It’s Because I’m Black Isn’t It?: The Black History I Was Never Told

I’ve been out of touch on here for a while now; and with good reason. I had gone looking for information on the former slave/midwife who assisted deliveries in the rural Putnam County area of Florida. What I ended up discovering floored me.

We used to be black. And not just black, but former slaves.

It’s going to take nearly an entire book to explain all of this…which is a good thing because I’m writing one…

I had no idea that the concepts of black and white weren’t always as…well…black and white…as they seem now. Today, you look at a person’s skin color and start there. (Which is still stupid, but that’s not my point here) In the time period running up to the Civil War, and then the Reconstruction Era, it wasn’t as simple. They looked to your blood instead.

It was called the “one-drop” rule. It meant that if you have even one drop of African blood, you were automatically considered to be a Negro. I had no idea that the term “colored” originally referred to those with a mixed racial heritage. If you were straight off the boat from African, you were Negro. If you were the product of a racially integrated physical union, you were “colored”. And if you were colored you were still a negro. One drop was usually meant to be one great grandparent, or one-eighth, African. But as time progressed, some states tried to adopt definitions as flimsy as one-sixteenth to one-thirty-second.

No one is surprised that Florida was one of those states are they?

If you’ve ever wondered just what makes Florida seem as crazy as it does, I think I found the root cause.

From about the Apalachicola River east, to the Atlantic, was considered East Florida. Throughout most of its early history, this was a territory of Spain. At one point, Spain made Florida a refuge for runaway slaves from the north. They needed more bodies to be able to hold the violent frontier that was the Florida territory. To meet this, what they basically decided was that if you could make it to the territory, and you converted to Catholicism and swore fealty to the Spanish crown, you would be granted free status. From there you would be treated as a free black, and would even be able to apply for, and maybe even get, free land through the land grants being offered.

(Like your cable plan, this offer was good for new customers only. If you were already one of the many slaves in Florida you couldn’t just leave the plantation and expect to be freed.)

Slavery was just as barbaric a practice; but Florida was, as usual, weird compared to most other places. Under Spanish law, slaves actually had a legal voice. Can you believe that?

If your owner was doing something you didn’t agree with, there were ways you could take action against them. There were cases of slaves taking their owners to court to try to get the courts to force the owner to let them stay with their families. How? Because slave marriages were legally recognized arrangements. Unlike to the north where they were based on the whims of the slave owner.

There is one case where a slave took their owner to court to force them to sell them someone else in order to allow the slave to stay with his wife and children; after the owner decided to leave the territory. And, get this, the courts actually sided with the slave and made the owner sell him to someone who was staying in the territory. And this wasn’t an isolated thing either. In New Smyrna, an entire plantation of people walked to St. Augustine to petition against the way they were being treated. The same thing had happened in Rollestown as well. In both cases the slaves received some degree of satisfaction against their treatment.

Even more surprising was discovering that it was totally a thing for slave owners to have the children they had with slaves formally recognized as their own. These children would often be purchased and manumitted by their fathers/owners. In the case of my own family, my great, great, etc, grandfather had gotten the slave of the company he was apprenticing with pregnant. He bought his daughter, Felicia’s, freedom upon her birth. He would go on to also purchase the mother, and the son who had been born in the interim. And then he married her!

Did I mention he was a son of one of the richest families in St. Augustine (and Florida) at the time? These weren’t “third shack on the left” kind of people. This family was one of the top 10%, to use a more modern analogy. And theirs wasn’t the only family on this level who was doing the same. And even if marriage wasn’t part of the equation, it was perfectly acceptable to recognize the offspring as yours through baptism. It was considered a social faux pas not to purchase, or at least arrange for, the freedom of your offspring through these kinds of liaisons.

Slavery was seen as a temporary thing for a lot of people. A single step on a much longer overall journey. Florida slave owners were pretty big on the idea of manumission, or the purchase of one’s freedom, as well. Since you made more money off of renting out slaves who were more skilled, making skilled slaves was a thing too. And since slaves could earn more money for themselves if they were more skilled, they sought out specialized training to improve their skills or learn new ones. It was kind of a badge of honor to be a slave whose skills could fetch a high price. Oh, did I mention that slaves were allowed to make their own work contracts to earn their own money? Cause that was a thing too. And, if the person didn’t pay up for services rendered by the slave; the slave could take legal action against them to make them pay what was owed.

Many employed what is known as the “task system”. This meant a slave was given a certain production goal each day/week/month/year that they had to meet. Once their production was met, they were allowed leisure time to pursue other activities. In other words, once you picked your bushels of whatever that day, you were free to do as you pleased for the rest of the day. This allowed slaves enough time to grow their own food crops, hunt and fish, sew, or just read a book. Did I mention that many slaves were taught how to read and write on many Florida plantations?

It would be a mistake to think that this was some kind of benevolent idea though. There was significant monetary gain for the slave owner who employed this system.

