What Was America’s 1st Black Town?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: It was formed long before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Fort Mose map: The Jefferys map of 1762 showed what Fort Mose (labeled “Negroe Fort”) looked like in 1740. (www.flmnh.ufl.edu)
Fort Mose map: The Jefferys map of 1762 showed what Fort Mose (labeled “Negroe Fort”) looked like in 1740. (www.flmnh.ufl.edu)

All of this was prelude to the famous Stono Rebellion in September 1739. Stono was the most violent and the bloodiest uprising of African-American slaves in the 18th century. And it was inspired, in part, by the promise of freedom that awaited escaping slaves south of the South Carolina and Georgia borders, in the Spanish haven of Florida. Stono is dramatic evidence that the “grapevine telegraph,” as Booker T. Washington would dub the uncanny manner in which slaves communicated with each other plantation to plantation and state to state, was fully functional as early as the first half of the 18th century. (Even John Adams commented on this curious mechanism of communication among slaves, in a letter he wrote in 1775.)

On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, about 20 slaves, hailing (historians think) from Angola, killed two store attendants and stole arms and ammunition at Stono Bridge, south of Charleston. As they marched south heading toward Florida, their ranks swelled to about 100, and they continued to burn plantations and kill white settlers. A ferocious battle with the colonial militia left a field of death, including 20 of the colonists and 40 of the slaves. Slaves who fled were later captured and beheaded. But not even this unfortunate outcome deterred other slaves in the region from seeking their freedom: In June 1740, about 150 slaves rebelled near the Ashley River, just outside of Charleston. Fifty were captured and hanged.

Outraged by actions of the slaves at Stono, and fearful of more rebellions from slaves seeking to escape to Florida, the English countered with a siege of Florida between 1739 and 1740. They captured Fort Mose in 1740. As Landers reports, Captain Menendez and the Fort Mose militia allied with Native Americans to fight the invaders, culminating in a bloody battle in June 1740, in which Menendez and his forces attacked the British and killed 75 of their men. In the process, Fort Mose was destroyed. 

Menendez would be captured and sold as a slave, but by 1759, he was free and once again in command at Mose, which had been reconstructed by the Spanish in 1752. By 1759, Mose consisted of 37 men, 15 women, seven boys and eight girls. In 1763, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the Spanish were forced to abandon Florida but gained Cuba in return. In August, Menendez led 48 men, women and children on the schooner Nuestra Senora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) and sailed to Cuba, where they settled in Regla, a town near the city of Havana. Fort Mose is now memorialized as a national historic landmark.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.