Black Excellence

28 DOBE- Day 20: Fort Mose′, America’s First Free Black Settlement

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28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

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The story of Fort Mose′ (pronounced Moh-Say) sounds like fiction. Slaves, freed by the Spanish some 200 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, start a successful settlement with its own government, resources, weapons, and militia? Don’t worry, it seemed like a fiction to the people experiencing it, also.

This story starts with the founding of the town of Charlestown, South Carolina, in 1670, by the British. There was nothing unusual about its founding. It was acquired from Native Americans and immediately turned into a place of slave activity. What is important is one of its stars, a man with an integral part in founding that first African American settlement.

Francisco Menéndez was known as Creole, which, unlike the vernacular-languages attributed to many other groups, is actually a designation given to the Atlantic creoles—those slaves, or descendants of slaves, captured from African ports with Iberian fathers and African mothers.

After some intense planning, Francisco Menéndez gathered a group and headed south, to a free settlement they’d heard of, from whispers of others along the Underground Railroad. Upon arriving in Florida, they came upon their freedom at St. Augustine, a free settlement. Many blacks decided to travel south and intermingle with Indian tribes. Maroons were Africans who escaped slavery and started settlements with Native American/Indigenous Peoples, which was an easier way to be overlooked by slavers. Menéndez and his bunch had different plans: full freedom, or death.

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The British didn’t take kindly to this.

So thirsty to re-enslave such a small number of slaves (8 men, 3 women, and a 3 year-old), they were nearly willing to fight with semi-allies. Governor Don Francisco Menendez Marques helped protect this group from their pursuers. Around 1692, Spanish King Charles II freed these slaves, and they were permitted to start their own community.

RELATED: 28 DOBE- Day 19: The Abolitionist, Dr. Henry Highland Garnet

A new settlement was formed. Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose′, Fort Mose′, for short. The town was named by the governor who helped secure the group’s freedom. He also happened to be the man to baptize Menéndez and give him his full name. The governor named the town Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, combining a creek’s name with a reference to the king of Spain—“Gracia Real”—and the name of the patron saint of Spain, Teresa of Aviles. Menéndez  became a captain and helped lead and defend his people and their settlement for years.

In 1740, however, the fort would be overtaken during a series of battles known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, which actually pitted the English against the Spanish. Fortunately, Captain Menéndez would escape and start a later settlement in Cuba; unfortunately, Fort Mose′ would be lost.

When the Spanish fled the settlement and the British took over, the settlement was burned to the ground. 200 years later, around 1968, it was uncovered, restored, and is now part of the National Parks System, forever preserved as a historical site and as a permanent example of black excellence.

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Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.