This is a podcast transcript, originally published as part of the Crimes & Witch-Demeanors Podcast.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of Crimes & Witch-Demeanors. I’m your host, Joshua Spellman. Last week we covered the burning of a Capitol building…which happened to air on the day our Capitol was attacked…am I prophet? Maybe. Today we’re headed down to the wetlands of east Florida, just outside of Jacksonville, and investigating the spirits that haunt Kingsley Plantation: the princess turned slave turned slave-owner, Anna Kingsley; the vengeful and malevolent entity known as “Old Red Eyes”; and the ghostly white peacocks that scream in the night are just some of the known apparitions. However, are these truly the ghosts that haunt the plantation? Or is the true haunting the racial tropes that persist within these ghostly stories paired with the bloody imprint of slavery on our history? Join me today to find out.
I was getting a little tired of telling the same old story of rich white folk, as ghost stories often tend to be…and the story of Kingsley Plantation is still often told as one. Instead of focusing too much on the owner of the plantation, Zephaniah Kingsley, a rich, white polygamous slave-owner; I wanted to focus in on the story of one of his wives, Anna Kingsley, or Anta Madjiguene Ndiaye. Her story is that of tragedy and triumph, overcoming being sold into slavery and even once freed, overcoming societal norms and the oppression of Jim Crowe. For the history portion of the podcast, let us delve into the life of Anna Kingsley so that we can better understand her afterlife and the phantoms that lurk on the grounds of Kingsley Plantation.
On June 18, 1793 princess Anta Madjiguene Ndiaye of the Wolof people was born in modern-day Senegal. At this time, this portion of West Africa was a home to conflict between the Wolof and the Fula and villages in the area were often lain waste to by slave raids. The crisis only intensified and in 1806, Anta was captured by Tyeddo raiders from the Futa Toro.
She was taken by force to Goree Island, a slave debarkation point. She was kept prisoner for days with little to no food. However, on the first occasion she was presented to European buyers, she was sold. Unfortunately, this catapulted Anta from one horrific situation to another.
The journey across the Atlantic was long and arduous. The enslaved were shackled to wooden boards, confined to tight quarters, and were malnourished and over-heated. Those who had died from heat stroke or another malady were simply thrown overboard like rotted meat. Some people managed to escape and threw themselves overboard, as death by drowning was preferable to the horrid conditions on the ship and what awaited them once they arrived at their destination.
The ship landed in Havana, Cuba and the passengers were immediately forced into isolation. This was done to help prevent the spread of any diseases that may have been brought with them and to make them presentable to potential buyers.
In the autumn of 1806, it was time for Anta to be put up for sale. As it would have it, luck was on her side. 43 year-old Zephaniah Kingsley, an English merchant, had been in Cuba to purchase rum, molasses, and of course, as was the fashion of the day, slaves. It was at this auction that he laid eyes on 13 year-old Anta and had to have her. He desperately outbid every other slave trader and merchant there, winning ownership of Anta, soon changing her name to Anna.
Now, there is nothing about slavery that is good, but the fates were looking out for young Anta; rescuing her from a destiny that could have been much more dire. While still a slave trader, and still a slave owner, Zephaniah held views on slavery that were atypical for the time and would benefit Anta until her death.
Although not ideal, and though it raises many modern day concerns: Anta was wed to Zephaniah in an African ceremony in Havana. This ceremony was certainly not a catholic ceremony and therefore was not legally recognized by Spanish Florida or the United States during their lifetimes.
After this unconventional marriage, the couple made the voyage to Zephaniah’s plantation, Laurel Grove, located in present-day Orange park. However, Zephaniah and Anta did not arrive alone, as by the time they landed, Anta was with child. Despite still being a slave, instead of relegating Anta to the paltry slave quarters – Zephaniah invited her to stay with him in his home. This was a welcome change from the gruesome living conditions Anta had been subject to for the last several months.
Laurel Grove was home to over 100 slaves working to produce cotton, oranges, peas, and potatoes. As mentioned earlier, despite being a plantation owner, Zephaniah’s views on slavery were unique. Make no mistake, he was still a slave master, but he was more humane than most.
Zephaniah employed a system where the slaves were appointed certain tasks for the day. They were allowed to work as quickly or as slowly as they wished and when their day’s work was completed they were allowed to use their time as they wished. Zephaniah also allotted slaves their own fields to grow their own crops. Some slaves spent their free time creating crafts, which Zephaniah permitted them to sell along with their own produce if they so wished. Instead of segregating his slaves, Zephaniah preferred that they live together as families, rather than being split up. However, despite this treatment his motivations weren’t altruistic: he believed that if you treated slaves better that they would be more productive and less likely to rebel.
