Historian Karen Kirkman continues to search for the whole story about life on plantations in Alachua County.
As a volunteer historian at Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation (HHH) for more than 20 years, Kirkman’s commitment to connecting families to their enslaved ancestors has become a passion and a service that has involved traveling out of state to track down the roots of the many slaves who were brought to the Gainesville in the mid-1800s.
“I’m working with five families right now,” says Kirkman on a recent Sunday during her volunteer docent shift at the homestead museum located on Archer Road.
Kirkman gravitates to the corner of the main building to an exhibit titles, “Reclaiming Kin: Once Lost, Now Found.”
The exhibit features historic photos and journal entries and a timeline filled with names of those enslaved by the Haile family.
According to the HHH website, “In 1854, Thomas Evans Haile, his wife, Esther ‘Serena’ Chesnut Haile, and their four children, arrived in Alachua County, Florida from Camden, South Carolina and established a 1,500-acre Sea Island cotton plantation.”
According to the 1854 tax rolls, more than 56 slaves were brought to the plantation including William and Lousia Watts, Johnson and Maria Chestnut, Edmund and Charity Kelley and their young son, Bennet. The names of many others transported to the region were lost to time.
“There’s so much more online,” she said about how much easier it is to trace family trees. “Especially when you work with sites such as Ancestry.com. And I’m beginning to like familysearch.org because of its free registration and because it’s run by the Church of Latter Day Saints and there are more death certificates online.”
This dedication to preserving family heritage earned Kirkman the 2022 Preservation Champion Award from the City of Gainesville. The award recognizes an individual who has made significant contributions to local historic preservation efforts through the care and preservation of a significant historic property or championing local preservation causes.
“So often, preservation accolades are awarded for a specific building restoration,” said City of Gainesville Historic Preservation Officer Kathleen Kauffman.
“It was important to us to remind the public that preservation is about people, and how connecting people to their past is what truly ignites that passion for preserving community.”
Kirkman has spent hours, months, and years doing just that, Kauffman added.
“Her research into local historic properties, families, cemeteries – this is such valuable information. But Karen goes above and beyond to help give this information to the people living today. When new generations find out about their past in such a tangible way, it invokes powerful and emotional feelings.”
As a result of Kirkman’s research, she and Historian Tatanya Peterson co-created a program called “Reclaiming Kin” which teaches people about research methods that are available to trace back enslaved ancestors.
She also researches and documents Alachua County African American cemeteries along with Nigel Rudolph of the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) to locate them and add them on the Florida Master Site File, which gives them a small bit of protection.
She has served on the Alachua County Historical Commission since 2006 and as chair since 2020. Kirkman serves as a historian on the steering committee of Alachua County’s Truth and Reconciliation project and is a volunteer transcriber of Alachua County’s Ancient Records. In 2014, she was awarded the Florida Genealogical Society’s Outstanding Achievement Award for her transcription work and has written several state historic markers throughout Alachua County.
Kirkman invites people interested in learning about researching ancestry to reach out to HHH and attend a future Reclaiming Kin workshop.
“My piece of the workshop is to talk about the Alachua County Ancient records,” Kirkman says because she is one of the transcribers who knows how to navigate the records and explains which resources are available.
After two decades of volunteering at a plantation house, Kirkman says, “It’s important to tell a complete story about what went on here.”
“And I particularly love helping descendants of those people make connections with their ancestors.”