The History of Biscayne National Park
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Learn how Lancelot Jones, the son of a former slave, saved the Florida Keys from becoming an oil refinery.
Image: National Geographic
The story of Lancelot Jones and the impact of his pioneering family on the creation of Biscayne National Park is gaining traction today as an empowering example of Black peoples’ active, but overlooked, role in the creation of our parks.
Ever Heard of Biscayne National Park?
Beyond the bustling streets of Miami lies Biscayne National Park; a vibrant point of convergence where the world’s third largest coral reef, dense emerald mangroves and the northernmost Florida Key meet in the azure waters of Biscayne Bay. These diverse ecosystems melt into one unique “ecotone” teeming with life above and below the surface.
Biscayne National Park could have become a mini-Miami, if Lancelot Jones had not sold his family’s 277 acres to the National Park Service in 1970 to protect the land from development.
In the state of Florida October 13th, has been deemed “Lancelot Jones Day,” to celebrate the man who ensured that locals, students and travelers alike would be able to experience Key Biscayne for generations to come.
Meet the Joneses
Lancelot Jones would not have been born in a tiny sailboat in Biscayne Bay and developed a lifelong connection to what would one day become a National Park, if his parents, Israel and Mozelle, had not migrated there in search of economic opportunities. Israel Jones was likely born into slavery in Raleigh, NC, in 1858 since only 1% of Black people were freemen during this time. Mozelle, born in the Bahamas in 1861, met Israel in 1892 in Key Biscayne while he was working as a handyman at a local inn.
During this time, Dade County, which encompasses Key Biscayne, experienced an increase in black institutions and possibilities for upward mobility that was met with intense racism, segregation and lynchicings as more Black people moved to the area. Despite the volatile racial atmosphere, Israel purchased Old Porgy Key for $300 (roughly $5 per acre) in 1897, Old Rhodes Key in 1898 and eventually Totten Key in 1911 for $1 an acre.
In 1897 and 1898, Mozelle gave birth to their two sons, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot (yes they were named after knights from Camelot) who are believed to be the first Black men ever born in Key Biscayne. The Joneses began homesteading on Old Rhodes Key and created a thriving citrus and pineapple business that Arthur and Lancelot continued after their parents’ respective passing.
Eventually, Arthur and Lancelot transitioned to fishing and guiding boat tours in the area. Their tours became so popular that they eventually attracted the attention of former U.S. presidents, including Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, to the vibrant life within the aquamarine waters they’d known since childhood.
The National Park that Almost Wasn't
In 1961, plans were announced to construct a deep-water port, an oil refinery and an industrial complex in Biscayne Bay. A parallel group of developers intended to build high-rise hotels and shopping centers on the islands and connect them to the mainland via a bridge. Both groups pressured the Joneses to sell their land but they chose to protect instead of to profit.
In 1968, Key Biscayne was declared a National Monument by President Lyndon B. Johnson, saving 173,000 acres of the bay, coral reefs and islands. Lancelot and his sister-in-law, Kathleen become the first landowners to sell their share of Key Biscayne to the National Park Service in 1970 to ensure its protection.
After Key Biscayne was officially declared a National Park in 1980, Lancelot was granted the right to live on Porgy Key where he continued to be an invaluable intermediary between the land and visitors until his passing at age 99 in 1997. When asked if he ever became lonely living in the park by himself Lancelot replied, “ when you have plenty of interests, like the water and the woods, the birds and the fish, you don’t get lonely.”
The Impact of How We Tell History
Recreating responsibly must mean more than solely treading lightly, safely and with respect for our National Parks. It must also mean educating ourselves on the deep rooted systems of racism, exclusivity and discrimination interwoven into their creation.
We can’t change the past, but we can change the course of what will become history with our how we choose to act today. As steps are taken to unlearn the whitewashed history of our National Parks, we can all contribute to making them places of empowerment instead of exclusion by amplifying narratives foregrounded on BIPOC experiences. It is vital to emphasize that the area that encompasses Biscayne National Park was home to vibrant indigenous communities, including the Glades culture followed by the Tequesta Peoples, although paleo-indigneous settlements in the bay date back nearly 10,000 years.
As the former Florida senator Dwight Bullard once said, “unlock the door to the story of Lancelot Jones and you’ll find inspiration.” The story of the Joneses, like the Buffalo Soldiers, are just one of many overlooked narratives that exemplify the damaging dissonance in our National Parks as spaces built in part by the very people that they historically excluded. Recently, Lancelot Jones has begun to receive the recognition that he deserves and his story has been shared in articles from publications like National Geographic and in Ken Burns’ documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
Taking the plunge to learn this complete history--one that acknowledges the legacy of racism and Indigenous violence--is just one step forward towards reframing the narrative of National Parks to honor and uplift BIPOC’s vital place within them.
“To inspire lasting connections, people need to see their history and culture represented in our nation’s national parks and monuments." - Turkiya Lowe, the first woman and Black chief historian for the National Park Service.
Learn More About Indigenous Peoples from Key Biscayne