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29 Nov 2014

St. Augustine’s African American History Trail

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November 29, 2014 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Slave Market

By Renée S. Gordon

Tariq ibn-Ziyad crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa and invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD. The Moors rapidly conquered Al Andalus, as they called the region, and established a capitol at Cordoba and ruled Spain for the following 800-years. The seeds of the Moor’s defeat were sown when an alliance, in the form of the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, between Castile and Aragon was accomplished. The rule of the Moors was a period of intellectual growth and learning and it would have a great impact on how the Spanish viewed slavery in the New World. In the 1200s King Alfonso acknowledged that slavery was not a natural state of being and was not based on race or racial inferiority but was instead imposed as a consequence of war or failure to convert. Spanish interactions with Africans were decidedly different than those of any other European nation. 

Africans, both free and enslaved, accompanied every Spanish and Portuguese conquistador and explorer. They were known as “ladinos” and worked in all capacities. Estevanico, an enslaved African and first non-native to explore the southwestern US, was part of the 1528 Florida expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez. Documents indicate that more than 150,000-thousand Africans arrived in the Spanish American territory in the 80 years prior to 1600.

African American history in the United States begins with the Spanish in the southeast. Spanish explorer Lucas Vazquez de Allyon brought the first African slaves to what is now the US in 1526. They managed to escape and fled to live with a local tribe. The colony Vazquez sought to start did not survive and in 1565 St. Augustine, the oldest permanently established city in the nation, was founded and among the original settlers and soldiers were both free and enslaved blacks. The first documented birth of a black child, the first African American, took place in St. Augustine in 1606. The birth is recorded in the Cathedral Parish Archives.

Originally, the Underground Railroad ran south. Freedom seekers from Georgia and the Carolinas fled to Spanish territory. In 1687, nine fugitive slaves in a canoe sought religious refuge in St. Augustine and as a consequence the Govenor of Florida refused to return them to the British. This event was one of the factors that led the Europeans to realize the potential effectiveness of having blacks as allies. Spanish King Charles II on November 7, 1693 issued a royal proclamation that freed all slaves who reached Spanish territory, converted to Catholicism and were baptized. 

In 1683, Gov. Juan Marquez Cabrera raised a corps of soldiers including free mulattoes (pardo) and blacks (moreno) and the presence of the armed black soldiers who raided the Carolinas in 1686 gave British slaves a picture of what their lives could be. The militia was also sent to fight pirates who landed on the island Fort Matanzas. The fort protected a sea entrance to the city. Matanzas, “the place of many slaughters,” now a National Historic Monument, had been the 1563 site of the killing of the French colonists by Menendez, is open daily and is only accessible by free ferry.

Francisco Menéndez was an African Mandinga transported in the early 1700s to the New World as a slave. In 1724 he escaped from Carolina and fought several years with the Yamasee Indians against the British, gaining valuable fighting skills and a knowledge of local geography. He accompanied the natives to Spanish territory where he was claimed and then enslaved. In 1726 he became Captain of St. Augustine’s Black Militia. 

On March 15, 1738 Governor Manuel de Montiano granted unconditional freedom to all the escaped Carolina slaves. The Spanish government extended the ruling to all enslaved including those who would make their way there in the future. Montiano established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose that same year. The fortified town, referred to as Fort Mose, was the first sanctioned free black settlement in the New World. Mose, 2-miles from St. Augustine, was founded to serve as a first defense against attacks from the north. Captain Francisco Menéndez was in charge of the colony that was comprised of around 100 men, women and children. The Africans identified themselves as being primarily of Mandinga, Carabali, Congo and Mina heritage. 

The British attacked Fort Mose in 1740 and destroyed it. The residents retreated to the Castillio de San Marcos and they were repulsed. Francisco Menéndez then took to the seas as a Spanish pirate and was captured and enslaved in 1741, somehow he returned to St. Augustine and was again leader of Fort Mose by 1753. The second fort was larger than the first and according to contemporary descriptions had cactus filled earthen walls, a moat 3’ wide by 2’ deep, a watchtower, two cannons and six guns. There was no fortification on the side facing the river, houses were made of woven palm and a chapel, 30, by 18’ was within the compound. Residents fields and eventually some homes were outside the walls. 

Fort Mose was refortified and in 1752, the blacks returned. When the Spanish relinquished Florida to the British in 1763 many of the black  and Spanish residents relocated to Cuba. Menéndez is believed to have died in Havana.

The site of the settlement went largely unnoticed until 1986 when archeologists uncovered the location. It was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1994 and a precursor site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom in 2009. Visitors to Fort Mose Historic State Park begin on the exterior with trail markers that detail the history of blacks in the region. The Visitor Center is decorated with tiles etched with African symbols that represent the continuity of the African presence in the Americas. While nothing physical remains of the fort you can walk along a boardwalk and view the land much as it would have been.

A museum inside the center presents a short orientation film and offers tours of wonderfully interactive exhibits. Visitors stand in front of life-sized figures and they relate their personal stories. Informational plaques and artifacts round out the display.

Florida was transferred back to the Spanish from the British on July 12, 1784. The new governor, Vizente Manuel de Zespedes, issued a proclamation on July 26th that forbade the British from removing people of any color from the area without official papers issued only by Zespedes. Black residents had an opportunity to prove they were free and become employed. Zespedes also refused to recognize claims by Georgia that many of the blacks were fugitives. After 1790 the laws were changed and Spanish territory was no longer a slave haven.

