On a Sunday about four months into life under the pandemic-induced lockdown, University of South Florida history professor J. Michael Francis went to an empty campus to check his mailbox.
In it, he found a letter from a Consul General of Spain. King Felipe VI had issued a decree inducting Francis into a Spanish civil order to recognize his work uncovering the early Spanish roots in Florida’s history. He would be awarded the Officer’s Cross, signifying a third class rank in the Order of Isabella the Catholic.
“It was dated three months earlier,” Francis said. “I thought, how horribly rude of me, I haven’t even responded.”
After assuring the king he wasn’t ignoring him and sorting through the confusion of the missed message, Francis will receive the honor during a ceremony Thursday at the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C.
Francis, the director of the La Florida project, which digitized much of Florida’s early history, said he’s humbled by the honor and credited the undergraduate students he’s led on trips to Spain to examine early archives. He also praised the late philanthropists William and Hazel Hough, who endowed his position at USF and had a passion for making the state’s history accessible.
Francis said learning about the state’s early history firsthand is important as political rhetoric surrounding the nation’s history has heated up. He said he first came to love history as an undergraduate student who took a course in modern Latin American history from a professor who became a mentor to him.
After finishing his doctorate, he was hired at the University of North Florida in 1997. The proximity to St. Augustine, he said, shifted his research interests from colonial South American history to the history of Florida.
The history of the state, he said, is often met with surprise by Floridians and Spaniards, particularly for its diversity.
“The oldest documented (Christian) marriage we have is an interracial marriage,” he said.
It was in 1565, long before Jamestown or Plymouth, between a free Black woman and a Spanish soldier, he said. The first documented people of African descent in the state, he said, dated back to Juan Ponce de Leon’s first expedition to Florida in 1513.
At at a time when The New York Times initiative, The 1619 Project, has sparked a passionate discussion on the nation’s history, Francis said it’s important to know that the state’s history dates back even further.
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Florida’s early days also saw Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, German, French, Greek and Croatian immigrants, he said. And while it wasn’t a utopian community, he said, it was diverse.
“This is something you see in the fabric of St. Augustine from the beginning,” said Francis, who is based on USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “It’s not a story that’s a new narrative.”
In February, Francis and his team will launch a new project called “Europeans, Indians, and Africans: Lost Voices from America’s Oldest Parish Archive, 1594-1821.″ It will digitize and translate more than 8,300 pages of early records and documents.
Providing direct access to history is important, he said.
“So they can see it for themselves, it’s not just a historian telling them this,” Francis said. “Especially now, there is a level of cynicism, of skepticism. There’s a lot of this popular mistrust. At the same time — as historians, as scholars — part of our responsibility is to make material available to the public and make it available in a way that’s accessible.”
The framing, he said, is also important.
“(It’s) a complicated history,” he said. “A history that’s not without violence and conflict and some pretty tragic moments. We didn’t want to whitewash any of that.”
Francis, who recently was appointed to the state’s historical commission by Gov. Ron DeSantis, said he hopes the new project can be a resource for elementary school teachers.
“Students who are working on this period have access to original documentation where they start to think, wait a second. Who wrote this? And for what purpose? And they can start to analyze things and are not just fed what somebody else has written about them,” he said.
They can start doing the work historians do and come up with questions of their own.
“It’s those questions that drive further research, and that research leads us to a better understanding of the past,” Francis said. “And that better understanding of the past matters. And I think it opens dialogues that are important to have not just among historians, but as a nation and among people.”