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Did Florida’s enslaved learn beneficial skills? Here’s what they said.

In the 1930s, the federal government’s Works Progress Administration collected oral histories from the formerly enslaved.
 
One of the symbolic headstones in Oaklawn Cemetery, Tampa’s first public burial ground, representing the enslaved African Americans who were buried there.
One of the symbolic headstones in Oaklawn Cemetery, Tampa’s first public burial ground, representing the enslaved African Americans who were buried there. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published July 27, 2023|Updated July 29, 2023

TAMPA — Construction work was abundant for father and son Jim and Douglas Parish once they were emancipated from slavery.

It is a skill that they might have learned from their enslaver, who had a more sinister job for the Parish matriarch. More on that later.

Florida is, once again, at the center of a national debate, this time because its Department of Education’s new African American history standards suggest that some of the enslaved developed trades and skills from which they benefitted after they were free.

Critics, including Vice President Kamala Harris, say the curriculum diminishes the atrocities that the enslaved endured.

The stories of the formerly enslaved can shine a light on the reality of their lives.

In the 1930s, the federal government’s Works Progress Administration collected oral histories from some who had been freed. Workers spoke with 40 people who were living in Florida at that time and were once enslaved here or throughout the South.

The stories document that skills were taught to the enslaved, but the Parish family is one of only two examples of someone who might have used those abilities to build a post-emancipation life.

Nearly all the oral histories abound with examples of inhumanity.

“The narratives provide students an opportunity to experience history at a personal level through the words of African Americans who spent their childhood and teenage years as the property of their owner, deprived of personal liberty and familial connection, and often physically abused,” reads the University of South Florida’s description of the collection, available online through their library.

Here are a few of the stories:

Bells

Margarett Nickerson spoke of skills that the enslaved learned other than picking crops on the Leon County plantation where she was held.

They could make rope for plow lines and turn cowhides into shoes for the hired farmhands and the enslaved. But the enslaved were punished for losing their shoes.

“He’d beat you,” she said, adding that the dogs were treated better.

Some tried to escape and, when caught, were forced to wear a bell around their neck.

A toy

While enslaved in Baldwin County, Georgia, Victoria Harris was taught to “knit, make buttonholes and spin, an I ain’t forgot em,” she said.

She also had a job inside the home as a child. She was a toy for the white children.

Treated like a doll, “they put holes in my ears an’ gold rings in ‘em,” said Harris, who came to Florida after the Civil War, “and when I knowed I had a hand, they had gold rings on my fingers.”

Harris thought that this was a blessed life compared to how others were treated.

“I had good white people,” she said. “I ain’t never had a white person whup me.”

Already skilled

Two narratives detail enslavers who benefitted from skills that their enslaved people acquired prior to bondage.

Charlie Dorsey was a free resident and mechanic in Maryland when he and his wife Anna were kidnapped there by a slave trader and taken via ship to Florida.

They were sold to a Jacksonville family, who used the husband as a mechanic and the wife as a housemaid.

One of the white children taught their son, Douglas Dorsey, to read and write. But Douglas was whipped when the enslaver learned that he was educated and threatened that his arm would be cut off if he ever wrote again.

And then there is Samson Forrester, who as an enslaved child was kidnapped by the Florida Seminoles. He lived with the tribe and learned their language and customs.

In April 1840, Forrester turned himself over to the federal government with the promise of emancipation.

But “the officers at Fort Brook military reservation in Tampa, recognizing his potential usefulness, purchased him from his master for $1,500, from which point he operated as a slave of the government,” the report relayed, “performing useful services such as scout and interpreter” for when they dealt with the Seminoles.

Forrester might have taken revenge. He later was accused of assisting the Seminoles with their plan to attack a military trading post that resulted in 18 dead. He denied the charges.

The dairy farm

While cotton plantations usually are associated with slavery, there was a dairy farm in Ybor City where the enslaved were taught that trade.

Enslaved by Major William T. Brown, according to a woman identified only as “Old Aunt Sarah,” they learned to milk cows and churn butter.

The enslaved would then sell the produce door-to-door.

“Liza ... carried the great basket in which were the cans of milk and butter on her head and would walk two miles from where they lived to town in ankle deep sand ... until she went crazy,” Sarah said. “After this happened, the Browns were forced to keep her chained to a tree in the yard.”

They eventually trusted a man named Aman to “cure her” by hitching Liza to a plow that she pulled through a field while being whipped like “a horse or mule,” Sarah said. “The poor creature died from her affliction and this horrible treatment.”

The carpenters

After emancipation, the Parish family remained on the Monticello plantation where they had been enslaved.

There, the father, Jim Parish, was hired to make repairs to the property using his skills as a bricklayer and carpenter, but the oral history does not say how or when he learned those trades.

Jim Parish then taught his son Douglas “all that he knew … and the two were in high demand to repair, remodel or build houses for white people.”

Matriarch Fannie Parish’s slave-era work was of no financial benefit.

She had been a “breeder,” said the son, a woman expected to be “a bearer of strong children who could bring high prices at the slave markets.”

Soap makers

Frank Berry’s mother might have used a skill learned while enslaved to save their farm after emancipation.

Their former enslaver leased Berry a strip of farming land that they used to grow corn and cotton. They struggled to grow enough crops to pay the landlord. Berry’s mother helped with expenses by selling homemade lye soap.

The lye “was obtained by placing old-hickory-wood ashes in a suspended hamper” and then “pouring boiling hot water over the ashes,” the report says. “The red liquid is caught in a trough and emptied into a tub. This lye is the principal ingredient of the lye soap.”

Samuel Johnson said that on the Jacksonville plantation where he was enslaved, they made soap by mixing bones and lard in a bucket, heating it and then straining the mixture into another bucket that contained alum, turpentine and rosin.

He said they learned to cook meals over fireplaces and make salt.

Johnson did not take solace in those skills.

“Even the best masters in slavery couldn’t be as good as the worst person in freedom,” he said. “Oh, God, it is good to be free.”