What Was America’s First Black Town?

As the nation turns its attention to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s worth noting that decades before the United States was even formed, African Americans lived free in a town of their own — at least for a while.

Sometime between March and November of 1738, Spanish settlers in Florida formed a town named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, two miles to the north of St. Augustine. Initially, it consisted of 38 men, all fugitive slaves, “most of them married,” who had fled to Florida for sanctuary and freedom from enslavement in the Carolinas and Georgia. It came to be known as Fort Mose.

The enclave was the first line of defense between the Spanish settlers in Florida and their enemies, the English colonists to the north in Carolina (which did not officially split into North and South Carolina until 1729, and then the Southern part of South Carolina split in 1732 to form Georgia). Fort Mose was manned entirely by armed black men, under the leadership of Francisco Menendez, who became the leader of the black militia there in 1726. It deserves to be remembered as the site of the first all-black town in what is now the United States, and as the headquarters of the first black armed soldiers commanded by a black officer, who actively engaged in military combat with English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia.

Menendez, the first African-American military commander, was a colorful character. Historian Jane Landers is at work on a full-length biography of him, which I hope will be the basis of a documentary or a feature film.

Menendez was born a Mandinga in West Africa at the end of the 17th century. He was captured and served as a slave in South Carolina until the Yamasee Native Americans fought the British settlers in 1715, during which Menendez managed to escape to St. Augustine, Fla. In 1738, he became the leader of the free black town, and was formally commissioned as captain of the free black militia of St. Augustine.

As you might imagine, Spanish Florida exercised a powerful draw on the Carolina slaves’ collective imagination, starting in the late 1600s. It was the African-American slaves’ first Promised Land. At least since 1687, if slaves made it down to Florida, and professed belief in “the True Faith” — Roman Catholicism — they were declared to be free. News of this haven from enslavement spread through the slave grapevine. And the concentration of these fugitive slaves in St. Augustine led to the creation of the first black town and fort in the U.S.

Landers observes that “As news of the foundation of Mose spread through the South Carolina plantations, groups of slaves broke loose and tried to make for Florida.” And, indeed, in November 1738, 23 men, women and children escaped from Port Royal, S.C., to St. Augustine. Gov. Montiano refused to return them to their supposed “owners,” just as his predecessors had done since 1687. In March 1739, four more slaves and an Irish servant also made their escape to St. Augustine using stolen horses.

Spanish Florida was the African-American slaves’ first Promised Land. All of this was prelude to the famous Stono Rebellion in September 1739. Stono was the most violent and the bloodiest uprising of African-American slaves in the 18th century. And it was inspired, in part, by the promise of freedom that awaited escaping slaves south of the South Carolina and Georgia borders, in the Spanish haven of Florida. Stono is dramatic evidence that the “grapevine telegraph,” as Booker T. Washington would dub the uncanny manner in which slaves communicated with each other plantation to plantation and state to state, was fully functional as early as the first half of the 18th century. (Even John Adams commented on this curious mechanism of communication among slaves, in a letter he wrote in 1775.)

On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, about 20 slaves, hailing (historians think) from Angola, killed two store attendants and stole arms and ammunition at Stono Bridge, south of Charleston. As they marched south heading toward Florida, their ranks swelled to about 100, and they continued to burn plantations and kill white settlers. A ferocious battle with the colonial militia left a field of death, including 20 of the colonists and 40 of the slaves. Slaves who fled were later captured and beheaded. But not even this unfortunate outcome deterred other slaves in the region from seeking their freedom: In June 1740, about 150 slaves rebelled near the Ashley River, just outside of Charleston. Fifty were captured and hanged.

Outraged by actions of the slaves at Stono, and fearful of more rebellions from slaves seeking to escape to Florida, the English countered with a siege of Florida between 1739 and 1740. They captured Fort Mose in 1740. As Landers reports, Captain Menendez and the Fort Mose militia allied with Native Americans to fight the invaders, culminating in a bloody battle in June 1740, in which Menendez and his forces attacked the British and killed 75 of their men. In the process, Fort Mose was destroyed.

Menendez would be captured and sold as a slave, but by 1759, he was free and once again in command at Mose, which had been reconstructed by the Spanish in 1752. By 1759, Mose consisted of 37 men, 15 women, seven boys and eight girls. In 1763, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the Spanish were forced to abandon Florida but gained Cuba in return. In August, Menendez led 48 men, women and children on the schooner Nuestra Senora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) and sailed to Cuba, where they settled in Regla, a town near the city of Havana. Fort Mose is now memorialized as a national historic landmark.

Fifty of the 100 Amazing Facts will be published on The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross website. Read all 100 Facts on The Root.

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