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Festival to celebrate the 'blended history' of Bradenton and the Bahamas

Trudy Williams of Reflections of Manatee stands with Daphney Towns, organizer of the Back to Angola Festival at Mineral Springs Park, which has revealed itself to be the location of New Angola, a settlement of escaped slaves who were driven out in 1821, escaping to the Bahamas. The pair will host the Back to Angola Festival from July 13-15.
Trudy Williams of Reflections of Manatee stands with Daphney Towns, organizer of the Back to Angola Festival at Mineral Springs Park, which has revealed itself to be the location of New Angola, a settlement of escaped slaves who were driven out in 1821, escaping to the Bahamas. The pair will host the Back to Angola Festival from July 13-15. Bradenton Herald file photo

Reflections of Manatee will host a unique three-day festival near Mineral Springs Park July 13-15 celebrating Bradenton's historic ties to Red Bays area of the Bahamas.

The Village of Red Bays is the only settlement on the west coast of Andros Island and the historic destination of escaped slaves who settled the area after a dangerous journey to freedom. That journey included more than two decades attempting to settle the Mineral Springs area of Bradenton before being forced to flee for their lives.

Daphney Towns, president of Oaktree Community Outreach, began organizing the Back to Angola Festival as she began to learn about the discoveries being made to prove the existence of "New Angola" at Mineral Springs. Those efforts have led to the Bradenton park being nominated to become part of the National Parks Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

"At the Back to Angola Festival, descendants from the Red Bays will join local descendants, as well as others interested in this part of history, to celebrate their shared history and the peace and refuge that was found at the Manatee Mineral Spring and in Red Bays, Bahamas," Towns said. "All are invited to attend this important international festival and meet all those brought together by time."

Towns said a Red Bays delegation has already confirmed they will attend the festival and representatives of the Bahamian government also are expected to attend. The festival will kick off 4-8 p.m. July 13 with an opening celebration and then run from noon to 8 p.m. on July 14 and from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. July 15.

Festivities will include cultural workshops, costumes, Bahamian folklore, music, children games unique to the Bahamas and plenty of Bahamian food staples.

The sandy-bottomed, fresh-water Mineral Springs meant life throughout several historical periods in Manatee County. Though never settled by the Spanish, the spring was documented in Spanish exploration maps. For the escaped slaves, it was a beacon of freedom from about 1800-1821.

New Angola hit the height of its slave population, about 700, in 1816 when Andrew Jackson's forces destroyed Fort Negro near Apalachicola and again when the slaves and their Seminole allies were defeated at the Battle of Suwanee. Survivors escaped to Mineral Springs, but Jackson's forces, under William McIntosh and his army of Creek Indians, raided the settlement and captured more than 300 of them in 1821.

The remaining slaves embarked on a dangerous journey across the state of Florida, to the Miami area and then braved the ocean crossing to the Bahamas where they settled on Andros Island.

Uzi Baram, professor of anthropology at New College, Rosalyn Howard, retired professor from the University of Central Florida and others researched the Mineral Springs area and its ties to the Red Bays community. Vickie Oldham documented it all and spearheaded the "Looking for Angola" project.

"This little park, welcoming all those who worked so hard to bring this hidden history to the forefront of our news, once more proves its importance as it emerges as a 'Gem of the City,' hosting this international festival," Towns said.

Trudy Williams, of Reflections of Manatee, said New Angola was, "Destroyed in a massive slave raid in 1821, shortly after Florida became a U.S. territory."

Williams had long suspected Minerals Springs was the site of New Angola based on her own research. She opened the door to several organizations who donated their time and technology to the effort and in the end, "It only took a few digs," to find evidence, Williams said.

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