Rosalyn Howard, Ph.D.
Photo Courtesy of Rosalyn Howard
Interview with Rosalyn Howard, Ph.D. Discipline: Anthropology October 2005
Q: What inspired you to study Black Seminoles in the Bahamas? A: I was a graduate student at the University of Florida and one of my professors and I were talking. I had originally planned to study something totally different in grad school but he knew that I was part Native American and part African and he asked, "Did you know about the Black Seminoles?" I said, "No."
He said that John Goggin, who also had been at the University of Florida, had written some papers back in the forties, about people in the Bahamas who were supposed to be descendants of Black Seminoles who fled from Florida. I started looking into it and started meeting more people, and I decided that this was a part of history that really needed to be recorded. It was new information that could add a piece to the puzzle of the African diaspora and Florida history, that had yet to be discovered. I was very happy to be the person to do that.
Q: What were you hoping to achieve with your ethnographic fieldwork? A: My research proposal was to record the oral history of elders in the community of Red Bays in particular, but also others who lived in surrounding communities on Andros Island. I knew that not all of the Black Seminoles who fled from Florida actually stayed in the Red Bays community.
The original Red Bays community was located about three miles north of what is today called Red Bays. That original community was devastated several times by hurricanes. Eventually the Bahamian government said, "Everybody has to evacuate that community or we're not going to help you anymore." So some of the people from that original Red Bays went to other places like Lowe Sound (another settlement), Mastic Point, Nicolls Town and Stanyard Creek.
So I went to those communities seeking elders to whom the story had been passed down about their ancestors and how they got to Andros Island. My questions were "Do you remember the stories? What were the stories?" I wanted to record those, and I wanted to question them about how they identified themselves. Did they still consider themselves Black Seminoles, or any kind of separate identity other than Bahamian? I also wanted to know about the kinds of cultural retentions the people had, perhaps Seminole cultural retentions or African cultural retentions. Those are the main things I wanted to discover in my research.
Q: How did you go about your research? A: I went to the community initially, to ask permission. I felt it was important to get their assent for my project. So I went and spoke to a man named Reverend Bertram Newton, who was a leader in the community. He was the principal and a teacher at the only school in Red Bays, where I would live. That's where the majority of the Black Seminole descendants live.
I asked permission and after Reverend Newton had spoken to several people in the community, he agreed and he said that he thought it was a good idea that their oral history be recorded. A few months later, I came to live in the community. Anthropologists learn a lot more about a community by living in a home of some of the people there. That presents its own problems, especially when you have factions in communities who don't get along; you're living in one person's house and they don't get along with somebody else.
But Reverend Newton arranged for me to stay at the home of a single woman who has five children. I was there for a couple of months and unfortunately had an accident, almost broke my ankle, and I was on crutches, so I had to leave and come back a couple of months later when I was more healed. At that time, I made arrangements to live with a woman who actually had more space in her house to accomodate me.
Q: How did you become involved in the Looking for Angola project? A: My initial research on Andros Island started in 1996, as my dissertation research, then I wrote the book. Not many people knew that there were descendants of the Black Seminoles living in the Bahamas. When the book came out, that generated a lot of interest and really filled in some gaps in information in the anthropological and historical record.
I met Canter Brown, Jr. who had read my material and knew about my research. He and I participated in a yearly conference that is held in Bartow, Florida, and so I knew about his work and saw that there was a connection. So when Vickie Oldham found out that there was this black presence in the Sarasota area while she was doing another project, she contacted Canter, who then told her about my work and how all of this really flowed together.
Q: What can oral history and ethnography bring to the LFA project? A: The oral history that I collected from the people on Andros Island stated that their ancestors came from Florida. They had no knowledge of what their ancestors' lives were like while they were in Florida, what part of Florida they lived in, or anything like that. That didn't give me links to anything in Florida. The question that it raised was, "How do I find out about what happened with their ancestors?"
Not long after that is when I met Vickie and all of this started coming together. I got more historical documents from Canter Brown and others that gave information that tied this story all together, how the survivors from Angola had come south through the keys, and other information about people fighting their way through the Everglades to the keys and Cape Florida and embarking from there to the Bahamas. The stories that they told me about their ancestors and the documents I found in the archives in the Bahamas (which really were discovered first by David Wood, who is a researcher at the Bahamian Archives) substantially agreed.
