“In February of 1739, Florida Governor Manuel de Montana built a coastal fortress a few miles north of St. Augustine. He invited free blacks to populate it; Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, more commonly known as Fort Mose, was the first free black community in North America.
Spain did its best to make Fort Mose attractive to Africans. Seed and tools for farming were provided, and food was sent in until the first crops could be raised. There was a priest assigned to the fort for religious instruction. Cannons were placed on the ramparts. Muskets were issued to men who wanted them, and most did. The only obligation placed on the Africans living there was to help defend Florida against invaders.
Word about Fort Mose spread quickly to slaves in the southern British colonies. The colonists and the English army personnel stationed in the southern regions of the American colonies decided they only had one option — to invade Florida, destroy St. Augustine and Fort Mose, and, hopefully, drive out the Spanish colonists forever. All they needed was an excuse.”
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