It was the beginning of June when I arrived to my new home in Jacksonville, FL. I had just graduated from Ithaca College three weeks prior; Jacksonville was my last stop on travels up to my hometown in Maine, down to the Taylor Swift concert in Baton Rouge, and over to Pennsylvania for the orientation for my Centennial Volunteer Ambassadorship with the Student Conservation Association, AmeriCorps, and the National Park Service.
With my new degree in Communication Studies, I was excited to begin my year-long position at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve on the coast of northern Florida. I knew a couple of things before I arrived: this urban park protects both naturally and culturally relevant resources, and that Florida is much more hot and humid than New England. I also knew I would be living with my fellow CVA intern at the Kingsley Plantation nestled on Fort George Island.
I wasn’t sure what to expect living at a National Park site after hours, particularly at an old slave plantation with many of its structures still intact. Driving along the St. Johns River, I had yet to learn I was already in the middle of the 46,000 acres of land preserved by the National Park Service. I couldn’t believe I was still in Jacksonville when I turned onto the 2.5-mile dirt road leading to Kingsley Plantation, the Maine plates of my little blue car causing me to look entirely out of place. Thick woods of palm, hickory, cedar, among others surrounded the narrow road; Spanish moss draped overhead; armadillos and tortoises peered at me from the edges.
Within a few days, I had gone on the self-guided audio tour offered at the site, which took me around the plantation in the sizzling summer morning. My brow already sweating and my exposed skin already burning, I was given an idea of the climate conditions the enslaved and even the managers of the plantation worked through – and this probably would have been one of the more bearable days. I was brought from the front of the Kingsley house, looking modestly over the Fort George River, over to the kitchen house where hot meals were prepared for the Kingsley family. I crossed over to the barn and the quarter-acre of land that represent the daily labor demanded of the enslaved. I traveled even further back on the plantation to the remaining 25 cabins made of oyster shell tabby, which once gave shelter to the many slaves and their families – each structure half the size of my bedroom. I learned how plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife, Anna, herself a freed slave, managed slaves with a task-based system, and how the enslaved created their own community after long days of farming Sea Island cotton and selling their own produce and crafts.
The rich history of Kingsley Plantation is reflected each evening after the visitors have left and the river is still. As the sun sets each evening, the wide array of colors that reflect over the water serve as a beautiful reminder of the many spirits that once shared this land.
Photos by Cassie Susemihl
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