(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 12: Where was the first black town in what is now the United States?
As the nation turns its attention to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s worth noting that decades before the United States was even formed, African Americans lived free in a town of their own — at least for a while.
Sometime between March and November of 1738, Spanish settlers in Florida formed a town named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, two miles to the north of St. Augustine. Initially, it consisted of 38 men, all fugitive slaves, “most of them married,” who had fled to Florida for sanctuary and freedom from enslavement in the Carolinas and Georgia. It came to be known as Fort Mose.
The enclave was the first line of defense between the Spanish settlers in Florida and their enemies, the English colonists to the north in Carolina (which did not officially split into North and South Carolina until 1729, and then the Southern part of South Carolina split in 1732 to form Georgia). Fort Mose was manned entirely by armed black men, under the leadership of Francisco Menendez, who became the leader of the black militia there in 1726. It deserves to be remembered as the site of the first all-black town in what is now the United States, and as the headquarters of the first black armed soldiers commanded by a black officer, who actively engaged in military combat with English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia.
Menendez, the first African-American military commander, was a colorful character. Historian Jane Landers is at work on a full-length biography of him, which I hope will be the basis of a documentary or a feature film.
Menendez was born a Mandinga in West Africa at the end of the 17th century. He was captured and served as a slave in South Carolina until the Yamasee Native Americans fought the British settlers in 1715, during which Menendez managed to escape to St. Augustine, Fla. In 1738, he became the leader of the free black town, and was formally commissioned as captain of the free black militia of St. Augustine.
As you might imagine, Spanish Florida exercised a powerful draw on the Carolina slaves’ collective imagination, starting in the late 1600s. It was the African-American slaves’ first Promised Land. At least since 1687, if slaves made it down to Florida, and professed belief in “the True Faith” — Roman Catholicism — they were declared to be free. News of this haven from enslavement spread through the slave grapevine. And the concentration of these fugitive slaves in St. Augustine led to the creation of the first black town and fort in the U.S.
Landers observes that “As news of the foundation of Mose spread through the South Carolina plantations, groups of slaves broke loose and tried to make for Florida.” And, indeed, in November 1738, 23 men, women and children escaped from Port Royal, S.C., to St. Augustine. Gov. Montiano refused to return them to their supposed “owners,” just as his predecessors had done since 1687. In March 1739, four more slaves and an Irish servant also made their escape to St. Augustine using stolen horses.