The history shows that their ancestors landed on Andros, and that a British Customs Agent discovered them there in 1828. He said in a letter that they had been living there for seven years. That makes their initial settlement in 1821. We know that 1821 was the year that Angola was destroyed, and the year that people fled from there and came down to the keys and went to the Bahamas. That created the connection to Andros that we needed. It created that link.
The British Customs Officer made a list of 97 names of people who he took from Andros Island to Nassau, thinking that he was protecting them from being sold into slavery. Some of those names are the same surnames and first names of the ancestors that were mentioned to me in the oral history interviews.
Also, there is a letter with a list of names that the army provided to the US government, of the people who they had taken from Angola, and they were supposedly returning them to their owners or returning them to the United States to the plantations that they supposedly belonged on. There is one name, Prince McQueen, that I'm still doing research on to try to connect that name. I'm sure there were others who had that same name, but it seems likely that that same person wound up in Andros. That name is on that 1828 letter.
So, I'm hoping that at some point we can say definitely that that was the same man. The McQueen family has died off now in Red Bays, but there are some other McQueen families throughout other areas in the Bahamas. Some of the Black Seminoles actually landed in Nassau and blended in with the population there, so there are descendants in Nassau also.
I know that because I did a lecture for the Bahamas historical society a couple of years ago, and many people came and spoke with me afterwards. They told me that they know that some of their ancestors were the Black Seminoles who came from Florida. There's much work left to be done in the Bahamas as far as gathering more stories that may give us information that ties into Angola.
Q: What are the limitations of oral history and ethnography? A: Some of the limitations are of course that some people don't remember the story exactly. Oral history can be limited by people's memories. It's kind of like the telephone story, you pass something around and it gets changed. So it can have some inaccuracies. It also can be a story that just gets repeated, everyone has the same story and you wonder if it's just something that's been memorized, or was it really passed down this way. And over time, people simply forget portions of their history. There are limitations to that extent with oral history.
But remembering that oral tradition is the way that people of African descent and Native American descent have always passed their history down, I think that cultural tradition is something that's important to remember. That can lend more credibility to it. The fact that I was able to confirm those stories with the documents in the archives, definitely gives the oral history a stronger standing.
Ethnography is only as good as the person who's doing it, and how much a person brings to the research situation. I was welcomed into the community and people were happy to tell me their stories, and I didn't have major cultural barriers. The way I did it was not just to walk up to them with microphones and cameras. I spent a month or more just acclimating myself to the community, and them to me, before I started doing the interviews. I wanted them to know that I was deeply interested in their history, and it was valuable history.
By the time I finished a year later, I felt I was just getting to the tip of the iceberg. If I had been able to stay another year, who knows what I would have found out about the community, the contemporary community in particular? Unfortunately it isn't that condusive now to passing on that oral history because of the modern invasion of infastructure, people can get in and out of the community more easily, there are more distractions with television.
The times when all there was to do was to sit around and listen to the elders talk about the history around the fire that was built to keep the mosquitos away, those days are gone. A lot of young people don't seem to value the past or the oral history of their ancestors. But I'm glad that I did get a chance to record the people I did, because three of the people I recorded have now passed on. So their stories would never have been recorded. What I did, also, was give a copy of my oral histories to the Bahamanian Archives, so if anyone else wants to do research, the stories will always be there.
Q: What new information did your research bring to light? A: David Wood had put out a book in 1980 with excerpts of letters from the 1800s that referred to that community of Black Seminoles in the Bahamas, but it was a locally produced piece and it didn't receive wide readership. What I think my work did was to publicize the information of the documented presence of the Black Seminoles who fled to the Bahamas from Florida.
My work was also the first ethnography on this community. Goggin had met Felix MacNeilin 1937 and he said that MacNeil had mentioned Red Bays, but he himself never went into Red Bays. They were this community that was a mystery to many Bahamians. There were all these legends and rumors about these wild Indians living in the back of Andros Island, which they called "the land behind God's back." This was not a very complimentary name that implied that the people there were backwards, that they were these strange people. My work cast light on who these people were, and what their history was. No one had ever done any oral history with them, so this was all new information that no one else had recorded.
Q: What was the most exciting aspect of your research? A: The most exciting thing was to be the person to actually do this! There are so many gaps in the history of African-descended people in our anthropological and historical record, and this was a big one. I felt very privileged to be able to do this work, and provide this information about people who had virtually been ignored, and whose history makes a vital connection between Florida and the Bahamas.