Apparently his system worked, as the plantation made up to $10,000 annually, or nearly half a million dollars today. This was impressive, especially for a plantation in a secluded area of Florida.
Visitors to the plantation assumed that Anna was a free woman: after all, she ran the plantation along with a freed slave who acted as the manager while Zephaniah was off on business. Though Zephaniah had other wives, Anna was always recognized as his primary and most beloved. By 1811, when Anna was 18, she had bore three children: George in June of 1807, Martha in July of 1809, and Mary in February of 1811. It was also this year that Zephaniah granted Anna full and legal emancipation, reinforcing her important position and place of power at the plantation.
In 1813, Anna petitioned the Spanish government, which still ruled Florida, for land. She was granted 5 acres in Mandarin, just across the river from Laurel Grove. Anna purchased equipment and goods to start her farm, including 12 slaves of her own. Now, it may seem unusual for a freed slave to then go and purchase her own. However, the concept of slavery was a part of her culture in Africa – including the model that female slaves often married their masters to gain freedom. Anna was dead set on becoming an independent businesswoman, selling goods, produce, and poultry.
However, this particular business venture would not last long. During that same year, Zephaniah was kidnapped by the Patriot Rebellion; American insurgents who were attempting to annex Florida by force. The rebels attacked and raided towns and plantations and all blacks they captured into slavery—regardless of their legal status. This put Anna at great risk.
The patriots soon arrived to pillage Laurel Grove, taking 31 of its slaves in the process, and using the plantation as their headquarters as they looted nearby areas. To avoid capture and being re-sold into slavery, Anna negotiated with the Spanish for her escape, bringing her children and 12 slaves with her. As she left, she burned Laurel Grove and her newly acquired homestead to the ground so that the insurgents could no longer use them as a base. For this, the Spanish government awarded her 350 acres of land. 70 times what she had purchased earlier that year.
In 1814, now reunited, Zephaniah and Anna moved to a plantation on Fort George Island—what is now known as Kingsley Plantation near Jacksonville, Florida. The plantation was looted and vandalized during the rebellion and every building aside from the main house was destroyed. Here is where Zephaniah took his other three wives, all slaves, who gave him a total of 9 children. These women were all freed, along with his children.
To say that the family dynamic was complex would be an understatement, but Anna was the one named in his will as his wife. These other women were considered “co-wives” of Anna, but not quite matching up to her in terms of importance or power. His wives and his children lived in luxury and were educated with the best schooling he could afford. When the plantation had company, Anna would sit at the head of the table and the walls of the home were decorated with paintings of African women.
In the 1820’s the Kingsley’s built a separate kitchen connected to the main house by a walkway. Above the kitchen was a room where Anna resided with her children and this building was dubbed the “Ma’am Anna House”
A total of 32 slave residences were built not far from the main house. They were arranged in a peculiar semicircle pattern. Some historians believe that Zepheniah did this to keep a closer watch on his slaves, but others believe it was Anna’s doing as many African villages were arranged in similar patterns. In 1824, Anna bore her fourth and final son, John.
Spain eventually ceded Florida to the United States. This transfer of power led to significant changes in how slaves and free blacks were treated. Interracial marriage were considered to be invalid and children of mixed descent were not allowed to inherit property. While all those born free slaves prior to 1821 were not subject to these new laws, their youngest son was born in 1824 and would not receive these same protections. Worried that his family’s rights may be taken away, in 1835 Zephaniah, moved to Haiti, in a location that is now part of the Dominican Republic. He transferred all of his holdings to his three eldest children who stayed behind, while Anna and their youngest son, John, followed Zephaniah to Haiti in 1838.
In total Anna and Zephaniah brought 60 slaves, family members, and freed employees with them. Since slavery was illegal in Haiti, those who were not yet freed acted as indentured servants who would earn their freedom in 9 years’ time. Anna and Zephaniah lived together on the island rather peacefully until in 1843, on a trip to New York, Zephaniah died at age 78.
Because of the new laws in Florida, none of his children were able to inherit his property and his sister, Martha, and her children challenged his will, claiming it was “defective and invalid” Under Florida’s new laws it was illegal for black people to own property and Martha claimed that when they moved to Haiti to remain free, they also abandoned their right to the property.
Despite the racial tensions boiling in Duval County at the time, neing the powerhouse of a woman that she was, Anna returned to Florida in 1846 to participate in the legal battle for the property that was rightfully hers. Miraculously, the court upheld the treatise between the United States and Spain decreeing that all free blacks born before 1821 had a right to the same privileges they had under Spanish rule. This was an extraordinary achievement for a black woman before the Civil War.
