Nearly 150 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, there was a settlement of freed ex-slaves living in Florida in a walled city called Ft. Mose (pronounced mo-say). At that time, Florida was a Spanish Territory and the American Colonies were British slave-holding territories.
Although the Spaniards were colonizing Caribbean islands and territories in Central America and South America, their competition with the British led them to create a universal policy that granted freedom to “all runaway slaves.” This policy was established in 1737, creating what must be viewed as the first “Underground Railroad,” as well as a legally designated black township that predates Eatonville by more than 150 years.
During the weekend of Oct. 12-14, Ft Mose held its first heritage festival as a means toward infusing this bit of valuable Black Florida history with that of the world-famous rich history of St. Augustine. The organizers were not St. Augustinians. They were not even native Floridians. They were a young African-American couple who recently migrated to Micanopy.
Yul Anderson, executive director of The African American Future Society Inc., and his wife, Brenda, are natives of Massachusetts and Georgia, respectively. They envision a future that includes opportunities for African Americans to create business ventures with our African kinfolk.
In fact, the festival was billed as “African Markets” and provided a venue by which African and African-American business communities could begin a mutually beneficial dialogue. The program included a reception where visitors came from the Ivory Coast to talk about lucrative business opportunities for African Americans who are prepared to go to Africa to assist in the continuing development of the continent.
The current Ft. Mose site is an expansive estuary that houses a small but extremely impressive museum. If serious historians visit the museum, they will be neglectful if they are not moved to re-write the history of blacks in America.
Visitors will learn, for example, that a free African was with Ponce de Leon when he “discovered” Florida in 1513. The African had converted to Catholicism and his Spanish name was Juan Garrido, who is famous not because he was here with Ponce but because he was the first person to grow wheat in the New World.
Visitors will learn also that free Africans and Native Americans combined their numbers to help save Spanish St. Augustine from American invasion during the war of 1812. They will learn that the first blacks to be born in this country were not in Virginia in 1619, as the history books claim, but in Florida in 1606 – 14 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.
Visitors will also learn that 200 years before now retired Gen. Colin Powell, there was a black general in St. Augustine. He was the converted Jorge Biassou, who was one of the original leaders of the Haitian slave uprising during the 1790s. He came to St. Augustine as a Spanish general.
Additionally, visitors will learn that Selma, Atlanta, Montgomery and Charlotte were not in a class by themselves in our efforts to dismantle apartheid in this country. In the 1960s, the blacks in St. Augustine began massive lunch counter sit-ins and this was the site of the last major campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And if the visitors are lucky, they will meet Rhonda Bady-Hill, a local storyteller who is very proficient in telling the story of Fort Mose.
St. Augustine, being the oldest city in the nation, attracts about 4,500,000 visitors each year, nearly 1,000,000 of them black. Yet, during the two years that the museum has existed, it has received only 11,000 visitors and most of them are not black. Indeed, I arrived in St. Augustine a day before the festival and met many local and visiting blacks. Not a one had ever visited Ft. Mose.
It is not clear if Yul and Brenda Anderson will organize and host another Ft. Mose weekend. What is clear is the fact that, unless somebody does, an authentic reservoir of the history of blacks in Florida will remain hidden in the marshes of St. Augustine.
Gilbert L. Raiford, a contract worker with the U.S. Department of State, is a retired social worker who has had a long career in teaching. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org