As the state with the nation’s longest history of documented African presence, the Project is interested in highlighting Florida’s Middle Passage sites. We intend to honor ancestors and highlight the influence of Africans and their descendants in developing Florida. This is not an easy task since those in power in a region long considered an outpost or frontier, traditionally supported a pattern of smuggling and unregulated business. Those who invested in the state’s development during the 20th century, such as Flagler with his railroad and resorts and Disney with an amusement park, created fantasy destinations for tourists and visitors. There are, however, people in Florida who are committed to factual information. Under the terminology of cultural and heritage tourism, efforts to promote a more accurate image of the state are underway.
One example is the exhibit, Journey: 450 Years of the African American Experience, now at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center. Spanning 450 years, the city’s story of Africans and their descendants is presented. We commend all who helped to make this possible. It would be encouraging to see other cities and regions in the state step up and provide similar exhibits. What is revealing in all these histories across the nation is that the stories are distinct, but not atypical. The history of Florida’s lumber, turpentine, fishing, cattle, citrus, cinema, and tobacco industries cannot be told adequately without African American inclusion. Incorporating information from this exhibit into the state’s public narrative, including public school curriculum, is the correct approach.
Understanding the relationship between Florida, the Caribbean basin, and Latin America is also important. Many people mistakenly think that the state’s connection with Cuba began with Castro – not true. The exchange has been continuous throughout the Peninsula’s history and well documented by the Spanish Empire. Vera Cruz, Mexico, Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, and San Juan, Puerto Rico were, during different periods, administrative headquarters for the military outpost of St. Augustine. In the same way that the southeastern states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas were once part of Mexico, Florida is an extension of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico as well as Georgia and Alabama! One of the constants in all this history is Africans and their descendants.
Examples of connections with other Caribbean locations include Palm Beach, Miami, and the Keys -former Bahamian fishing communities until Flagler envisioned tourist/resort development opportunities. St. Augustine’s second most powerful resident during one Spanish period was General Biassou, an exiled Haitian leader who, with his entourage, owned a plantation and provided military expertise to the settlement. The Gulf Coast of Florida was sustained by Cuban-related commerce including the importation of African enslaved people. Tampa was the tobacco capital with Cuban workers, and served as the dispatch point for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders – some of whom were Buffalo soldiers.
This is a vibrant and exciting history, one with repeated spurts of success and failure. There is no straight line or simple explanation, but this history must be more inclusive. We congratulate St. Augustine, FL for its efforts in mounting this exhibit.