On a summer’s day in 1798, María Rafaela Whitten stood in the doorway of a house in St. Augustine, Fla., owned by Don José Sánchez, one of the wealthiest Spanish planters in the community. Whitten, a free black woman in her early 40s, was waiting there for a young female slave apprenticed to her.
Don José’s wife asked Whitten to state her business. Whitten ignored her. The wife asked again and was again met with silence. After a third attempt, Whitten finally responded. According to her later testimony in court, she said, “Madam, I have not come to rob anyone of anything.”
On hearing this dispute, Don José entered the fray in order, he later stated in court, to uphold the honor of his wife, who had been insulted. He scolded Whitten and beat her until her nose and mouth were bleeding.
Whitten, seeking redress, immediately filed suit in court. Although she was illiterate, her son, Francisco Domingo, was not, and he wrote a petition that his mother signed with an “X” on Aug. 27, 1798. The Spanish colonial court accepted and heard the case, in which Whitten testified that she did not deserve such unprovoked abuse, since she was in the neighborhood on business and was causing no harm to any person.
Significantly, she identified herself in the legal documents as a vecina, a property-holding member of the community. But Whitten did not follow the Spanish custom of stating her race or legal status, even though she had been free since entering Florida from South Carolina as the fugitive slave Judy Kenty 12 years earlier.
It seems that Whitten was making a point to the court that she should be viewed as the legal and social equal of the Sánchezes. Don José Sánchez admitted under oath that he had berated and beaten Whitten, but he said that he was justified in doing so because she was guilty of “incorrect behavior and an inappropriately free way of speaking to white women.” He also disputed Whitten’s testimony, claiming that she had answered his wife by stating, in English, “I’m not doing anything, you damned bitch.” The court agreed with Sánchez, dismissed Whitten’s case and admonished her to “abstain in the future from lack of due respect to white persons.”
Although she lost, María Whitten’s court case is revealing of the legal rights enjoyed by people of color in Spanish Florida at the end of the 18th century. Such a case would have been unimaginable in her native South Carolina at that time, where such “lack of due respect to white persons” would no doubt have ended in more than a bloody nose for Whitten. Her belief that a court case was viable in Florida was strengthened by her recent marriage in St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic church to Juan Bautista Whitten, a leader of the local black militia and a successful and widely respected carpenter.
Juan Bautista had been born in West Africa around 1758 and around the age of 15 was brought on a British slave ship to South Carolina. There he became known as Big Prince Whitten and met Judy Kenty on a neighboring plantation. The couple began living as husband and wife around 1777 and had two children, Glasgow and Polly, before they were swept up in the chaos of the American Revolution.
The Whittens then became the property of Col. William Young, a British officer, either as “spoils of war” or because they believed that freedom would be more likely on the loyalist side. It is likely that the “6 feet high, strong built and brawny” Prince, a skilled carpenter, would have been an asset to the British forces and gained military experience with them, but the full details of his service are not known. By 1782 the Whittens and Young had moved to Savannah, Ga., when the British abandoned South Carolina. Three years later, the couple had been acquired by a patriot slaveholder named Jacob Weed, who brought them to Point Peter in Georgia, just across the St. Marys River from Florida.
Like most slaves in the area—and their apprehensive owners—Prince and Judy would have known that Florida had been restored to Spanish rule at the end of the Revolutionary War, and that since 1693 the Spanish had offered sanctuary to runaway slaves. After failing three times, the Whittens and their children finally escaped to freedom in December 1785. Weed attempted to recover them by posting a detailed runaway advertisement, which correctly stated that Prince had fled to Florida “to avoid a separation from his family to which he is much attached.” Given Judy/María Whitten’s later forthrightness in her court case, it is perhaps notable that Weed described her as a “smart, active wench.”
The Whittens’ escape to Florida was timely. After extensive lobbying by Georgia planters and the U.S. government and its secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Florida abandoned the state’s religious-sanctuary policy in 1790. The Spanish promised to return any fugitive slaves from then on. Although their own freedom was assured, the Whittens moved quickly to take full advantage of their rights as subjects of the Spanish crown. Sixteen months after arriving in Florida, the Whittens’ children, Glasgow and Polly, were baptized as Catholics, taking the names Francisco Domingo and María Rafaela. Nearly four years later, perhaps because it took them longer to master the Spanish language and catechism, Prince and Judy were also baptized in the Catholic faith, becoming Juan Bautista and María Rafaela, respectively.
Significantly, one of their white Spanish neighbors, Manuel Fernández Bendicho, served as their godfather and stood beside them in church as they were confirmed. This public act of patronage was important in Spanish colonial society, conferring respectability on the Whittens. In the decades that followed, the Whittens would themselves take on the role of patrons to other black members converting to Catholicism. Prince/Juan Bautista served as godfather to 23 individuals, while Judy/María sponsored 31.
Freedom enabled the Whittens to find work on their own terms, but at first they had to fight for their rights. In 1789, shortly after the death of their first child born in Florida, Judy’s employer tried to force her to do heavy field work, breaking an agreement that she would work only as a domestic servant. Declaring that he “could not permit it,” Prince successfully sued the employer for breach of contract.
This court success might have given the Whittens false hope in their later challenge to the Sánchez family, especially since the family’s economic standing had also improved in the decade between the two cases. In addition to purchasing his own slave by that time, Prince had won government contracts to quarry coquina rock and cut timber, and employed several free blacks on their homestead north of St. Augustine.
Their close friends and neighbors included wealthy Spanish- and English-speaking landowners, some of whom were free blacks or of mixed race. While Judy raised pigs and trained young women as domestic servants, son Domingo acquired an education and trained apprentices in his shoemaking shop. Their daughter María Rafaela married well. In 1796 she wed Juan Jorge Jacobo, the brother-in-law of Jorge Biassou, a leader of the Haitian Revolution. The marriage between the Whitten and Biassou families united two of the most important free black families in Florida.
Prince Whitten, like Jorge Biassou, placed a greater faith in the Spanish monarchy that had given him his freedom than in the revolutionary French Republic that was then fomenting rebellion in the Caribbean and Florida. In the summer of 1795, Sgt. Whitten led Florida’s black militia against a French-backed mercenary force, consisting mainly of South Carolina and Georgia whites, that claimed that black Floridians would “once again enjoy the blessings of liberty and equality” if they joined the mercenaries north of the St. Marys River.
Those, like Prince Whitten, who had experienced precious little liberty or equality north of the border didn’t believe such promises and fought bravely and successfully to defend Spanish territory. Once the mercenaries were expelled, the Spanish governor praised Whitten’s “excellent company of free blacks,” further adding to his reputation within the colony.
Prince Whitten continued to serve the Spanish cause over the next decade, leading his militia, joined by Seminole Indians, to victories over invaders from Georgia and the U.S. government, but over the years the balance of forces in the region ultimately shifted decisively in favor of the United States. When Spanish sovereignty in Florida ended on July 10, 1821, Whitten judged—correctly, as it turned out—that the freedoms he and other free blacks had enjoyed under Spanish sovereignty would not survive under the Stars and Stripes, despite American claims to the contrary. Six weeks later, he led a large contingent of Florida’s free black community into exile in Cuba, then still under Spanish rule. He lived there with his family until his death in Cuba around 1835.
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.
Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.