Somewhere, buried in the depths of the southwest coast of Florida, Vickie Oldham has found her strength in a people who are that of quiet legend. Along the Manatee River, not far from Sarasota where Vickie grew up, the settlement of Angola lies below two centuries of river life. Although the pinpoint location of the lost community of Angola remains a mystery, Vickie has drawn strength from the faceless, nameless people of Angola. 200 years have passed from the time these Freedom Pioneers settled there, but today their story continues to speak powerful messages to Vickie.
“Many of the Angola inhabitants were formerly enslaved on plantations in Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia.
The settlement was also comprised of free blacks (who never knew slavery). They came with the Spaniards and British. Then there were Seminoles in the settlement. Angola was a pretty diverse community.”
Vickie was drawn into the Angola story because it seemed as if the inhabitant’s story paralleled her own. She immediately saw the similarities.
“The settlers were in search of a better life outside of life on plantations in southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas. They transitioned to Florida and had to make a life for themselves. They had nothing to lean on - no safety net. It was do or die; sink or swim; find a way, make a way. Determination, courage, creativity and enterprise had to rule because Florida, the land where they sought safety and a haven was wild, un-chartered land.”
Just as the Angola inhabitants had to redefine, remake, reinvent themselves, so did Vickie. For 20 years, the television news reporter, host and producer enjoyed a job that young journalists dream of. She spent years honing the craft of writing, editing and presenting television content in front of audiences. Soon, conducting interviews with local newsmakers and celebrities was as easy as breathing. “Stacking a show” with compelling content could be done with her eyes closed. At first, leaving the familiar, weekly routine of conceiving show ideas, booking guests and equipment scripting shows, editing video and appearing on camera for live interviews to freelancer was frightening. The “how to’s” of successfully transitioning to another field was a mystery. But researching the story of Angola provided a roadmap to follow when starting anew.
“At first, leaving the familiar, weekly routine of conceiving show ideas, booking guests and equipment scripting shows, editing video and appearing on camera for live interviews to freelancer was frightening.”
At the crossroads of a challenging career transition, Vickie listened as the Angola settlers whispered their message in a still, small voice. At the time, the out-of-fulltime-work journalist grappled with whether to stay in the profession she loved or find other work. She landed a producing project. Vickie’s script writing led to grant seeking for the funding of a documentary based solely on the Angola Settlement. It involved completing a documentary about the history of Sarasota.
The author contracted to write the script prior to Vickie's participation made no mention of Angola. The blaring omission pushed the producer to research more thoroughly the exploits of Angola's inhabitants. A mention of the story was included in the Sarasota documentary, but only briefly. But the messages of the settlers kept speaking over and over to Vickie. A cursory mention in the completed documentary was not enough. Vickie set out to give voice to the ancestors in a documentary based solely on the Angola Settlement.
The next move was fundraising to make the movie. In the process of collaborating with historians, an anthropologist and archaeologists, the team realized that a missing link in the Angola puzzle would need to be filled. No archaeology to find physical evidence of Angola had ever been conducted. Someone had to spearhead the search for artifacts. What began as a desire to tell a compelling story of empowerment has ballooned into "Looking for Angola." Vickie spearheads the multidisciplinary research project aimed at discovering the location of Angola and teaching Florida's school students about the lessons of Angola.
“The story was never covered in history classes through high school. The Angola story was only documented in research papers. It's an unreported story. Only a few scholars knew about the settlement before I developed the "Looking For Angola" project. Now many, many more know about Angola. My goal is to make sure the story is included in history books.”
In 1821, Lower Creek Indians and bounty hunters raided the Angola Settlement. Some survivors of the raid escaped south along the Florida coast to Cape Florida, where they boarded canoes and wreckers, heading for safety and freedom in the Bahamas. It was this year that researchers claim is the same year that Black Seminoles established a settlement on Andros Island call Red Bays where descendants population of these original inhabitants live today.
The link between the Angola Settlement and the Bahamas has intrigued Vickie as well, since the Looking for Angola project’s inception. She has made it a vital link in the research needed to locate Angola, including an international cultural exchange program to bridge the rich history between Sarasota/Manatee County and Red Bays, the Bahamas.
“I traveled to Red Bays, Andros Island in The Bahamas to the place where researchers believe Angola inhabitants finally lived in safety. It is a poverty stricken place, but satellite dishes are attached to many houses of residents. American culture is piped in. Children on the island seem to worship everything American - fashions, music, etc. But they don't know their own history. The greatest reward of the student exchange program is to have children in Red Bays and Sarasota/Manatee County study their shared history together; then develop projects that preserve the memory of the courageous people of Angola.”
“[Red Bays, Andros Island in The Bahamas] is a poverty stricken place, but satellite dishes are attached to many houses of residents. American culture is piped in. Children on the island seem to worship everything American - fashions, music, etc. But they don't know their own history.”
For Vickie, history has been alive in her heart from very early on. “History captured my heart and attention early, in middle school. My history teacher way back then, Mr. Brookbank saw my interest. He presented me a gift - an encyclopedia of U. S. presidents, to my surprise (and my grandmothers!). I'd stay up all night as a pre-teen and teenager watching the Democratic National Convention - the celebration, the speeches.”
Vickie knows her history and through this journey she has become more familiar with key historical figures that factor into Angola’s past. The most prominent player in Angola is Andrew Jackson, however he is not one who is elevated for doing good in this piece of Florida history. Instead, he is responsible for the orders sent to raid the settlement in 1821. If Vickie could sit down face to face with Andrew Jackson she would have a few pointed questions for him.
“The provisional governor of Florida, Andrew Jackson, indirectly ordered the destruction of the Angola settlement. I'd like to find out why he considered the men, women and children of Angola a threat and why did he have their settlement torched? Determined to live in freedom, some survivors escaped, made their way to Key Biscayne, Florida, crossed the dangerous Gulfstream waters and landed in Red Bays, Andros Island in The Bahamas. A descendent population lives there today. I love this story. The people never, never gave up, despite the odds stacked against them.”
As the research continues on the Angola project, Vickie devotes more and more of her life to the spirits and histories of the settlers of Angola. It is her life work now. And to those inhabitants of 200 years past she has a single message , “I'd have to express my appreciation for their story. They showed me how to find a way, make a way by numerous examples. I'd say thanks for how the story impacted my life.”
Learn more about the Looking for Angola Project on their website:http://lookingforangola.org/
Thank you Vickie, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Julianne Barclay and Story of My Life