By Shane Donglasan
The Back to Angola Festival held July 19-21 celebrated the rich history of a colony of escaped slaves and Seminole Indians near Manatee Mineral Springs Park in the early 1800s.
The community of about 750 people thrived from 1812 until 1821 before their settlement was destroyed by U.S. soldiers. Some may have resettled inland while other survivors escaped to the Bahamas, where the colony’s descendants still live today.
The second annual festival, at Reflections of Manatee in Bradenton near the settlement site, featured a panel of individuals who helped uncover the hidden history of the Angola community.
The “Looking for Angola” project began in the early 1990s after Vickie Oldham, a Sarasota resident and producer of local historical documentaries, saw a mention of Angola while she was working on a documentary about African Americans in Sarasota. Oldham joined researchers, historians and anthropologists on the panel, including New College Professor of Anthropology and Heritage Studies Uzi Baram, to discuss the history of the project, how it has evolved and the future of the historical site.
Baram led the archaeological research in finding evidence of the settlement. Baram has emphasized the urgency of creating more community programming and excavations for uncovering additional evidence of this community.
“I can easily say being part of the research team for Looking for Angola completely transformed my career,” Baram said. “I joined the team because of the nature of this history and its significance. It was important to share this information and the research process with the public – not just what we found but how we were finding it as well.”
Baram involved his students with the research and public outreach efforts. One of those former students, Sherry Svekis, was also a panelist at the event. Svekis had been introduced to the Angola project while she was working on her thesis. Since graduating in 2005, she has been instrumental in efforts in preserving the history of the Angola settlement. Svekis wrote the grants that lend to the funding of heritage interpretation signs for Angola and helped the site be recognized as a stop on the Underground Railroad Network by the National Parks Services’ National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
According to panelist and historian Canter Brown, Jr., Angola is one of the most significant historical sites in the state and illustrates the important role Florida played as a refuge for freedom.
You can learn more about Looking for Angola at the Visitors Center of the Curry Houses Historic District in Bradenton which features a permanent exhibit that tells the story of the free black settlement on the Manatee River. The exhibit also includes visual displays dedicated to the Florida Underground Railroad and the Angola community as documented through archaeological research at Manatee Mineral Springs Park.
– Shane Donglasan is the marketing writer/project coordinator at New College of Florida.