Part 3: The Search for Freedom

Journey 2016

Watch and read Part 3 (7:27 minutes).

Slaves head sound in search of freedom and with them comes war as America’s Untold Journey continues …..

In 1687 the first group of people arrived in St. Augustine as what would have been called fugitives. They had escaped bondage from the English plantations in the Carolinas.

Slaves understood that there was a relationship with La Florida that African descendants had unlike any other area.

In some ways this posed a threat to the Spanish regime here, and in some cases a tremendous opportunity.

 In 1693, the immediate threat for Spain was England and her growing Carolina colonies. As word got back to Spain that plantation slaves were seeking asylum in Spanish Florida, the King saw an opportunity, and with the stroke of a pen, made his first move.

The King of Spain created the edict of 1693 which to my knowledge and other scholars appears to be the first civil rights legislation in the New World.

The Spanish policy in Florida of giving sanctuary to people who escaped slavery in the Carolinas wasn’t completely altruistic. Of course they knew that that would aggravate the British, it would disrupt their economy.

So any time one country had an opportunity to stick it to another country, they would do it.

As soon as word got to the plantations in Carolina that there was this possibility of sanctuary after 1693, and that was really only 10 years after Charleston was founded. But immediately, many people took advantage of that possibility to try and make it to Florida.

If you think about the Underground Railroad, most of what you learned in history is that the Underground Railroad went North up into Canada. 

It is a part of US history that’s just not well known. The first Underground Railroad runs south. It runs south to St. Augustine, not North.

No matter how well you were being treated by Mr & Mrs so-and-so on a plantation, if you raised a child, you would look at that baby and say I want something different for them.

The first group of people to make it to St. Augustine in 1693 included a woman with a nursing baby.

 At this time in US history, the country as we know it today, does not yet exist. The South was largely untamed wilderness with few roads and little refuge from the elements, and no real method of communication.  The first telegraph was still 150 years in the future

How do people on a plantation hear that you can find freedom in Spanish Florida. It might help or it might not matter to you that from Charleston to St. Augustine is 377 miles.

When you leave the Plantation, what are you leaving with, what’s on your back? And you are just out there through the grace of God that you can make it.

You wanna talk about heroics, this is heroism.

It was clear by the mid 1700’s, that once you got to the St. Johns River, then you were good.

In the Carolinas, in Georgia or as far north as New York we have runaway slaves from Virginia and New York trying to make their way to St. Augustine. Really beginning at the end of the 17th century, but then in earnest in the 18th century.

they will feel at home because they will see people that look like them being successful, entrepreneurs, farmers, people putting food on their tables, feeling the benefits of their own labor. 

While it’s Spanish history is well known and celebrated, there was a time when some of St. Augustine’s African history was hidden, or dismissed entirely as myth.

I came here with my family ten years ago, two teenage boys and my wife. And our first stop was the Castillo de san Marcos. And one of the park rangers said to me, “sir, if you find this interesting, you should go to fort Mose” .And I said “really why?  And he said “Well this is my best effort to explain what it is. “ He said ‘It’s the first settlement of free people of African descent in North America.” And I said ‘What?”

Growing up here in St. Augustine as a child I used to hear some of the older generation would talk about “you know, we had a fort too” . And you know you kinda wonder” well is his really true?” or is this just something that they’re saying to be saying.

I’m not hearing about Fort Mose until I have two kids in college and I’ve been studying history my entire life.

When I was in a history class at Florida A&M University, the history professor asked us where we were from, and he asked me had I ever heard of Fort Mose. And I said No Sir.

 Why has this story not come out. I would have loved to have heard about it when I was a kid, it would have completely changed my outlook on life.

The effort to re-discover Fort Mose fell upon University of Florida Archeologist Dr. Kathy Deegan and Dr. Jane Landers, out of Vanderbilt University.  It would not be an easy task. 

“At the time, It wasn’t accepted very widely in St. Augustine.  there were concerns that we were doing revisionist history, trying to revise St. Augustine’s history and that we were making things up, planting artifacts.. just because we wanted it to be”

“Before you knew it, my family and I were the car on the way to Fort Mose and when we got there, what we discovered was that it was basically a parking lot, with a sign, waiting to happen.”

We felt it was really critical that we find unequivocal pieces of the fort itself, the mote, the parapet and so on, and we really concentrated on the architecture because we just had to be able to show that Yes, it’s here, it’s in St. Augustine and it is Fort Mose, it matches the maps.”

I looked in the back seat and I told my two teenagers and I said, we’re not leaving here, until you can tell me why this place is important.”

“When we come back, a colonial war erupts and newly freed slaves must fight for their new found freedom, and the French nuns who would change the fate of post civil war slaves.”

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