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Public Market (Slave Market)

Public 'Slave' Market, St. Augustine, Florida

Public 'Slave' Market, St. Augustine, Florida

By Amy Howard

St. Augustine's first generation of tour guides turned the town's public market pavilion into a novel attraction by calling it the Old Slave Market. During the civil rights movement, the market became a symbolic place for local demonstrations. Martin Luther King, Jr. was among the local activists who were assaulted and arrested at this site.

Origin of the Public Market

St. Augustine's public market was a vital part of the town's original layout. The grid design of the central plaza and city streets adhered to King Phillip II's royal decree of 1598, which put forth an official town plan for all Spanish colonial towns. The plaza included the public marketplace bordered by the cathedral and Government House, where the governor could oversee the market. The market provided a storefront for residents to offer goods for sale to the general public.

St. Augustine's plaza has seen several versions of a public market facility. The current one is the first masonry structure, built in 1824 for a more sanitary environment to sell food. Originally, there was a bell in the cupola to call villagers to market day.

Early Slave Sales

In the First Spanish Period (1513-1763), slavery was not an enterprise in Florida. The only mass labor going on was construction of defense structures, which was funded by the Spanish government. The enslaved portion of that workforce was provided by the government from other colonies, or by local Indian chiefs. Those owned by the Spanish government were called "royal slaves."

Spain's relatively humane slave laws yielded a certain amount of loyalty in many slaves, who were given responsibilities such as military service and management of other slaves. As of 1693, the law also promised freedom to runaway English slaves. These freed - and usually highly skilled - Africans became valuable additions to the local work force. But occasionally, St. Augustine's governors would violate Spanish law by re-enslaving those refugees for royal projects, or by selling them to local residents.

When opportunity and money allowed, some of St. Augustine's more well-to-do Spaniards bought a slave or two for domestic help. Spanish law allowed slaves to request to be sold to a different owner, such as when slaves from different owners got married and wanted to work for the same owner. The law also allowed slaves to take corrupt owners to court, the outcome of which could force a sale.

If a buyer was available, slave transactions took place privately between the owners. If a seller needed to find a buyer, the transaction would usually take the form of an auction on the steps of Government House. There is no evidence yet of a slave transaction taking place in the public market during the First Spanish Period, but the setting makes it a logical possibility.

When the Spanish vacated Florida in 1763, their population of 3,104 included 350 slaves.

Slave Trade Booms

The English acquisition of Florida brought the plantation system to the territory beginning in 1763. Incoming farmers often brought their own slaves from the other English colonies. But many new farm enterprises required a new labor force. Florida became a viable market for slave traders. Within fourteen years, the number of slaves in Florida reached 3,000. Farming with slave labor continued through the rest of Florida's colonial periods and into statehood. By the end of the Civil War, Florida had 61,000 slaves, nearly half the population.

Slave traders often delivered slaves on order directly to Florida plantations. Some farmers, such as Zephaniah Kingsley, traveled to other colonies and even Africa for slaves. But no specific slave market was created for St. Augustine. When they did occur, local auctions could be conducted wherever seemed conducive for the situation, be it on the steps of Government House, in the market, or off the slave trader's boat. One particular slave auction took place in the yard of Government House when author Ralph Waldo Emerson happened to be there. He mentioned the event in his journal:

"A fortnight since I attended a meeting of the Bible Society. The treasurer of this institution is Marshall of the district & by a somewhat unfortunate arrangement had appointed a special meeting of the Society & a slave auction at the same time & place, one being in Government House & the other in the adjoining yard. One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy whilst the other was regaled with 'going gentlemen, going!' And almost without changing our position we might aid in sending the scriptures to Africa or bid for 'four children without the mother' who had been kidnapped therefrom." (Emerson, 177).

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