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Lost and found: A haven for former slaves

After reading a short passage from Canter Brown Jr.’s book, “Florida’s Peace River Frontier,” Vickie Oldham was so startled she had to read the passage again. And then again. And again.

“I wanted to commit it to memory,” she says.

Oldham, who grew up in southwest Florida, had always been a student of the area’s African-American history, but Brown’s book, written in 1991, taught her something she didn’t know — that in 1812 escaped slaves and their descendants had founded a thriving settlement somewhere along the Manatee River near what’s now Bradenton.

The community was named Angola. By 1821, 700 people lived there, attracted by its fertile land, access to the Gulf of Mexico, the presence of game and fish and the fact they could live there in freedom. By then, the settlement success had also caught the attention of Andrew Jackson, the U.S. Army general who would later become president of the United States.

Jackson, a slave owner from Tennessee, wanted the settlement gone and the slaves returned to their former owners. During a raid in late spring 1821, Angola was leveled, and 300 of its residents, including a man who had once been a slave to George Washington, were captured and sent north. The rest of Angola’s residents slipped away, either moving deeper into the woods or escaping to the Florida Keys, where as many as 250 boarded ships and resettled in the Bahamas.

After first reading about Angola in Brown’s book, Oldham, a former journalist and college administrator and director of the Newtown Conservation Historic District Project, wanted to know more, including Angola’s exact location. For this, she assembled a team of historians, including Brown, and scientists, including Uzi Baram, a professor of anthropology at New College of Florida in Sarasota. Oldham gave the project a name — Looking for Angola — and began work in 2004.

Three sites, all along the south bank of the 36-mile-long Manatee River, seemed to be the most logical locations: The point where the Braden River intersects with the Manatee River; a site where the Manatee River flows into Tampa Bay at DeSoto Point; and a spot east of downtown Bradenton near a freshwater source called Manatee Mineral Springs.

After several years of research, the team determined that the Man-atee Mineral Springs site, because of its access to freshwater, was the most promising site to excavate. The spring, which the city capped in the 1970s, is now in a residential neighborhood, however, so it wasn’t practical to do a full-scale archeological dig. Rather, the team conducted a radar tomography survey, which found evidence of Angola, followed by a targeted excavation led by Baram that found more evidence, including pottery, glass and architectural remains.

Baram says Angola tells an important story, both socially and academically. Not only does its existence prove that black people Emancipation Proclamation.

“It’s a story of freedom gained and freedom erased,” he says. For Oldham, Angola is personal.

“It made me feel proud of these people, who were probably my ancestors,” she says. “I bonded to the story because of how it empowers me. It gives me courage. I’m hoping that the same courage and determination and pride and empowerment that I felt when I heard this story, someone else will feel that, too.

“I want to see historic monuments to Angola,” Oldham says. “I want to read about it in history books. I want to see this taught in the schools.”