“Without knowing when or how, I moved into profound focus; the direction of the future opened wide its doors. My life seemed whole again and the strains of an unknown melody healed my inmost center. It was glorious. When I returned to London and went on to Paris and Geneva. I was aware that God was not yet done with me, that I need never fear the darkness, nor delude myself that the contradictions of life are final. I was ready now for my journey.”
“On January 16, 1989, after ceremonies commemorating the birth of the late Martin Luther King Jr., violence again engulfed Miami. That evening a police officer shot and killed a young black motorcyclist being pursued for speeding; and a passenger on the motorcycle was fatally injured when the machine collided with an automobile. The bloodshed, arson and looting that followed almost immediately continued for several consecutive nights in Overtown and adjacent Liberty City.”
“St. Augustine represented a change. For the first time, [Dr. Martin Luther] King was sending SCLC troopers into a situation not to help the local black population, but to influence developments on the national scene.
Explained C. T. Vivian, ‘Doc felt if we brought out the Klan and all the rest, it would make the way clear for the federal government to make demands on the state government. And one of the major strategies of the civil rights movement at that time was to change the concept of states’ rights. We needed to bring a confrontation between states’ rights and the federal government. It is never to be forgotten that under states’ rights the South was able to continually harass, destroy, intimidate, and control black people. We could not move until the federal government came in. We went into St. Augustine to deal with that kind of issue.'”
America had plans for the Spanish territory on its southern border — La Florida. By the early 1800s, eager slaveowners in Georgia and the Carolinas long had wanted to stop runaway slaves trekking to the Spanish territory for a better life.
Others simply wanted to expand the American empire at a time when Spain lacked the resources to protect its territory because of a draining war with Napoleon Bonaparte. Sensing a chance to grab new territory, the U.S. government took it.
On January 15, 1811, Congress secretly authorized then-President James Madison to seize all or any part of Florida if either “local authorities” agreed, or if a foreign government tried to occupy any portion of the region.
The move sparked a wave of American settlers who called themselves “The Patriots” to invade the Spanish territory, seizing Amelia Island and attacking Saint Augustine, then the capital of the East Florida province. The siege only lasted a year when the U.S. government pulled back from annexing Florida in the face of a pending war with England. The siege by the Patriots would continue until 1816, but America would ultimately get Florida in 1845 when it became a state.
“The real estate explosion of the mid-1920s brought over two thousand wooden tenements to Colored Town, with the boom only increasing white people’s rental foothold in the neighborhood. Less than 10 percent of Colored Town’s residents owned their own home.”
If you listen carefully, tuning out the noise from the park’s boardwalk and picnic areas, you can almost hear the sounds of North America’s first legally sanctioned free black settlement.
Whether it’s the sounds of hammer beating molten iron at the blacksmith, the squeals of children or the cadences of the local militia, the village of El Pueblo de Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose attracted blacks — slave and free — from Africa, Spain and the Americas. More than 100 men, women and children once lived in the old fort that protected St. Augustine.
Fort Mose was built in 1738, and its occupants found refuge from the harsh life of slavery by joining the Catholic Church and pledging allegiance to the king of Spain. In 1763, when the British took control of Florida, the residents of Fort Mose left for Cuba, and freedom.
Today, the old fort is a 40-acre waterfront park located east of U.S. 1 just north of St. Augustine. It houses a picnic areas, a marina for canoeing and kayaking and a boardwalk where birders can see White Ibis, Great Blue Heron and Bald Eagles. The remains of the earlier settlement are long gone, but the significance of Fort Mose Historic State Park should not be lost to history.
The Defense of St. Augustine
The original Fort Mose may have been built by Spain to defend St. Augustine, but as the first community of free black men and women in North America, it served as a haven on the original Underground Railroad for runaway slaves who fled from the harsh plantation life to the north.
