Historic Fort Mose - African American History in St. Augustine

    By Dr. Denise Y. Mose

    A significant African-American landmark, Fort Mose in St. Augustine holds a rich history and thought-provoking story.

    The wooden boardwalk stretched in front of us like a long narrow road each plank taking us further across the surrounding marshland. My twin sister Danielle walked beside me in respectful silence; the only sounds were shorebirds calling to one another across the open blue sky and my mother and father's hushed footsteps falling behind us. My sister my parents and I had come to the historic site of Fort Mose in St. Augustine for a very special family reunion.

    I recently learned that I am a sixth-generation descendant of the settlers at Fort Mose (pronounced "moe-say") the first legally sanctioned free black settlement in North America. I already knew that St. Augustine as the oldest permanent European settlement in North America has centuries' worth of stories to tell. I decided it was time to hear mine.

    Earlier that morning as we drove to Fort Mose the day shined bright before us. The sky was clear there was a soft breeze and we were all laughing in anticipation. We had stopped to eat breakfast at a small roadside café so that we'd be good and full by the time we hit St. Augustine. It was a great day for discovery. After all it's not everyday you realize that your ancestors were written about in history books.

    We saw signs that read "Historic Site: Fort Mose ahead on the right" and Danielle kept saying "We're almost there!" The music was turned off in the car because we didn't want to get distracted and miss the turn. As we approached the street we drove down a gravel road and came to a small parking area. We'd expected lots of people big lights that flashed "Fort Mose" and someone taking tickets at a booth. But you know what? We didn't see any of that at all. We simply parked the car picked up a pamphlet and began the self-guided walking tour of the fort.

    Unlike what I rememberer from my school days and what history books have taught us freed slaves existed long before the Emancipation Proclamation. Most people aren't familiar with the inhabitants of Fort Mose because there is so little written on who they were and information is not readily available. Before embarking on this journey I did some research and learned that in the early 1700s after the Spaniards claimed Florida Africans attempting to escape the enslavement and cruelty of the English fled to Spanish Florida. Francisco Menendez the dedicated and courageous captain of the Black Militia led former slaves to safety. He was his generation's own "Black Moses" to his people. Upon reaching Florida the slaves were emancipated and given a section of land agreeing in return to serve as allies for the Spaniards in addition to converting to the Catholic faith. Thus in 1738 Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose or Fort Mose was founded.

    Our stroll along the boardwalk was quiet and peaceful. The trees looked as though they were whispering to each other about these new guests visiting their place the branches seeming to lean down on us as if to get a good look at who we were. I wondered if they recognized our family; we carried the same last name as the fort itself.

    Mostly comprised of former slaves from the Carolinas Fort Mose was home to nearly 100 free blacks when it was founded more than 270 years ago. It was hard to imagine that the marsh of field and water where we now stood was once a thriving community where my ancestors lived worked and raised families.

    Presently more research is being done on Fort Mose and its original inhabitants. The Fort Mose Historical Society (FMHS) established in 1995 is a citizen support organization targeted towards preserving and paying homage to its heroes. The Florida State Parks Service and FMHS are working on an ongoing project to enhance the visitor experience at the Fort Mose site with an 8 000-sq.ft. museum a living history interpretation monuments to the people of Fort Mose and a trail system integrated with the site's history. Their Visitor's Center includes a classroom for ongoing programs and temporary exhibits.

    In 1740 soldiers from the English colony of Georgia attacked St. Augustine. Though the Spaniards with the help of the Black Militia were victorious Fort Mose was ultimately destroyed by fire. Today nothing of the original settlement (or subsequent settlement that was re-built and in use by Africans until 1763) remains except the newly constructed boardwalk and the land itself. And of course ancestors like me.

    As we made our way to the end of the boardwalk we were met with a breathtaking view of the entire landscape of what was once Fort Mose. My mother claimed she had an "eerie feeling" and my father got goosebumps on his arms. Danielle and I just stood there in awe of the famous spot that is so significant in St. Augustine's African-American history at which we were standing. There were no physical structures or costumed reenactors but the history of the place still seemed very real to us.

    When we finished the walking tour of Fort Mose we were still eager to learn more about our ancestors and this amazing place. The Visitor's Center has detailed exhibit of Fort Mose told more of the story. Authentic artifacts retrieved from the Fort Mose settlement along with life-size mannequins storyboards timelines and props all showcased the struggle plight and victory of the people who lived and died there. In a way this was the Rosetta Stone we were looking for.

    Although little known Fort Mose's history is captivating in that it documents the first freed slave settlement and sets the stage for blacks' industrious courageous and selfless acts of freedom and equality for races of color everywhere. I can look upon the heroism of the men women and children of Fort Mose my people with respect and pride in being an African American.

    In February of each year Fort Mose hosts the "Flight to Freedom" African-American heritage celebration. Through a dramatic interpretive program visitors can embark on a "journey" from South Carolina to Fort Mose similar to the trip taken by freed slaves in the 1700s. African arts & crafts food dancers and singers and costumed reenactors all add to the experience.

    Fort Mose is just one of many intriguing histories found in the nation's oldest city. St. Augustine itself was founded 42 years before the English colony at Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. The founder of St. Augustine Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his Spanish fleet arrived off the coast of Florida on August 28 1565 the Feast Day of St. Augustine. Eleven days later he and his 600 soldiers and settlers came ashore at the site of the Timucuan Indian village of Seloy with banners flying and trumpets sounding. He hastily fortified the fledgling village and named it St. Augustine.

    Today the city's many unique attractions bring to life St. Augustine's African-American history and romance of the Ancient City. Complementing the historically themed attractions are contemporary adventures never imagined by the ancient explorers.

    Beachfront hotels wonderful scenery and some very quaint bed and breakfasts make St. Augustine a great place to visit. In the historic district brick-paved streets are lined with shops galleries eateries museums churches and attractions. It's a lively cultural city with a calendar packed with events all year long. From 4th of July fireworks over the bay to the millions of sparkling lights during winter months "Nights of Lights" (mid-November through January) your days and nights can be as relaxing or as entertaining as you choose.

    The Fort Mose site was proclaimed a National Historic Landmark in 1994 and is a part of Florida's Black Heritage Trail. Another major stop on the Trail in St. Augustine is the Lincolnville Historic District a prominent historically black neighborhood founded by former slaves in 1866. For more information on Fort Mose and additional sites of St. Augustine's African-American history visit www.floridashistoriccoast.com or call the St. Augustine Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau at 800-653-2489. Call 904-823-2232 for more information on Fort Mose Historic State Park.