Florida

South Florida’s Connection to the Underground Railroad

Bill Baggs State Park in Key Biscayne was the central point where boats from the Bahamas would pick up escaped slaves.

This weekend, the biopic "Harriet" hits movie theaters across the country.

The movie is about Harriet Tubman, a freedom fighter who escaped slavery and guided dozens of other slaves to freedom using the system known as the Underground Railroad.

The network of safe house and anti-slavery activists stretched from the northern part of the United States to the southern tip of Florida.

Escaped slaves would travel from the Carolinas and Georgia through Florida to Key Biscayne, where they would sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Red Bays, Bahamas.

Miami historian Dr. Marvin Dunn researched the history of the Underground Railroad and its connection to the Bahamas.

"Red Bays is on Andros Islands and it is the closest point of land between South Florida and the Bahamas," Dr. Dunn explained.

He said Red Bays was a prime location for slaves looking for refuge.

"The Florida slaves who went to Red Bays didn't just settle in the first place they landed. They picked a place, a bay that had a very shallow bottom with high visibility out into the ocean so that if slave ships came or people who were chasing them came to capture them, they would see them long enough in advance to be able to retreat," Dr. Dunn said.

Bill Baggs State Park in Key Biscayne was the central point where boats from the Bahamas would pick up escaped slaves.

Resident Historian at HistoryMiami Museum Dr. Paul George says the area where the park is located was once owned by Spain and that meant less risk for slaves and anti-slave activists to be captured.

"Why this park?" Jawan Strader asked the historian.

"This park because it's the Southern tip. And, you've got a better chance at freedom on a long-term basis this far down and then get picked up by a boat and taken to the Bahamas," Dr. George explained.

A boat that would make the 123-mile trip to Red Bays— a dangerous trip across the Atlantic Ocean —but for freedom it was worth it.

"I was told that life in Red Bays in those initial years was good, because the people were free," Dr. Dunn said. "They felt safe and they were able to build a community."

Word got out that the United States would purchase Florida from Spain, leading to hundreds of slaves rushing to the Key Biscayne area to escape before Americans took control of the land in 1821.

A couple years after the U.S. purchased Florida, the iconic lighthouse at Bill Baggs State Park went up and the number of slaves moving through the area dwindled.

"Once this is up, you've got American officials working this Cape Florida lighthouse, and you can't do that anymore in terms of fugitives. They're going to be apprehended in all likelihood."

There's no record that Harriet Tubman ever passed through Key Biscayne, but there's no doubt her spirit was felt.

"She's the inspiration to the whole thing. Not only is she the inspiration for the Northern Underground Railroad which went through Ohio to Canada, but she was the reality of it," Dr. George said.

A reality that is now a rich part of American history etched on the South Florida shores of Key Biscayne.

The Florida slaves who went to Red Bays, Bahamas identified as American first, then Bahamian. And 'til this day, their descendants are proud of their American roots.

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