Arts and Humanities Research

Shining a light on untold stories from Florida’s past

University researchers are focused on “re-storying,” or retelling grand narratives of Florida’s history to celebrate the contributions of peoples that have long been ignored.
Enslaved people following the Saltwater Underground Railroad at Cape Florida, present-day Bill Baggs State Park, await a harrowing journey to freedom. Image rendered by the University’s New Experience Research and Design Lab (NERDLab).
Enslaved people following the Saltwater Underground Railroad at Cape Florida, present-day Bill Baggs State Park, await a harrowing journey to freedom. Image rendered by the University’s New Experience Research and Design Lab (NERDLab)

History is pockmarked in paradox. 

In 1825 when the Cape Florida Lighthouse, located on the southern point of what is today Key Biscayne, first beamed its floodlights to illuminate the surrounding Florida Reef coastal waters, the new lighthouse was celebrated as a symbol of civilization and settlement. 

Yet this historic beacon simultaneously cast a devastating shadow. For its powerful light ended the hopes and dreams of untold numbers of formerly enslaved peoples who for centuries had counted on the enveloping nighttime darkness to board boats and canoes that could ferry them to greater freedom in the Bahamas and other islands. 

The Coastal Heritage at Risk Task Force (CHART) initiative, a team of University of Miami faculty members and doctoral students, in partnership with a coalition of public, private, academic, and government entities, has focused on unearthing new accounts relating to the Saltwater Underground Railroad (SUR). Further research has expanded to include other Florida heritage sites. 

“CHART is focused on ‘re-storying’ or retelling colonial history by including other voices and perspectives that have been previously ignored,” said Meryl Shriver-Rice, an assistant professor in Research Data and Open Scholarship and principal investigator of the CHART project. 

“Essentially, we are looking at what we call the untold stories of Florida’s history. And we are doing storytelling at those sites through an interactive app with podcasts, as well as other types of community-based research,” added Shriver-Rice, who highlighted the over dozen years of capacity building through partnerships and collaborations that make CHART’s work possible. In particular, the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) has played a critical role. 

The forthcoming launch of the storytelling app coincides with the 200th anniversary of the Cape Florida Lighthouse. 

CHART, which merges the disciplines of anthropology, engineering, Indigenous studies, history, and environmental studies, was initially funded two years ago with a University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) grant. 

Over the years, Shriver-Rice, FPAN, and many other groups realized that due to rising sea levels and other climate change impacts such as storm surge, thousands of heritage sites were going underwater or would be. 

“What do we do? How should we prioritize and try to salvage them?” she remembered wondering. “White settler colonial sites” most often received funding and were turned into public parks with resilience strategies. This attention contrasted with heritage sites associated with Indigenous and other marginalized peoples—generally abandoned and neglected—and the decision was made to employ a decolonial lens for CHART’s efforts. 

The Saltwater Underground Railroad spans a period of three hundred years and explores the movement of formerly enslaved people from the Southeastern seaboard seeking freedom by using the waterways to move southward. 

As violence pursued them throughout their lives, the fleeing escapees were pushed further and further south, and many times ending up living with and sometimes intermarrying with Indigenous groups in Florida, according to Shriver-Rice. 

Doctoral students Nina Jean-Louis and Karen Backe have been instrumental in advancing CHART’s efforts related to SUR. 

Jean-Louis, midway through her studies with the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, is focused on assessing climate resilience for cultural landscapes. 

After earning a master’s in historic preservation, Jean-Louis was looking for a case study to support her dissertation research on underrepresented cultural landscapes and found it through Shriver-Rice’s CHART project. She will be working with communities at American Beach in northern Florida, part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. 

“What I bring to the project are the engineering statistical composite methodologies that can be used to potentially quantify resilience. This is where engineering is the strongest, to quantify, while ethnography is stronger in qualitative terms,” Jean-Louis explained. 

“Separately, they may not speak to a community very well, but bridged together, they can have a potentially powerful impact and be used as a decision-making tool. 

Jean-Louis is focused on developing a “resilience risk tolerance scale” where the composite metrics from the ethnographic study can feed into the scaling tool. 

“Like a stoplight system, communities can look at this scale and see where they visualize fall in terms of risk resilience,” Jean-Louis explained. “Coupled with maps and vulnerability hot spot maps, this is where we can prioritize and reallocate resources. That’s where it all threads together.” 

A key insight for Jean-Louis has been to witness how passionate communities are about their heritage. 

“Just the overall desire to have their story shared and told and seen and heard. That’s the value-driven work that we essentially support,” she said. “We want those stories to be told, yet we have to remember as researchers that we are the facilitators—not the decision-makers—and to be facilitating that process has been amazing as well.” 

For Shriver-Rice, the research has revealed that the story of Florida is far more Black and Indigenous than most are aware. 

“As part of our research, we’ve recognized that there was a lot more Black Indigeneity and enslaved Indigenous peoples,” Shriver-Rice said. “In American history, we tend to think of Native Americans and then there were enslaved African people, and maybe they talked to each other occasionally. 

“But in Florida there are three hundred years of these peoples living together, living amongst each other and creating families, sharing culture, and arriving at new forms of culture as they sought out safety and refuge together.”