America's First Free Black Settlement

Wednesday, 9 March 1892 - St. Augustine, Florida

Lincolnville is the section of St. Augustine where the citizens of African descent reside. Since the end of the Civil War, segregation has slowly gotten stronger until personal prejudice is making it’s way into actual laws. These are dangerous times for people with dark complexions and they are only getting worse.

The inhabitants of Lincolnville do their best to keep their neighborhood neat despite the lack of street paving or any other help from the city. There is a great sense of community here with the church serving as the heart. Preachers have a special respect here. Perhaps that is why in 1964 when another preacher named Martin Luther King came to town, folks listened.

The blacks of one of the most segregated cities in the country joined in the peaceful protest, daring to eat at white lunch counters and not fighting back as police dragged them away. Their non-violent civil disobedience in the face of violent opposition made the rest of the nation question the stupid inequality and the lack of fairness and side with the oppressed. St. Augustine was the turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and helped push the Civil Rights Act through Congress.

Demonstrators in the St. Augsutine Movement
Perhaps it isn’t surprising St. Augustine would be the final stage of the struggle. This was after all where the fight for freedom had started.

I had been recording Lincolnville a bit at a time, not wanting to make the locals nervous, wondering why this white chap was nosing about. I think they had finally concluded I was just a naïve tourist, an Englishman who didn’t share his Southern American cousins attitudes towards non-whites. Today I dared to ask about, “Can anyone tell me where Fort Mose is?” Most just looked at me quizzically.

Finally an elderly gentleman pulled me aside. “Are you talking about the Fort that had colored soldiers?” (“Colored” is the politically correct term of the day.)

We introduced ourselves. His name was Obadiah Watkins. He told me he had heard old folks talk of a Fort “Mossa” when he was a kid. They said escaped slaves went there and built a fort to keep their masters from coming after them. Lot of folks said that was just a fairy tale, but he believed it and had looked for it.

"Did you find Fort Mose?” I asked.

Obadiah shook his head. “There is one spot north of town that might have been it once. Nothing there now. How did you hear of Fort Mossa?”

“It’s a matter of historical record,” I assured him.

“If it is, it ain’t public record.” He shook his head.

“Yes, I imagine here it would be shoved into a desk drawer and locked away, if not outright burnt. Luckily the Spanish took the record with them when they left.”

“I‘ll show you the spot if you tell me what you know about Fort Mossa.” Obadiah’s eyes sparkled with excitement.

Never ask a historian a question like that. I regaled him as we walked two miles north of town. Obadiah would only interrupt with eager questions.

As early as 1687, slaves running away from the British colonies up north were offered asylum in Florida by the Spanish. Besides giving the struggling outpost much needed workers, it also helped undermine the British plantations. So in 1693 the Spanish Government made it official. All they required was that the refugees swear fealty to the Spanish Crown, convert to Catholicism and serve in the militia for four years. The last stipulation meant they would have to fight their former masters if they attacked--which the former slaves would have agreed to anyway.

Despite the dangers of wilderness and slave hunters, by 1738 so many runaways had come to St. Augustine, the town decided to build a fort just outside of town for the recruits. The land around it was given to them to farm and create a settlement. At least 38 families lived at Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé, better known as Fort Mose (pronounced Moh-say.) They were not segregated, but were always welcomed to come into St. Augustine, where they were viewed as the city’s first line of defense.

Fort Mose
In 1740, Georgia Governor James Oglethorpe brought 1,620 soldiers against the 100 settlers of Fort Mose. The inhabitants were able to escape to the main fort, Castillo de San Marcos in town and the British took over Fort Mose. Once their families were safe, the black militia came back with reinforcements and drove the British out. Just for spite, the Georgians burnt down Fort Mose on their way out.

Fort Mose was rebuilt, but in 1763 the fort was again abandoned. When Florida came into British hands, the inhabitants of Fort Mose, as well as the other Spanish citizens, all packed up and headed for Cuba.

Obadiah brought me to a copse of trees surrounded by marshy ground. There was no trace of the earthen bank that would have surrounded the fort. No surprise there, for earth to fill in swamps is a high commodity in this country. I do know that in 1986 archaeologists did find Fort Mose’s location. I will have to wait and see if Obadiah guessed right.

Obadiah's best guess as to the location of Fort Mose
I offered my guide some monetary compensation for his trouble but he refused it. He said my history lesson was payment enough. On the way back into town he told me how Lincolnville was founded. During the Civil War, while Florida joined the Confederacy, St. Augustine was occupied by Union troops. It was the only town in the south where the Emancipation Proclamation actually freed slaves--Obadiah being one of them. So in 1866 all those now ex-slaves started their own community and named it for the man who had freed them.

When we got back to St. Augustine I thanked Obadiah for his assistance. I wished him luck and tried to sound optimistic, for I knew the coming years will not be easy for him or his family. But they shall overcome someday.

Fort Mose Historic State Park

St. Augustine Movement

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