History Chair Featured in National PBS Documentary “Secrets of Spanish Florida”
J. Michael Francis
(January 16, 2018) – After the “discovery” of America by Europeans, the first events most school children learn about in U.S. history are the colonial settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth. Less known and nearly two generations earlier, Spanish settlers, Native Americans and people from Africa and elsewhere were living together in the first permanent European settlement in the continental United States. That place was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565.
The history of Spanish Florida – from the earliest expeditions to the region’s admittance as a U.S. territory – is the subject of the PBS documentary “Secrets of Spanish Florida.” It premiered on all PBS stations throughout the country on December 26, 2017.
J. Michael Francis, an internationally-known expert in the history of Spanish Florida and chair of the history department at USFSP, appeared extensively throughout the two-hour long feature and worked with the production crew for nearly three years on the project.
“The story of Spanish Florida has never really been part of our national history,” said Francis. “Often what you see of early Florida in textbooks is just the initial Spanish exploration, and it doesn’t capture the complexity or richness of what was going on. There are stories and elements of Spanish Florida history that once woven into a national narrative, I believe will fundamentally alter the way we look at our own past.”
A documentary on this subject first started as a more focused, regional piece to commemorate the city of St. Augustine’s 450 year anniversary. The production team soon realized however, that the story was more far-reaching and needed to be told to a national audience. It ended up turning into the most ambitious and comprehensive documentary on this period and place in history.
“You could say this PBS special covers the whole colonial period. And yet you could do another fifty episodes and tell different stories in each one, that is how much fascinating material there is,” said Francis.
Francis was interviewed numerous times by the PBS team about key events during Florida’s colonial period, which lasted between 1513-1821. While doing research in Spain, he also got the opportunity to tour the documentary crew around the country and give them an eye-witness account of how he researches ancient documents that date back more than 400 years.
For many viewers, it will be their first introduction to what life was like in St. Augustine in the 16th century. They will come to understand how Spanish laws regarding slavery were different from English law and learn that there were free black conquistadors.
Though an expert on the subject, Francis too learned a great deal from being part of the documentary.
“Sometimes when you are so steeped in this material, you lose sight of what can and cannot be done in a visual sense and a relatively brief documentary. As a historian, we want to include everything, but sometimes you just have to take a step back and understand this is a brief introduction. It needs to be engaging to capture the viewers and leave the audience with questions and curiosity to learn more.”
“On that level,” Francis added, “this documentary has done a terrific job.”
Along with being a consultant and interviewed, Francis participated in a takeover of the PBS “Secrets of the Dead” Twitter account where he tweeted out interesting facts and stories about Spanish Florida during the documentary premier. He worked with the Florida Humanities Council and teachers from around the state to create an educational package to accompany the film.
In addition, he wrote a fascinating article describing what it’s like to do research and reveal new findings in one of the world’s most important historical archives, including discovering that the oldest St. Patrick’s Day procession in America happened not in Boston or New York, but in St. Augustine 161 years before the previously known oldest date.
“Secrets of Spanish Florida” is running periodically on PBS stations nation-wide for the coming weeks and can also be streamed online. A longer, four-hour version of the film will be released via DVD on February 20.