People love to share hypotheticals about how they would have lived in Trans-Atlantic slave societies. Many overstate their courage. Then, they underestimate marginalized groups’ knowledge and collective action. Likewise, when these folks discuss slavery in the U.S. South, including Florida, their narratives track tropes:
Endless rows of enslaved African laborers toiled for white wealth. These folks expressed and possessed low levels of cognition. They ceded their cultural identities. Above all, these folks were peak Stephen in Django. They did not do resistance against the peculiar institution of slavery.
However, both recent United Nations recognition and Zora Neale Hurston’s historic appreciation for Fort Mose complicate narratives about African people’s cultural knowhow, desires for and actions to protect their freedom during dire times.
Late last month, the United Nations added Fort Mose to its Slave Routes Project as a Site of Memory. The project began in 1994 in Ouidah, Benin in Africa.
The project advances the principle that ignorance and concealment of major history impedes intercultural comprehension, reconciliation and cooperation. The project emphasizes cultural memory, collective histories and heritage. Human rights, racism resistance, anti-discrimination work and humanist advocacy are also key.
Fort Mose, located just north of St. Augustine, is the first known free Black settlement in the present day U.S. Established 127 years before Juneteenth, the Spanish Governor of Florida set up “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose” (Fort Mose’s full name) as a place “where [newly-freed African people] could cultivate the land and serve the king,” as Irene Wright wrote in 1924 for The Journal of Negro History.
Other historians have highlighted the artistic, architectural and military might of Black Fort Mose residents. As Fort Mose Historical Society Secretary Dorothy Israel told St.Augustine.com, “When you want freedom, you’re determined to get it.”
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston wrote The Journal of Negro History about evidence of and legacies from Fort Mose. Hurston described this “old Negro fort” decades before anthropologists dug the site.
Hurston’s writing also placed battle into context at Fort Mose. She described General James Oglethorpe’s brief success in capturing Fort Mose before “five hundred men, Spanish, Indian and Negroes” defeated Colonel Palmer, one of Oglethorpe’s men. Oglethorpe founded Georgia. Palmer apparently “fell at the first fire of the enemy.”
To this day, visitors celebrate the Bloody Battle of Fort Mose and the Spanish defeat of the English. The import of Spanish victories in and around St. Augustine was often their problematic but existing inclusion of diverse ethno-racial groups.
Englishmen, who owned human beings they claimed as property, did not consistently present these openings. Afro-descendant and Indigenous people could get in where they fit in through Spanish society.
A South Carolina House of Commons committee report about the Oglethorpe Expedition described Fort Mose’s community as inclusive of a militia with “Mulattoes of savage dispositions.” One of the biggest “grievances” in that report was the Fort Mose community’s enticement of enslaved African people in South Carolina to leave bondage and join Fort Mose. Many did.
In the report, Englishmen alleged that during “times of profoundest peace … Negroes and Indians in every shape molested us, not without some instances of uncommon cruelty.”
Candidly, Spaniards in Florida were not faultless saviors. They also benefited from having a Black community as a buffer in Fort Mose because its northward position meant that hostile forces had to pass it before making it to St. Augustine.
Fort Mose was closer to the discontented English in colonies northward. Historian and Spanish Florida expert Jane Landers wrote that Fort Mose’s location “was of great strategic significance.”
As a Black Floridian who descends from some enslaved African people who labored in Florida, my interest in Fort Mose is not in portraying it as perfect.
Instead, Fort Mose raises issues of Black and Black allied fight-back. Fort Mose inspires inquiry into whether Afro-descendants and Indigenous folks had true religious freedom if Catholicism was their primary pathway to safer harbor. Fort Mose can also inspire contemporary multi-racial alliances that stand to learn from the creators of this abolitionist silo on the North Florida coast.
Digging into Fort Mose reminds folks that Spanish colonial-settlers had brought Afro-descendants to Florida since the 1500s, which complicates the idea that Black people only came from human traffickers in 1619 Jamestown, Virginia.
Of course, Spaniards and the English practiced slavery. But, most Americans think of English chattel slavery and the resultant one-drop rules that — in a patriarchal society, no less — assigned babies the racial status of their Black mothers.
Fewer seem to appreciate the nuanced racial stratification and operations Spaniards carried out. Spanish men were known to take up arms, openly take Black and mixed-race spouses, and forge or force community with vulnerable others.
To this point, English and Spanish battles were over far more than mere land. In hybridized Spanish societies, both African and Indigenous folks opted in. It also bears mention that some Afro-descendants exercised their agency and intercultural understandings to align themselves where they saw fit.
In the final analysis, Fort Mose reflects issues that plagued early Florida and continue to this day. Fort Mose scholars can reflect on converging interests, allied resistance and narrative reclamation.
Whether appreciating the battle might at Fort Mose or the tangible and intangible value African people infused in Florida, we can consider Professor Landers’ written assertion that without Black people in and around St. Augustine, Florida “would surely have failed.”