for the Driver (head slave) and his family or skilled slave craftsmen as a show of status.

Slave Cabin Ruins

Inside the Driver's House (i.e., the Largest One)

As I walked through the slave quarters and stood inside them, I pondered what that life must have felt like:  To produce perfect results and not get an attaboy but just to be thankful for a day without punishment; to work from early morning to late evening only then to realize I still had to take care of my personal chores; to realize that no matter what I did, I could never really be trusted.  It was in that moment that I realized how horrible of an institution slavery was.  We can't undo that today.  We can't go back in time and remove that part of our history.  As much as we might like to, we can't wish it away either -- and perhaps that's not even a smart move; that's called denial.  Conversely, neither should we be overly harsh on the slaveholders, for they were born into an economic system and a values system that seemed impossible to see past even to those that might have wanted to (just as we tend to approach the world similarly to our parents without even realizing it and wonder why the rest of the world can't see the obvious truths that we see).  Instead, what we can do is to put ourselves in the shoes of those slaves and imagine how we would feel to live a life of thankless servitude and then let that shape our interactions with our fellow man.

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