Zephaniah Kingsley is the most well documented slave owner in this situation. On some of his plantations, slave quarters were removed from the big house, and faced away from the house. And these weren’t slave quarters as in just a few boards leaning on each other. These were homes with stone (tabby) walls and shit. He let his slaves continue tribal practices and beliefs they brought with them from Africa. Kingsley allowed his slaves ample time for leisure and recreation. He insisted his slaves had at least a rudimentary education. He even gave them guns! Yes, guns, those things that kill other things. He freely allowed those to people whom he was holding in bondage against their will.

Kingsley did all of this because he was a greedy bastard. (He was also a notorious slave shipper and a pedophile, but that’s another topic)

He let his slaves keep their own beliefs because it created a greater sense of community in his salve pens. Which cut down on the likelihood of them running away. He let them learn to read and write because he could get more kinds of work out of them that way. He let them learn and hone skills so that they fetched a greater price when he rented them out to others; or when he sold them.

The slave quarters were farther from the big plantation house so that they worked as a line of defense against hostiles. They faced away from the house so that they could see hostiles coming, and gave them guns to protect themselves from them. Allowing them to own their own property gave them a reason to protect themselves.

Allowing slaves to grow their own little gardens gave them a ready food supply that Kingsley didn’t have to provide. It could also give them a secondary source of income, which would allow them to earn money to put towards manumission. Even if they didn’t seek manumission, making money meant they could make their own purchases for things like clothes and other basic needs; meaning Kingsley wouldn’t have to provide as much himself.

So even though Kingsley, and other like him, were doing all of these seemingly kind and benevolent things, it was still strictly business.

Once combined, all of these things helped to create a third class of people who would act as a buffer between the lowest and the highest classes. A unique middle class that was a literal physical blending of the two other castes. When Florida became a US territory in about 1821, it was already full of these “free blacks”.

But we weren’t taught any of this in school.

Meaning that we weren’t taught what happened when the more brutal, binary, American version of race and slavery entered the picture. By the time Florida had transitioned between territory and full statehood, many of these families were generations removed from their original blended origins. But don’t forget about that “one-drop” rule.

Making all of it even more complicated was the commonality that house slaves (like my ancestor) were often racially blended individuals themselves. In the above explained three casts system, blended individuals were seen as having the greater qualities of both races. They would have been seen as being “smart” like white folks, and as “built for labor” as black folks. This made lighter skinned, often racially blended, slaves in high demand as house servants.

Which mean that it’s likely that my slave ancestor was already only “one drop” African to begin with. Whether she (biologically) was or wasn’t is immaterial to the assumptions being made though. No matter your skin’s natural melanin content, as a former slave you were black.

And in the binary, black and white, chattel style slavery system, was going to take hold…whether those uppity light skinned “niggers” liked it or not. By the 1830’s laws were introduced that forced previously free people into the binary system. Families who had owned and operated business throughout Florida were suddenly striped of permits that would allow them to continue their businesses.

Even though your skin was fair, you still couldn’t be out after dark without “permission”. And being a free person, instead of a slave, didn’t help either. In the case of my own ancestors, since blacks couldn’t sell alcohol, they were stripped of permits for their taverns. Previously, they had been part of (or lead) local military and militia units. Once under US rule, they couldn’t even own guns; much less participate in military service. This also kept them out of being able to apply for the land grants that were a perk of being a soldier back then. This also meant that, since they couldn’t own a gun or many other weapons, they couldn’t protect their farms or other property from hostiles either.

Which was an even bigger problem since they couldn’t really own property of their own anyway. Every move they made had to be passed through a “white” guardian. And all free blacks were required, by law, to have a white guardian. Can you imagine being visually white and still being treated as if you were black? Because that’s what people like my ancestors were. Look at the picture I included. That man was considered “legally” black.

You could also be sold into slavery to pay the cost of your debts. And since your white guardian was likely to screw you over every chance they got, you were likely to find yourself with debts that couldn’t be paid.

These increasingly racist laws would eventually force people, like my own ancestors, to go to great lengths to “prove” their “whiteness”. And the best and simplest way to do this was through violence against their own kind.

And here’s where we circle back around to my original statement.

The previously mentioned former slave ancestor of mine had several children. One of those sons was the father of my great, great, great, grandmother (who is also my great, great, great, great grandmother…we’re southern after all). She was a woman named Susan Clarke.

Susan shows up in a book by Dr. Frank Marotti titled Heaven’s Soldiers. As well as two books by author Gylbert Garvin Coker and a book written by a man named James Curtis.

But my own family, her own family, has never mentioned her. Ever! And the only reason why: because she was black. 

 

Pictured: a "black" woman...not pictured: equality or reality

Pictured: a “black” woman…not pictured: equality

 

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About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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4 Responses to It’s Because I’m Black Isn’t It?: The Black History I Was Never Told

  1. Pingback: A Newly Discovered Kind Of Middle | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

  2. Pingback: The (exaggerated) Adventures of George J. F. Clarke | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

  3. Pingback: When “Race” Wasn’t About Skin Color | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

  4. Pingback: My family had a slave called Prince | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

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