St. Augustine

May, 2016

It took a mere 36 hours to make the strange transition from the Bahamas to the United States, from quiet, starry nights and deprivation to noisy traffic and modern conveniences.  We sailed from Great Sale Cay to St. Augustine overnight, and have stayed put ever since.  Why? Because St. Augustine is wonderful.

St. Augustine reminds me of home, of Santa Barbara, another city mindful of its complicated history in racial politics. It has a Spanish feel.  It advertises itself as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States.  Unlike most of the other cities we visited on our journey up the coast, St. Augustine remembers that the first foreign settlers of this country were not White and did not speak English. They were Spanish and African.

The city of St. Augustine allegedly recorded the first birth of a slave in North America. It has an ugly history as an early and long-standing hub of the slave trade.  But it also served as a sanctuary of sorts, for slaves both freed and escaped before the Emancipation Act of 1863.  Of course to be protected the slave had to convert to Catholicism, perhaps a different kind of servitude, but that’s a different matter.

Unlike any other city I have visited in the United States, St. Augustine prominently memorializes the ordinary people who fought for universal civil rights. 

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Monument to civil rights activists in St. Augustine.  It sits in the center of the tourist district, near a structure that allegedly once served as a slave market.

Did you know that America’s first Black town, headed by the first African-American military commander, Francisco Menendez,  was just north of St. Augustine? According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

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 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

Most Americans are profoundly ignorant of the key role that African-American and Hispanic immigrants played in the early days of our nation.  They do not know that the first Africans came to these shores in 1526 as members of a large Spanish expidition from the West Indies.  They do not know–or pretend they do not know–that it was Africans who knew how to survive in the heat, how to plant rice, how to cure disease, how to work with animals, and how to build houses.

The European immigrants who settled the Southern states would have died of starvation and sickness had the African people forcibly brought to this country and their descendants had not been present. For an account of these truths, please read Peter H. Wood‘s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (NY: Norton, 1974).  This book, along with Islanders in the Stream, A History of the Bahamian PeopleMichael Craton and Gail Saunders, were indispensable guides to my travels this year.

It appalls me that we are still living in a deeply racist culture, that we have so far to go in our struggle for civil rights for all human beings in our country.  Anyone with half a brain in her head and a rudimentary understanding of American history knows that Black Lives Matter.