Naturally, when the Civil War did break out, Anna and her children were Union sympathizers. Jacksonville was captured by the union in 1862 and Anna and her children were briefly evacuated to New York. She returned to Florida, taking up residence in Arlington, to be nearer to her daughters who were married to white planters in Florida. Anna passed away in 1870 at the age of 77 after living a full and eventful life.
Anna’s ghost can still be seen on Kingsley plantation and is known as the “Woman in White”. She is usually spotted on the back porch of the main house, and can often be photographed there. However, she is not alone, her husband, Zephaniah can also be seen on the plantation from time to time.
Anna’s descendants remained part of the African-American upper class for more than a century. One of her descendants even includes Florida’s first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Though Anna is long dead, her spirit, and her legacy, will live on for generations to come.
A few parts of Anna’s story are disputed, but it was widely factual. Anna did not appear to burn down her property to save it from the insurgents as she was already on a boat away from the area at the time. Additionally, it is not confirmed if she truly was a princess. Her lineage is widely debated and whether or not she descended from royalty. She shares part of her name, Ndiaye, with a mythological ruling figure from Jolof culture. Additionally, her mother also held royal blood from Wolof culture and Anna may have been the daughter of ruling royalty at the time of her birth, but there is no proof on the matter.
I was able to find a number of primary sources about Anna, which was surprising given that she was a black woman in the 1800’s. However, the material I did find doesn’t help us tell her story as it mainly pertains to her will.
I was devasted that I couldn’t find a photograph of Anna. Websites have pictures that claim to be her, but when you reverse search them it turns out they are other famous black women in history. The woman on the episode image, for you Spotify listeners, and the one on the Instagram are not of Anna, but another freed slave from the plantation.
We do have a descriptions of Anna. One from Zephaniah says that she was “a fine, tall figure, black as jet, but very handsome. She was very capable, and could carry on all the affairs of the plantation in my absence as well as I could myself. She was affectionate and faithful, and I could trust her.” And in his will he says “She has always been respected as my wife and as such I acknowledge her, nor do I think that her truth, honor, integrity, moral conduct or good sense will lose in comparison with anyone.”
Her niece described her a little differently, though she still greatly admired her beauty:
I remember her very distinctly. She was not black, and had the most beautiful features you ever saw. She was a most imposing and very handsome woman. Her smooth, light brown skin, her dark-eyes and wavy [sic] made her outstanding, and I would not keep my eyes away for admiration. She was quiet and moved with regal dignity—I have never seen anything like her, before or since. Her daughter was there also, and she was very light in color, but not as good-looking as her mother. I was six or seven years old at the time. I was Kingsley’s niece. The next morning my aunt, Mrs. Gibbs, sent two servants for us with a horse and buggy, and we were carried over to Newcastle. My mother was furious that we had spent the night at Ma’m Anna’s, but it could not be helped.
In fact no letters, photographs, or personal effects of Anna’s are known to exist. Even her grave is unmarked. It is sad, but as we’ve discussed in other episodes, not out of the ordinary for a woman, specifically and especially a woman of color.
Now, let’s get into the ghosts. There are a lot of fun sightings on the Kingsley plantation, which was converted to a state park in 1955 and later incorporated into a national park. This designation has allowed the property to welcome many visitors who have seen strange things.
As I mentioned Anna’s ghost is often seen on the property and captured in photographs. Maybe these are the only photographs of Anna Kingsley to exist. However, it should be noted that she’s spotted in the main house…where she did not live. As we know she had her special residence known as Ma’am Anna’s House. She didn’t die on the property, and she hadn’t lived there for nearly 30 years when she did. But it is still possible that she loved the property on Fort George Island. Although a account from one of her white friends, Susan L’Engle, says that she seemed quite lonely but her work on the plantation and running the house kept her busy.
I wasn’t able to find any firsthand encounters of her ghost. In fact, I discovered this story through reddit, where I was asking if anyone knew of any ghost stories of people of color because I was sick of talking about old white people. For black ghosts it’s hard to search since shadow figures are described as black and will often show up, and when searching African-American it’s usually metaphoric ghosts that appear such as “The Ghosts of Slavery” or the “Ghosts of the Jim Crow Era” Now, the thing I found sad, annoying, and frustrating is that my post was constantly downvoted. I thought it was just me…but even the comments, one saying “Black ghosts matter!” was also heavily downvoted. It’s just sad to see that happening.
And even though I did uncover this story about Anna, it is typically only discussed through the lens of her white, slave-owning husband. But I digress.
There is another presence on the island that isn’t the powerful, inspiring woman that was Anna Kingsley. Instead, it is a dark, malevolent entity that seeks to harm: Old Red Eyes.
