ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Black culture stretches further back in St. Augustine history than many may know.
The first free Africans in America lived in the area, and when Spain still ruled Florida, Fort Mose became a refuge and home for people fleeing slavery.
Capt. Francisco Menendez, a key figure for his time who is famous in Northeast Florida, was born free in West Africa, brought to America as a slave and then escaped from the Carolinas to St. Augustine in 1724.
He was one of many who found freedom on the First Coast thanks to the Spanish-controlled ancient city and became leader of the militia.
“It is a story that needs to be told by everyone and anyone that will listen,” said Fort Mose Historical Society President Charles Ellis.
Fort Mose is just north of the city gates to St. Augustine. It’s where slaves fled to freedom. It was America’s first free Black settlement with an underground railroad that ran north to south 150 years before Harriet Tubman.
“When I saw a re-enactment that we did a while back, it sort of brought tears to my eyes to think about that journey that they took of 377 miles to get to Florida to gain the freedom,” Ellis said.
Fort Mose is a place Ellis and historian and re-enactor James Bullock treasure for its historical importance and the effect it can have on the future.
“Fort Mose is the birthplace of freedom,” Ellis said. “The first free Black American baby was born right here in St. Augustine.”
“They were forced out of necessity to work together, to meet each other, to cooperate to adapt and to grow. It’s always been a diverse society here because that’s the way the world was,” Bullock said. “Our country inherited the slave trade that the English gave us. We don’t need to punish ourselves over it. We just need to acknowledge it and to see how that changed people’s lives.”