Gen. Jorge Bissou, born a slave, was a great military leader who was instrumental in the French defeat during the Haitian Revolution. In 1795, he became the second highest salaried man in Florida and in 1796, he moved to St. Augustine where he, ironically, purchased a plantation and used slave labor. He died in 1801 and is interred in Tolomato Cemetery. His home, the then Salcedo House, is now Whetstone’s Chocolates on George Street.

During the American Revolution the colony of East Florida remained loyal to the British and a sanctuary for Loyalists until 1781 when Florida was returned to Spain. Many black and white Loyalists chose to board an evacuation ship bound for Britain or one of its colonies rather than live under Spanish rule. Ships embarked from St. Augustine but the fate of the blacks who had been promised freedom was often to be returned to slavery. 

The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum is a historic complex that includes the Maritime Nature Trails, 1876 Keepers’ House Museum, 1874 Lighthouse Tower and Research & Conservation Area. Florida’s first lighthouse, on this site, was lit on April 5, 1824. In 1874, the 40-ft. coquina tower was replaced by a 165-ft. structure. It was constructed of 1.5-million bricks and an iron 219-step staircase made in Philadelphia. The lighthouse still uses its original lens.

An Archeology and Research Project provides unique glimpses into the area’s shipwreck history. Ships wrecked at one point at a rate of two per week. Currently, the archeologists are working on one of the British evacuation ships that ran aground on a sandbar in 1782. Visitors can watch team members in action.  General tours are offered daily, sunset and moonrise tours and ghost tours are specially scheduled. The lighthouse has been featured on SyFy Channel’s “Ghosthunters.” 

Lincolnville Historic District was established in 1866 when the city leased land for a community of freed slaves originally referred to as Little Africa. It is 140 acres and has the largest collection of Victorian homes in St. Augustine. It was in this district that the participants lived and the planning took place for St. Augustine’s Civil Rights Movement. Markers have been placed on-site by ACCORD, a citizen’s group, to denote significant structures.

St. Augustine’s contribution to the struggle for Civil Rights is often overlooked and underrated. All of the trail sites are within easy walking distance of one another and are marked making a self-guided tour meaningful. Excellent guided tours are offered by St. Augustine Black Heritage Tours, Inc..

In 1960, Hank Thomas and a group of friends planned to sit-in at the local McCrory’s. Thomas was the only one to appear at the appointed time so he conducted the sit-in alone. He was arrested and because his protest was so out of the ordinary the authorities attempted to have him placed in an institution for the insane. Sammy Davis Jr. paid his bail. Thomas went on to beome one of the original Freedom Riders.

A large scale sit-in took place in July of 1963 at Woolworth’s on King Street. Sixteen teens were arrested but the “St. Augustine Four” gained fame. A Wells Fargo Bank branch is now housed in the historic structure. On the exterior there is a Civil Rights mural and the original doors. Inside the bank is a life-sized diorama of the four seated at the counter. It is a great photo op.

Plaza de la Constitución is at the heart of history and is a mandatory stop on the trail. Enter the plaza at the Andrew Young Crossing Monument. Andrew Young led a peaceful march here on June 9, 1964. He was violently attacked by a white mob and rendered unconscious. On the ground a path features Young’s footsteps cast in bronze.

Civil Rights protests were often staged on the plaza at the marketplace. During British rule it served as a place to sell goods including slaves. An area in the center is believed to have held the auction block. The St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument
pays homage to all who participated in the protests. The 6-ft. 4-in. memorial is cast bronze and was unveiled in 2011.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to St. Augustine on May 18, 1964. He led peaceful protests but was arrested, for the 14th time, on June 11th on the steps of the Monson Hotel. Seven days later, the owner/manager poured muriatic acid on student protestors attempting to desegregate the pool. Today, the Monson is part of the Hilton Historic Bayfront Hotel and they have chosen to memorialize the Civil Rights Movement by preserving the steps on which King was arrested and placing a historic marker in the pool area.

Historic Villa Zorayda, while not on the trail, brings the African American story full circle. It was constructed in 1883 by Franklin Smith and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. The residence is a 1/10 reproduction of the Alhambra Palace built by the Moors in Granada, Spain. Architecturally the structure is breathtaking with each room named after a room in the Alhambra, featuring crushed alabaster tracery made from original Moorish molds identical to that in the Alhambra and 350-year old Spanish tiles. Guided tour reveals an extensive art collection the highlights of which are a jewel-encrusted mummy’s foot and the 2400-year old Sacred Cat Rug. This unique rug was woven from the hair of cats that roamed the Nile. Audio guides are available to visitors.

St. Augustine will be celebrating its 450th anniversary in 2015 and there will be even more events and activities. Join the celebration. and 

I wish you smooth travels!


Elves plan for 11 months and labor round the clock for three weeks to bring the windows of Macy’s in New York City to life for Xmas. The founder, RH Macy, began the tradition of decorating Xmas department store windows in the 1870’s and was first to animate them in 1899. This year’s windows were revealed on November 20th. “Santa’s Journey to the Stars” celebrates the thrill of Christmas and the enchantment of children’s imagination. Viewers will follow the journey of Alex into the realm of the magical. Be one of the 10,000 people who view the windows hourly.


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