Legend has it that Old Red Eyes was once a slave on the plantation. This man raped and murdered girls on the island – both the daughters of white planters and fellow slaves. Once the other slaves on the island discovered who was behind this brutal attacks, they banded together and lynched Old Red Eyes from an oak tree. Now, Old Red Eyes lurks on the property, spying on visitors from the trees, looking for his next victim. Some say if you say his name three times…he just may appear.
Old Red Eyes manifests as a pair of red, glowing eyes in the woods and was first spotted in 1978. After the recounting of a tale by a local in 1993, he has been spotted much more regularly.
For me, the interesting thing about this story is that it is full of stereotypes and idiosyncrasies. Namely the trope of a black man being portrayed as a murderer and a rapist is one that still pervades today, and these types of stories, whether true or not, were used to spread fear and rationalize lynching in the south. However, during the plantation era, lynching was not common and was mainly seen in the Jim Crowe era.
Interestingly, the take on the Bloody Mary myth—chanting his name three times, seems to coincide with the 1992 film Candyman: a film where the son of former slaves and a lynching victim is conjured in a similar fashion. This would also explain the increased sightings beginning in 1993. Old Red Eyes is also a colloquial name for the devil in some parts of the south.
Emily Palmer, one of the Park Rangers at Kingsley plantation, has another explanation for Old Red Eyes. She says, “Interestingly enough, along Palmetto Avenue we do have something hanging from the trees that would reflect bright red eyes if a brake light was shining in them. They’re called possums. I believe that people have probably seen something of that sort… but I think it may have been a more natural explanation than what people are looking for.”
In addition to natural inhabitants like the possum, ghostly animals are also seen on the plantation. At night you can hear the screams of a young girl, and if you follow the sound, you may be presented with a jarring sight: a ghostly white peacock. Is it an omen? In early Christian lore the peacock represents Christi’s resurrection and the soul’s ability to live on after death.
Again, Palmer is a downer, quoted as saying “If you’re unfamiliar with the fact that there are albino peacocks, and if you are not familiar with the sound a peacock makes when it’s doing its mating call, you might take that for a little girl screaming. It’s a pretty unique noise.”
Okay, fine, Emily! Stop being such a downer. What about the ghost alligator that sits at the bottom of a stairwell? Do you have an explanation for that? No. I didn’t think so.
A quick rundown of some of the ghostly encounters includes the smell of gingerbread in Anna’s kitchen, furniture that moves on its own, a crying child in the well, the apparition of an African man in a turban, and old Zephaniah himself. There is a tradition that you must never say “Goodnight, Zephaniah” while locking up for the night because it can cause “bad things” to happen. What this mean, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t want to chance it. Though it seems rude on Zephaniah’s part because you’re just trying to be nice and courteous. But…he was a polygamist slave-owner who had to buy his wives so maybe he’s not very rational.
Kingsley plantation remains one of the most haunted places in Florida. And whether or not its ghosts are real or simply spooky wildlife…the land is an important part of a freed black woman’s story and her family’s legacy. I’m honored to have been able to tell it and I hope you enjoyed listening.
You can find historic documents and photographs are on the podcast Instagram @crimesandwitchdemeanors and sources are in the show notes. So, please, beware of possums hanging in the trees, watch out for the ghostly crocodile at the bottom of your stairs, and as always, stay curious and stay spooky. Bye~
AncestryLibrary.com—Florida, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1810-1974. (n.d.-a). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/8993/images/005886187_00016?usePUB=true&_phsrc=eBA241&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&pId=120668
AncestryLibrary.com—Florida, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1810-1974. (n.d.-b). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/8993/images/005886196_00104?usePUB=true&_phsrc=eBA241&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&pId=288588
AncestryLibrary.com—Florida, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1810-1974. (n.d.-c). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/8993/images/005886081_00271?usePUB=true&_phsrc=eBA241&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&pId=173533
Anna and Zephaniah Kingsley. (2018, September 22). Celebrating Our History. https://uncoveringjax.wordpress.com/anna-and-zephaniah-kingsley/
Anna Kingsley A Free Woman.pdf. (n.d.-b). Retrieved January 11, 2021, from http://latinamericanstudies.org/slavery/Anna-Kingsley-Free-Woman.pdf
Black History Month: The Ghosts of Kingsley Plantation. (2011, February 25). Haunt Jaunts. https://www.hauntjaunts.net/black-history-month-the-ghosts-of-kingsley-plantation/
Card, M. (n.d.). Guest column: The amazing inter-racial story of Anna and Zephaniah Kingsley. The Palm Beach Post. Retrieved January 11, 2021, from https://www.palmbeachpost.com/opinion/20191103/guest-column-amazing-inter-racial-story-of-anna-and-zephaniah-kingsley