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St. Augustine, Florida: Birthplace of African American History

By David Nolan

The rich African American heritage of St. Augustine should cause all history textbooks to be rewritten.

Africans Helped Establish America's Oldest City

When the Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine in 1565, not only were there black members of his crew, but he noted that his arrival had been preceded by free Africans in the French settlement at Fort Caroline, just a few miles north.

Our oldest written records, the Cathedral Parish Archives, list the first birth of a black child here in 1606--thirteen years before many textbooks say that the first blacks on these shores arrived at Jamestown in 1619.

Battle of Fort Mose

Battle of Fort Mose

The first legally recognized community of ex-slaves was Fort Mose, the northern defense of St. Augustine, founded in 1738 to protect the city from British invasion. In 1740, when General James Oglethorpe attacked from Georgia, it was the Battle of Fort Mose that proved decisive in turning him around and sending him back from where he came. The site of this free black fort is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and is run by the Florida Park Service. It is considered the focal point for the first Underground Railroad, which ran not from south to north, but rather from the British southern colonies farther south into Spanish Florida, where escaped slaves would be given their freedom.

Black Spanish Militia

Black Spanish Militia

Africans in Florida's Military

Everyone has heard of General Colin Powell, but two centuries before him there was a black general in St. Augustine. His name was Jorge Biassou, and he was one of the original leaders of the slave uprising in Haiti in the 1790s. In the twists and turns of international politics, he became a Spanish general. He was sent to St. Augustine in 1796, as the second-highest paid official of the colony, and stayed here until his death in 1801. His funeral was held at the Cathedral on the Plaza downtown, and he is buried in Tolomato Cemetery on Cordova Street.

A black militia saved St. Augustine from invasion at the time of the War of 1812, and its members were awarded land grants in gratitude by the Spanish governor.

John Horse

John Horse, African-Seminole

Africans and Seminoles

Blacks played an important role in relations with the Seminole Indians. A free black man named Antonio Proctor served as Indian interpreter for the first American governor of Florida. A century and a half later one of his descendants, Henry Twine, was active in the civil rights movement and became the first black vice mayor of St. Augustine.

Other blacks lived within the Seminole nation, and rose to high position there. A black man named Abraham was sometimes called "the prime minister of the Seminoles." Another Black Seminole, John Horse, played a prominent military role in the Indian wars of the 1830s.

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