The Fort Mose Historical Society, the Florida Department of State and Florida Living History Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about the state’s colonial and territorial history, hold commemorations of the founding of Fort Mose with stirring re-enactments of the proclamation that established the settlement and named the community’s first leader.
Admission to the event is free of charge. There is a $2 admission fee to the park’s museum for adults; children 5 or younger are admitted to the museum for free.
Safe haven for slaves and freed blacks
The re-enactments are reminders of the rich black history of North America’s oldest city. When Spain regained the Florida territory after the American Revolutionary War, the seeds of an enduring black community in St. Augustine were planted, beginning with a free black community that readily accepted newcomers from the American colonies and the Haitian revolution.
The one-time center of black business and residential life, Lincolnville, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Florida Black Heritage Trail, and there have been efforts to restore some of houses in the area. The Andrew Young Crossing sits in the midst of the city’s historic district and commemorates the 1964 march led for civil rights that ended in violence.
Race played a major role in shaping what is now Florida. Under Spanish rule, blacks not only found asylum from slavery but a comfortable enough life that black men were willing to protect it by serving in the militia to protect Spanish Florida from the British. The struggle between two countries led to the creation of Fort Mose, and ultimately its undoing.
For more information, contact:Fort Mose Historic State Park, 15 Fort Mose Trail, St. Augustine, FL 32084, (904) 823-2232
“The insanity just kept happening in Florida — this deranged string of unexplained bombings that had been going on since the spring. And now it had an official name: ‘The Florida Terror,’ which is what the northern press was calling it.
Even Florida papers were sounding the alarm: ‘Why is this happening? Who’s behind it? And what is it going to do to the tourism industry?'”
“Electon officials in Ocoee planned a system of fraud that pa ralleled the Jacksonville strategy: poll workers would challenge black voters, who in turn would be forced to appear before the local notary public, R.C. Biegelow, and swear that they were registered voters. Whites in Ocoee later admitted that Biegelow was sent on fishing trips which made it impossible for prospective voters to find him.”
Many others may have forgotten this Florida native, like I did. But, on January 7, 1911, Thelma McQueen was born in Tampa. She would change her name and experience infamy.
Her initial career goal was to become a nurse, but a high school teacher thought she had the talent to act. So young Thelma set new sights and became a dancer, hoping to one day get a chance to act. Her big break would come and it would end up being her most memorable role — Prissy.
Prissy was a young slave in the film, Gone With the Wind, and although McQueen didn’t have much of a speaking role, the line: “I don’t know nothing ’bout birthing no babies!” proved to be both racially stereotypic and iconic.
The part brought similar roles that McQueen found demeaning. Her commentary on the type of roles that came her way resonate today in our #Hollywoodsowhite era.
“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business,” McQueen said. “But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.”
Bottom line? McQueen had higher aspiration than the roles offered her in a time when film and television were clearly a whites-only realm. Diversity has come a long way from McQueen’s day, but there are still hurdles to overcome.
McQueen quit acting in films in 1947, but she continued acting, taking bit parts in television and radio. In 1979, she won an Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming for the ABC Afterschool Special episode “Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.”
McQueen also earned a degree in political science, which helped her in 1983 when a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 from a lawsuit she filed against two bus terminal security guards. McQueen sued for harassment after she claimed the security guards accused her of being a pickpocket and a vagrant while she was at a bus terminal in 1979.
Her only bit of controversy came long after the Prissy role in 1989 when was honored for her beliefs as an atheist. Her remarks at the Freedom from Religion Foundation event were later used as advertisements in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin. McQueen died in 1995 at the age of 84.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.
Historic Eatonville, Fla., opens its doors to all visitors and fans of Zora Neale Hurston on Saturday, January 21 with its Back in the Day: Reflections of Historic Eatonville. The event kicks off the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival.
The start time is 6:p.m. at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts on 227 East Kennedy Boulevard. The event consists of an opening reception, gallery talk and features an exhibition of the artifacts and memorabilia from Early Eatonville. The event is free and open to the public.