The history of these two countries is very closely intertwined and there has been research from different angles, but no one ever followed up that lead that Goggin left hanging out there so many years ago. I feel a deep fulfillment that these people's stories have now been told to a certain extent.
As I've said, there's much more work to be done. I'd like to interview many more people who don't live on Andros Island, and many more who do. I'm hoping to be able to accomplish some of that with a grant that Vickie and I are going to work on, to actually teach Bahamians how to do ethnography, and get some of these interviews done that can add more pieces to the puzzle.
Q: Why is the search for Angola important? A: The history of Native Americans and African peoples and their interactions and interrelationships has not been one that's popular to record or popular to publish, but it's important and it can tell us a lot about how people adapt to situations and how people develop relationships and cultural transfers via actions and artifacts, all of that.
Q: What's next for your research? A: One of the things we've been discussing is seeking permission from the Bahamian government to do an archaeological dig at the original Red Bays site. No one lives there now, but I know that there is a house foundation there that I have seen and photographed. I don't know if that is one of the original ones or not, because I'm not an archaeologist, but there's also another area that the person who was guiding me pointed out to me, where they were supposed to have lived. We're hoping to get permission to dig there, and just find what we can. If we can find some material there, we'll know better how to match it up with material we find, when we find Angola.
"Looking for Angola" is such an apt name for this project. I guess when we find it, we'll have to name it something else [laughs].
We had a conference call recently and we were all thinking that this would be part of the strategy for the next phase of this project. I can see it also branching into Polk County, where people there say that some of their ancestors were Indian, too. We know that some of the Angola survivors went into that area instead of coming down and escaping to the Bahamas. It's just wide open, it's just a rich, rich history that is still to unfold.
I really believe that. I am just so excited to be able to make this connection that the people in Red Bays didn't know anything about, that their ancestors were residents of this Angola community, or some of them were, anyway. It's very exciting and it gives me a really deep sense of fulfillment that this is not only important to me, but certainly important to them and many others.
Q: What challenges will you face in your continuing research? A: Some of the challenges will be physical, because the area we seek this location in is very developed, so we must get permission from many land owners.
Another challenge will be getting permission from the Bahamian government to do archaeology over there. Other challenges are trying to substantiate the historical documentation we do have and find more if possible, because we know that there was a strong connection between the Angola community and Cuba.
Cuba has a lot of archives, but they're a mess [laughs]. I have a good friend who did her dissertation research there, and from what she described, it would take a long, long time to find what we're looking for. But the University of Florida is supposed to be engaged in trying to scan or microfilm a lot of the documents there. Hopefully we'll be able to get more information from historical documents that haven't been accessed yet.
Certainly the main challenge is finding the community [laughs]. Actually finding it.
Then what we'll need to get is get more money. Big money, on the scale of what the African Burial Ground project has obtained. That will be a major challenge.
But the looking for it, the search for it, is absolutely fascinating, because each day is bringing us closer to making the actual tie between Angola and Red Bays, and other communities in Andros. We could create this cultural tourist trail that I'm sure would be beneficial to a lot of people.
Q: Do you expect to find any descendants of Angola survivors in the Manatee River region? Around Cape Florida? A: That would be wonderful, to find someone who knows that their ancestors came from Angola but didn't go to the Bahamas, just stayed in the swamps with the Seminoles or went inland to the Polk County settlements. The oral history hasn't been done there, either. I'm talking with Clifton Lewis there, who spearheads the Bartow heritage festival, and he and I may work on a project to do some oral history there sometime in the near future.
I wouldn't be surprised to know that there are some stories there, because we know that some of them fled into that region from various battles; when the settlement on the Suwannee was destroyed, and then Angola. There may have been some people who fled there and managed to find a way to stay safe all these years. Who knows what we may find? That's what's so exciting about this, too!
Q: What would you like to add? A: I'd like to stress that this is exciting, not only because of the information we're going to get, not only the puzzle pieces that we'll be able to fit in that were missing, but it's also exciting because of the interdisciplinary nature of this project.
You have history, cultural anthropology and archaeology all coming together to work on this project. You don't have those disciplinary boundaries and territorial gate-keeping going on. We are really cooperating in this effort, and I think that is totally exciting and something I think many projects can benefit from.