By Michael Card
Sitting deep in the woods on the bank of St. George Island sits a piece of land that is unknown to many Floridians.
The piece of land is home to the once 1,000-acre Kingsley Planation, once home to one of the most unusual couples in the old South, Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley, a supposed princess captured in Africa and sold into slavery.
Dr. Tru Leverette, director of African-American and African Diaspora studies at the University of North Florida, said the story needs recognition because of the diverse components that make the story so rich.
“She was a unique and incredible woman,” Leverette said. “It’s a good story to recognize both in terms of Jacksonville’s black history and women’s history in Jacksonville as well.”
Zephaniah, too, was an unusual man. A merchant and slave trader, he was an unusual slave owner who granted many slaves their freedom, maintained four slave wives, and nine mixed-race children.
She had been born Anna Madgigine Jai in 1793 in present day Senegal. Anna’s life was a struggle from the beginning.
When she was 13 years old, a group of men raided the village she lived in, killed her father and enslaved her.
Anna was taken to a small island off the coast of present-day Senegal, where she was imprisoned for days with little food. On the first occasion she was taken out and presented to potential European buyers, she was sold.
After being purchased, Anna endured the treacherous journey of sailing over the middle passage to Havana, Cuba. Enslaved people on the ship were shackled to wooden boards in confined areas and were over-heated and malnourished.
UNF’s Leverette described the journey on a slave ship, like the one Anna endured, as a harrowing passage that left many people dead.
“They had no place to move or use facilities,” Leverette said. “So they would be in their own excrement and vomit. People got sick and died all of the time.”
Leverette said people who died had to be thrown overboard, and some people even escaped overboard, choosing death over living in those conditions.
When the ship arrived in Havana, the enslaved people were typically secluded to prevent the spread of diseases and cleaned up to look better to potential buyers.
During this time, Zephaniah had been in Cuba to purchase rum, molasses and people to serve as slaves. By coincidence, he happened to be in Havana on the same day Anna was being sold and outbid everyone else trying to buy her.
Life on the plantation
The two sailed back to one of Kingsley’s plantations, Laurel Grove, located near modern day Orange Park, a few months later. When they arrived, Zephaniah allowed Anna to stay with him in his house instead of the slave quarters and took her to be his wife, changing her name to Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley.
Although Zephaniah was a polygamous man, he always recognized Anna as his primary wife and ended up having four children with her.
Over 100 slaves worked at Laurel Grove, where the plantation produced Sea Island cotton, oranges and other vegetables that were sold locally and also fed the plantation.
Jacksonville’s retired senior historic preservation planner, Joel McEachin, said Zephaniah had a different view on slavery. He used different ways to connect with slaves and treated them more humanely than most other enslaved people were treated at the time.
“He used a system where the slaves were assigned certain work for each day,” McEachin said. “Slaves could do it as slow or as fast as they wanted to, but when they completed it they could do other things they wanted to do.”
Zephaniah also gave his slaves time to work on their own fields for food and preferred them to live in the slave quarters as families, according to McEachin. His idea was that if he treated his slaves better, it would prevent the chance of a rebellion and make them better laborers.
“All in all, I think it was much more positive than you might have seen at other plantations at that time,” McEachin said.
Shortly after Kingsley returned to Laurel Grove and emancipated Anna, she was able to purchase five acres of her own farmland across the St. Johns River in Mandarin. On this farm, she kept slaves of her own that would help her grow vegetables and tend to farm animals.
At the time, the land owned by the Kingsleys was under Spanish control, but was seized during the Patriots Rebellion of 1812. Now under the auspices of the United States, a new American system of slavery was put in place that was tougher and more restrictive than the previous Spanish one.
UNF’s Leverette said the issue for the Spanish was more about religion than it was race. She said at one time slaves of British colonies from the north would escape to Florida to receive asylum if they converted to Catholicism. They were then granted rights, treated as citizens and members of the community.
“They were also allowed to marry interracially,” Leverette said. “Which is a clear reflection of the Kingsleys’ situation.”
During the rebellion, American soldiers advanced through Florida burning plantations to the ground and capturing people. The Kingsleys escaped but lost nearly everything they had at Laurel Gove and Mandarin.
Move to Fort George Island
In 1814, the family took the remainder of what they had left and moved east to Fort George Island along the mouth of the St. Johns River to an abandoned plantation. There the couple established Kingsley Plantation on about 1,000 acres.
The Kingsleys spent the next 23 years at this location, where Anna was given a lot of authority, managing the plantation when her husband would go to sea to do business.
The American succession of Florida from Spain eventually led to stricter laws on slavery and oppressed those who were already emancipated.
It was a punitive slave system Zephaniah strongly opposed. He became involved in politics and tried to persuade the new government to adopt a more lenient system, even publishing a pamphlet promoting a more humane system.
His efforts, however, were unsuccessful.
Anna and one of her children eventually left the plantation and moved to Haiti with her children where blacks were more accepted.
In 1843, Zephaniah died and left most of his assets to his wives and children. However, due to the new and stricter racial laws, Zephaniah’s white family immediately contests his will.
Return to Florida
Anna moved back to Florida in 1846 to fight for her portion of her husband’s estate. She argued her case successfully and regained possession of the land and assets – an extraordinary achievement for a black woman before the Civil War.
She eventually settled in the present-day area of Arlington and became a Union supporter during the Civil War. She died in 1870 at the age of 77.
The Kingsley Plantation was acquired by the state of Florida in 1955 and underwent restorations in 1967. It is part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve managed by the U.S. National Park Service.
The house, barn and slave cabins are still standing, and provide a genuine feel to what life was like when the Kingsleys lived there.
Tim Donald, who works as a ranger at the Kingsley Plantation, said the ability of Anna Kingsley to adapt and survive through all of the hardship she endured is what stood out the most to him about the Kingsleys’ story.
“You’re talking about a young women from the age of 13 having the ability to live through the things she went through, the turmoil, her being captured, and being a slave,” Donald said. “Taking the middle passage, a dreadful two-month voyage that she had to take and living through that.”
Donald said he believes that Anna’s story is one of the area’s most important stories in Florida’s black history.
“I believe it’s huge,” Donald said. “As far as being prominent in this area here, and being a black woman, it’s the biggest story that needs to be told in Northeast Florida.”
Outside of black history, Donald believes that it is even bigger than that, and should be told to everyone.
“I think it needs to be in the history books, especially for Jacksonville, and for Florida period,” Donald said. “Hopefully one day it will get out there, and the world will know who Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley is.”