Federal Agency May Designate Bradenton City Park As Underground Railroad Site
by DALE WHITE, SARASOTA HERALD TRIBUNE | March 31, 2018
BRADENTON, FL — An east Bradenton park already regarded to be of local historical significance may soon get a special federal designation.
Later this year the National Park Service will consider Manatee Mineral Spring as a possible location in its Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which denotes sites that runaway slaves used as hideaways in the early 19th century.
In January, Sheri Jackson, a regional manager for the park service, came to Bradenton to meet with the Reflections of Manatee group and other local history buffs. They discussed archaeological and other research that strongly indicates that Angola, a colony of hundreds of escaped slaves, may have been at least partially located just south of the Manatee River at the site of a now-capped freshwater spring and a city of Bradenton park.
In the 1840s, that same source of drinking water attracted the white settlers who formed the community of Manatee. Yet, decades before those pioneers arrived, it was most likely the site of Angola.
Jackson told Reflections of Manatee members about the park service’s Underground Railroad Network listings.
“She really encouraged us to apply,” said Reflections of Manatee member Sherry Svekis, who is preparing the paperwork to be submitted in July. The group expects to know by the end of the year whether the federal agency will include Manatee Mineral Spring Park on its list of Underground Railroad sites.
Given Jackson’s expressed interest, they think the designation is likely.
Historians have long known that a slave colony called Angola existed somewhere in Southwest Florida. Not until this century, however, did they, archaeologists and others start to focus on Manatee Mineral Spring as the possible location.
In 2004, television reporter Vickie Oldham organized a team of researchers to start exploring the likelihood that present-day east Bradenton was at least one site for the possibly scattered community of Angola.
Because of the freshwater spring, it’s “a logical location,” Svekis noted.
The Manatee River had yet to be dredged and, in the early 1800s, was most likely shallow in that vicinity. “Ships couldn’t come this far,” Svekis said. “It was a perfect location to hide.”
New College of Florida anthropologist Uzi Baram, author of an extensive 2014 report about Angola, participated in an archaeological dig on the site a decade ago. About three feet deep, researchers uncovered fragments of British ceramics and tobacco pipes that date to the early 19th century.
The escaped slaves, known as “maroons,” considered themselves British subjects and were likely to have such materials, Baram said. He believes the fragments are “compelling evidence” that the mineral spring is at least one site that comprised Angola, a community of about 750 runaway slaves that may have extended in scattered locations as far south as Sarasota Bay.
“The archaeological evidence that we have is complicated but it does show there was an early 19th century maroon community on the south side of the Manatee River,” Baram said.
The colony probably formed in the 1810s, with subsequent surges in population after Andrew Jackson and his allies led attacks on communities to the north. About 700 runaway slaves resided in cabins and raised crops and cattle.
In 1821, raiders allied with Jackson destroyed Angola and took about 300 residents back into captivity. Hundreds of other Angola residents fled, going into the interior of South Florida and to the Bahamas.
In 1828, John Lee Williams, one of Florida’s early historians, reportedly explored the Manatee River and saw ruins of cabins and domestic utensils littering open fields at what was most likely all that was left of Angola.
To celebrate the site’s connection with her homeland, Bradenton resident Daphney Towns, a native of the Bahamas, and her organization, Oaktree Community Outreach, are planning a festival.
“Back to Angola,” to be held at Manatee Mineral Spring Park on July 13-15, will feature food and crafts by a delegation of visitors from the Bahamas.
Towns said the public can expect the event featuring basket weavers and other artisans to be colorful and flavorful, with a wide range of Bahamian dishes such as conch fritters and fried fish.
“They know the story” of Angola, Towns said of the Bahamian people. Many of them she has encountered on trips to the islands are eager to see the site where some of their ancestors may have lived. “This park will never be forgotten.”