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Fort Mose

Mose Fortress drawing

Mose fortress drawing

By Amy Howard

On the north end of Old St. Augustine, two conquistador statues face each other across Highway US-1. Here, tucked in the trees east of the highway, are the marshy remains of the first sanctioned free black town in what is now the USA. Like the statues today, Fort Mose (pronounced Mo-say) guarded the north access to St. Augustine.

Slave Sanctuary

Ever since its inception, Spanish Florida was chronically under-funded, under-staffed, and under-protected. Spanish officials were already dependent on the skills and manpower Africans brought to the community. They also learned that with proper treatment, they could count on many Africans to bolster their military efforts.

Occasionally, Spain's better slavery standards attracted runaway slaves from nearby English colonies. The Africans knew the magic words: "I want to be baptized in the One True Faith." Spain's King Charles II saw fit to capitalize on the runaways' seeming devotion. In 1693, he decreed that any English-based slave be given freedom and protection if they could make it to Spanish territory.

In return for this dangerous provocation of the English war machine, the escapees were expected to live a Catholic life with the Spanish and help protect the colony. With the Spanish war machine on their side, the refugees pledged to shed their "last drop of blood in defense of the Great Crown of Spain and the Holy Faith."

The Risk in Running

Word spread among the slaves in Carolina and Georgia, prompting some of the stronger ones to make a break for it. Some killed their masters and burned farms to get away. In 1739, Charleston saw some eighty slaves revolt and march south in the Stono Rebellion. All of the Stono rebels were massacred by the white slave owners who chased them down. Other runaways faced Indians in the wilderness, some of whom helped the English by catching and returning the slaves.

Despite such dangers, small groups of slaves were led to safety by other runaways and friendly Indians, forming a southbound underground railroad. A century later, Harriet Tubman did the same thing for runaways to the kinder Americans in the North.

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