In the first decade of the 18th century, African slaves had begun to outnumber Europeans in the southern English colonies. Spanish Florida however, had been a safe haven for runaway "foreign" slaves since the 1690's. Slave rebellions began to erupt in Carolina between 1711 and 1715. In an attempt to further de-stabilize English control along the border, the Spanish King Charles offered emancipation to any slave on two conditions: the person must convert to Catholicism and serve four years in the militia. The response from the African populace was immediate and overwhelming. While harboring no illusions as to the tenuous nature of this boon, the opportunity attracted all those who would willingly rather fight, even die as a free person of color, than live to old age in bondage.
By 1738, the first militia had formed, augmenting the Spanish regulars in St. Augustine. Sensing the ever-growing tension along the St. Marys River, the Colonial Governor Manuel Montiano selected Francisco Menendez to create the Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose as a defensive outpost just north of the Castillo de San Marco. This act of self-preservation made Fort Mose the first legally sanctioned African-American community in North America. This modest settlement composed of wooden huts surrounded by earthworks, anchored by a small chapel, would be the hub of anti-slavery activity against the English for nearly a quarter-century. One hundred free Africans lived at Fort Mose at its height, entire families who farmed and fished to support themselves without any other aid.
Over the next two decades, the black militia would defend their homes and the colonial seat of St. Augustine without hesitation. Menendez was a runaway slave from Carolina, bold and fearless. Under his command, the militia raided British settlements with impunity as far away as Charleston. Even though the fort was once overrun by the British regulars under General Ogelthorpe, the militia and their families returned to reclaim their land and rebuild their homes. In the interim, Menendez volunteered to serve aboard a Spanish Navy ship of the line, harrassing English merchant vessels. Captured and re-enslaved, his compatriots ransomed him. Once in Spanish territory again, he immediately returned to Fort Mose.
The end of the first Spanish period in 1763 accomplished what troops could not. As the Spanish officially ceded the Floridas to England, Fort Mose was abandoned by its defenders, the inhabitants emigrating en masse to Cuba. The retirement was richly deserved. A century before the Emancipation Proclamation and the American Civil War, they had secured their liberty under the law and with their blood. The vagaries of history would force African-Americans throughout the southern U.S. to repeat their struggle, but for a time, they stood tall, like any other man.
Find it: Fort Mose is located two blocks off U.S. 1 at the end of Saratoga Boulevard, immediately north of the St. Augustine city limits. The visitor center is open Thursday through Monday, 9 am to 5 pm. The park is open daily from 8 am till sundown all year. Call (904) 823-2232 for further information or visit Fort Mose Historic State Park.