Historian Derek Hankerson traces roots from Daytona to West Africa
BY JAMES HARPER
Derek Hankerson was not born in Daytona Beach and doesn’t live here, but his ancestors have roots in the beachside city.
Hankerson considers himself a historian.
He recently talked with the Daytona Times about his connection to Daytona Beach and shared some interesting Black history facts.
Hankerson proudly boasts that a relative, Joseph Brooks Hankerson, was the first Black elected to the Daytona City Council in 1898. He said his relative also is one one of the founders and the first pastor of Mount Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, located on the corner of South Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Mount Bethel holds the distinction of being the oldest church for African-Americans in Daytona Beach, founded by a group of Christians in 1885 under the leadership of Hankerson.
Derek Hankerson, who is proud to call himself a Republican, says his ancestor a was a Republican while on the Daytona commission and was one of the officials who voted to change the city’s name from Daytona to Daytona Beach.
Interviewed for PBS show
Hankerson, a resident of St. Augustine for the past 10 years, is a Chicago native, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for a time for President George H.W. Bush.
He recently was recently interviewed by Dr. Henry Louis Gates at the historic Fort Mose Black settlement in St. Augustine.
Gates, the prominent author and professor at Harvard University, talked with Hankerson about his knowledge pertaining to his Freedom Road organization and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor for an African-American history PBS series scheduled to air in March.
Hankerson is the founder of Freedom Road, which offers a variety of personalized individual or groups tours, retracing the steps his ancestors took to freedom prior to the Civil War.
The tour includes both the Underground Railroad south to Spanish, Florida and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which runs from North Carolina to Florida.
Gullah history lesson
The Gullah are the descendants of slaves who live in parts of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. The Gullah people and their languages are also called “Geechee.’’
Hankerson said Charleston was one of the most important ports in North America for the Transatlantic slave trade. A great majority of the remaining flowed through Savannah, which also was active in the slave trade. The largest group of enslaved Africans brought into the port cities of Charleston and Savannah came from West Africa.
Hankerson said Santa Ilana Island, S.C. was the original capital of Spanish, Florida, which extended north up to Canada and West to Mississippi.
Hankerson also likes talking about Fort Mose, which is just two miles north of St. Augustine. It is recognized as the first community of freed Blacks in the United States and the home of a Black militia that helped protect St. Augustine from invaders.
The ‘New World’
According to his research, in 1738 West Africans made their way to what is now St. Augustine and began to settle at Fort Mose in the hundreds.
“Blacks helped the Spanish at Fort Mose defend Florida against the English,” Hankerson noted.
“Our family was free people of color as a result of fighting in numerous battles and earning their freedom. Being offsprings of plantation owners you wrote your own tickets,” Hankerson added.
Hankerson said he is surprised when people he talk to don’t know that “not all slaves were Black and not all Blacks were slaves.”
He explained that before the Pilgrims and other Europeans set foot in the “New World’’ there were West African Blacks who were already here.
“Regardless of what history books say, there were free people of color on Paris Island, South Carolina.
Hankerson said many West Africans came with the Spanish before the British took over America.
One fact many people don’t know, he said, is that White Europeans originally felt inferior to the Spanish because of the land that they had discovered called the New World and the gold they had.
“He who had the gold ruled,” he mused.
Both Spanish and English had slave systems. “The difference was that Spanish allowed for slaves to acquire their own freedom,” Hankerson noted.
His road to freedom
Freedom Road provides full civic lessons, lectures and presentations. Hankerson said the organization has existed for 10 years.
Hankerson said he always has had a love for history and remembers questioning “so-called history” to his father when he was 10 years old.
“I saw huge discrepancies,” he remarked.
“How could it be that our history texts books start at 1773? We are changing the face of Florida focusing on nontraditional factual stories highlighting the contributions of all Americans specifically Africans and African-Americans who helped to make America great going back for 500 years,” he said.
Hankerson said the history books neglect the fact that before there was an America there was the New World.
“We (Blacks) played a huge role in that 500 years of Spanish, native American history before founding of United States of America. Our contributions have been glossed over,” he added.
For more information, visit www.freedomroadtrail.org or call Hankerson at 904-377-3465.