The main house of the Kingsley Plantation is located on St. George Island in Jacksonville.
The stately old home and crumbling slave cabins of a 200-year-old cotton plantation in Jacksonville still evoke the remarkable life of Anna Kingsley.
Anna was a 13-year-old enslaved African when she became the plantation owner’s wife in 1806 and, over the years, bore his children, ran his household, was freed, became the owner of her own plantation – and owned slaves, herself.
Her status and accomplishments were almost unheard of at that time for a slave in America. According to local legends, this tall, slender woman with a commanding presence was actually an African princess who’d been taken from her village and sold into slavery.
These stories intrigued historian Daniel Schafer, professor at the University of North Florida, as did the unusual plantation site on Fort George Island. The Kingsley Plantation, now operated by the National Park Service, features the oldest planter’s residence still standing in Florida and the ruins of some 25 slave cabins constructed of “tabby,” a mixture of sand, oyster shells, lime extracted from burned shells and water.
Through research and travel, Schafer discovered that Anna, born Anta Madgigine Jai Ndiaye in Senegal in 1793, was the daughter of a nobleman who was a contender for the kingship until a dispute forced him into exile. Her royal upbringing probably gave Anna the self-image that enabled her to lead others, he concluded.
“I now understand why … she was able to manage plantations and accumulate property that included other enslaved Africans, and from whence came the confidence to challenge white men in a white-dominated legal system,” wrote Schafer, author of the book, “Anna Madgigine Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Slave Owner.”
That legal challenge occurred after her nearly 40 years as the wife of the man who bought her – Scotsman Zephaniah Kingsley, a sea captain, trader, and owner of a 2,600-acre complex of plantations in Spanish Florida.
Upon his death in 1843, she fought (and won) in Florida courts to protect her inheritance from efforts by his sister to disinherit all of his mixed-blood family members.
But this was just one of many challenges she faced in what Schafer describes as “a remarkable story of survival.”
In 1806, after Zephaniah Kingsley, then 40, purchased the 13-year-old girl from slave traders in Havana, he brought her to his plantation on the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville. Five years later, he legally freed her and their three children.
Over the years, the Spanish government gave Anna Kingsley two land grants (the second after she torched the first during a violent takeover attempt by American patriots from the North). She lived on Kingsley Plantation and owned the slaves who farmed her nearby land.
In 1838, several years after Florida became an American territory, increasing racism drove the Kingsleys to migrate to a plantation in Haiti.
After her husband’s death, Anna Kingsley returned to Florida to argue her case in court. Afterwards, she and her children lived on Kingsley land. By the beginning of the Civil War, the racially-mixed, matriarchal, extended Kingsley family had grown to a colony of 73 who controlled nearly 10,000 acres just east of today’s downtown Jacksonville.
Anna Kingsley died in 1870. Schafer believes she’s buried in an unmarked grave in a family cemetery behind a historic Jacksonville home.
This story is provided by the Florida Humanities Council (www.flahum.org), a nonprofit organization that sponsors public programs exploring Florida’s history and cultural heritage.