On Earth Day this year I was in Everglades National Park when President Obama declared the home of Everglades champion Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a National Landmark. It felt like déjà vu all over again on (Sir) Lancelot Jones Day, October 12, when I watched State Senator Dwight Bullard, Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss and others declare the entrance to Biscayne National Park "Sir Lancelot Jones Way."
Know as "the Sage of Porgy Key," Sir Lancelot Jones knew the local environment intimately, fished for sponges, taught school children the ecology of Biscayne Bay and taught presidents including Nixon and Johnson how to catch bonefish.
Two champions of the national parks being honored in South Florida in the space of six months has to be a record. Two conservationists living in the same time period (Jones 1898-1997; Douglas 1890-1998) on opposite sides of the Florida peninsula, one saved the Bay and the other saved the 'Glades. One Black and the other White, their contributions are equally vital to America. I wonder if they ever met and what their conversation might have been.
Ms. Douglas and her history-altering book, The Everglades River of Grass are universally well known. The Jones family and Sir Lancelot's contribution similarly altered history but are only recently coming to light. Such pivotal stories of the heroism of non-white Americans abound in national parks but have yet to become well known.
Members of the Jones family lived on Porgy Key, their island in the sea.
The park ranger presenting the story of the Jones family hit a nerve when he quoted Betty Reid Soskin, America's oldest working park ranger: "What gets remembered is a function of who is in the room, and who is doing the remembering." How this story moved from obscurity to prominence illustrates the results that are possible when the Park Service and members of local communities work together as equals.
In Biscayne the recipe for success was the same we've found elsewhere. It requires a) someone working in the park who is passionate about the story and lives up to the Park Service's mission to protect national parks "for the benefit of this and future generations"; b) knowledgeable and engaged leaders in the local community who are on equal footing with park managers, and c) "the next generation" of young advocates. The outcome is a gestalt effect that uplifts both the park and the community.
In the 1990s Ranger Brenda Lanzendorf unearthed the legacy of the Jones family on Porgy Key in Biscayne and brought it to the attention of the South Florida Community Partners, a mostly-black group of park advocate volunteers. The Partners helped raise awareness by inviting journalists and community leaders to the park. Ranger Lanzendorf often ferried us across the bay to visit the Jones' ancestral home, and the Partners worked with her on Earth Days to clean up the site.
Ranger Brenda Lanzendorf embraced the community and bequeathed her treasured replica of the USS Constitution to Frank and me after learning she had only a short time to live.
She engaged seniors at nearby Homestead High School to search the local archives and brought the story to the famed Lyric Theater in Miami's historically black Overtown. She commissioned Dr. Carolyn Finney to conduct the historical study that led to designation of the Jones Family Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Working with volunteers from the National Association of Black Scubadivers she helped develop the program Youth Diving With a Purpose (YDWP) to train youth in underwater archaeology in the Jones' backyard. Though she passed away in 2008, her legacy is inseparable from the Jones story. Frank and I include it in our books about the national parks, Legacy on the Land and Our True Nature. Her name was the lips of all the Partners who attended the celebration.
Mahogany Youth's Elisha speaks to a subcommittee of the Florida State Legislature in his successful quest to have a day designated in honor of Sir Lancelot Jones.
In recent years the National Parks Conservation Association working with Mahogany Youth, an organization that uses fishing to teach young people lessons of conservation in Biscayne National Park and other waterways, focused on gaining greater prominence for the story. The young people traveled to Tallahassee and spoke in front of legislators, as well as at City and County Commission meetings, advocating for a day to honor Sir Lancelot. They won over influencers including State Rep. Holly Raschein and Homestead Deputy Mayor Stephen Shelley, who helped shepherd the designation of (Sir) Lancelot Jones Day and renamed the street in his honor.
Officials unveiling the new sign on Sir Lancelot Day include, from left, Erin Mair, representing the office of State Rep. Holly Raschein; Superintendent Brian Calstrom; Homestead Vice Mayor Stephen Shelley, Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss, NPCA representative Jackie Crucet; Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard and Mahogany Youth founder Robert O'Bryant.
These abbreviated remarks by Commissioner Moss convey the dimensions of this legacy:
"In mythology and legend, Sir Lancelot was viewed as one of King Arthur's greatest knights. In real life, Sir Lancelot Jones is viewed as one of Biscayne National Park's greatest contributors. In real life, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was the Champion of the Everglades. Sir Lancelot Jones was the champion for Biscayne National Park.
". . .Sir Lancelot Jones was an African American of Bahamian descent who was the son of Israel Jones of North Carolina. His mother Moselle Albury was born on Harbor Island, Bahamas. Prior to marrying Moselle and the birth of Sir Lancelot and his older brother King Arthur, Israel Jones was chosen to be the caretaker and foreman of many properties in what is now Biscayne National Park.
"Eventually Israel Jones was able to purchase Porgy Key, Old Rhodes Key and Totten Key. Resisting an attempt by investors to develop the area with high rises, shopping centers and beach front homes as part of the City of Islandia, the smallest city in Miami Dade County at that time, Sir Lancelot Jones and his sister-in-law, believing that the area should be preserved, sold their property in 1970 to the National Park Service. This led to the area becoming Biscayne National Park in 1980 and is the reason we are recognizing Sir Lancelot Jones today.
"As a side note, this story has significance to Senator Bullard and to me, as both of us are African Americans of Bahamian descent. I was born in Crooked Island in the Bahamas, an island devastated by the recent hurricane Joaquin.
"Biscayne National Park is in my Commission district, and I sponsored the legislation in 2012 to dissolve the City of Islandia because it had stopped functioning as a city, possibly as a result of the decision made by Sir Lancelot not to sell to investors
"And so the mythical Sir Lancelot, King Arthur's greatest knight, was the Lancelot of Lake and Sea. And the real life Sir Lancelot, the man who helped preserve a national treasure, was the Lancelot of Biscayne Bay and Biscayne National Park.
"Whether in lore or real life, each figure fought for a cause. Sir Lancelot the Knight fought for King Arthur and Camelot, and Sir Lancelot Jones fought for the creation and preservation of Biscayne National Park. Everyone who's had the chance to explore the park has Sir Lancelot Jones to thank for that."
Longtime members of the South Florida Community Partners and Diving With a Purpose celebrating Sir Lancelot Jones are from left divers Chris Searles and Voncile Hodges; Commissioner Moss; historian Dinizulu Gene Tinnie; Frank Peterman; NAACP leader Anne Humphrey, DWP leader Kenneth Stewart and Audrey Peterman.
As the National Park Service plans its 100th Anniversary Celebrations in August 2016 searching for ways to be relevant to non-white communities, i can't help thinking that they're missing the forest for the trees. How transformational it could be if they responded positively to communities that are striving to get out similar stories in Mammoth Cave, Sequoia, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks among others. The time has come for these important legacies to be recognized for the upliftment, unification and inspiration" for the benefit of this and future generations."
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