“Where did it really begin?” These are the first words the booming voice of Jason Alan Carvel presents to you in “America’s Untold Journey: 450 Years of the African American Experience.”
This is a story about African-Americans and how they, too, were a driving force in the America we know today.
When considering the short history of America, one’s mind drifts to names like Columbus, Ponce de Leon and John Smith, but there is rich history waiting to be unearthed and spread from sea to shining sea: How African-Americans played a pivotal role in the shaping of one of the most powerful countries in the world.
The story begins 40 years before Jamestown was founded with a man by the name of Pedro Menendez, an admiral in the Spanish fleet. He oversaw the enterprise to establish what would become “La Florida” or the modern day southeast region of the United States (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana).
“It’s really only recently that the general public has been made aware that St. Augustine precedes Plymouth Rock and Jamestown,” said James Bullock, a historian at the Fort Mose Historical State Park.
During Menendez’s and all other Spanish conquests, African Americans took part. They were first utilized in the early 1400s as seafarers, guiding Spanish ships along the west coast of Africa.
Africans played more than just an integral role on the seas. One free African, Juan Garrido, appears to have introduced wheat to North America. The United States currently produces the third largest wheat crop in the world behind India and China.
Other Africans were skilled workers, comparable to modern day engineers.
Most notably, the first African-Americans in the New World were not judged by their skin color, rather if they were Catholic and Spanish.
In the beginning stages of St. Augustine, its founders did not intend it to be a colony rich in diversity. Menendez originally signed a contract with the Spanish crown to bring 500 slaves to Florida to develop a sugar plantation economy, but that never happened. What resulted was a multi-ethnic town with a group of people whom — unless you held a Spanish bloodline to protect — did not treat others unfairly. Ironically, it would take more than 400 years before the Supreme Court brought this idea to fruition.
Any slaves that were present during the 1500s and 1600s were just as likely to be white. The same held true for slave owners.
Additionally, under Spanish law, slaves did have some rights, including the power to sue or petition for their freedom.
Another New World
Meanwhile in Jamestown, 20 captive slaves were the first to arrive under British rule on August 20, 1619. Over the next century, more than 1 million slaves would be shipped from Africa.
In the late 1600s word spread of a better life to the south. The first “fugitives” escaped the Carolinas and made it safely to St. Augustine.
By 1693, the Spanish strategically issued what appears to be the first civil rights legislation in the New World to counter British expansion. The Edict of 1693 stated any slaves fleeing from the British would be given sanctuary. As a result, the first Underground Railroad was created and headed south, not north, like many believe.
The gruesome path stretched 376 miles from Charleston to St. Augustine, but if slaves made it to the St. John’s River, they were considered free. Some even traveled from far away as New York in the 1700s.
This eventually led to the first settlement of African descent in America built by the Spanish, Fort Mose. However, the site was controversial for years and was considered by some as historical revisionism.
(Quasi)-Freedom Short Lived
By 1738, enough slaves had escaped to Fort Mose, two miles north of St. Augustine in the La Florida wilderness.
Continuing to face an advancing British expansion, the Florida governor created a quasi-freedom where arriving slaves could live under Spanish law if they became Catholic and served in the Army. Many slaves lived in Fort Mose, which would serve as St. Augustine’s first line of defense, and earned citizenship by scouting for attacks. They were even trained, outfitted and armed by the Spanish.
The slaves eventually lost Fort Mose, but they returned with the Spanish and Florida natives to fight inside the fort’s walls. The multi-ethnic strike’s pre-dawn raid on Fort Mose is believed to be the British Army’s first major defeat in the New World, the Battle of Bloody Mose.
In 1821, the Spanish rule ended and the dark era of chattel slavery began.
Post-Civil War St. Augustine
Following the surrender of the Confederacy and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Little Africa formed on the west bank of the Maria Sanchez River in St. Augustine. Sadly, this area was rife with poverty caused by illiteracy.
This all changed, thanks to a group of holy women from Europe.
In 1865, a local diocese requested help from France to teach African-Americans how to read. More than 160 nuns volunteered, and eight were chosen for the journey across the Atlantic.
However, the education of these struggling people was not met with open arms. In fact, it was suppressed as much as possible. In 1916, three sisters were arrested on Easter Sunday because at that time, it was illegal to teach blacks. The law was lifted not long after the nuns were arrested.
The African neighborhood grew vibrant throughout the years. The name was eventually changed to Lincolnville, but hard times were still ahead.
Civil Rights Movement
On the cusp of its 400th birthday, St. Augustine entered the “Long Hot Summer” of 1963.
Dr. Robert Hayling, a local African-American dentist and president of the Florida Dental Association, joined the fight for equality when the he was denied entering a facility for a dental association meeting at white hotel. He then began organizing the St. Augustine civil rights movement.
One such protest at a local restaurant launched the oldest city in America into the national spotlight. Four African-American teens were arrested for trying to order food and were sentenced to one year in reform school.
The protests reached a fever pitch in 1964, and violence erupted in the historic city. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. even stepped in as white mobs began to attack civil rights activists. Many of the beatings were egged on by the KKK.
The Tipping Point
June 18, 1964 — this is the day a horrifying act changed the course of America.
Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine was the site of frequent protests. Its owner, James Brock, had no problem calling the cops on activists.
On the aforementioned day, a group of mixed demonstrators showed up to pray. They were met by Brock, but he had no clue what was in store.
A protester hatched a plan to have a white friend of the movement to check into the hotel. Once the friend was checked in and the press arrived, the man jumped into the pool and invited blacks to join him. Rules allowed for guests to invite friends.
With law enforcement and photographers present, Brock broke into a rage and began pouring muriatic acid pool cleaner into the water and on the people swimming in the pool. This gave President Lyndon Johnson the public and political backing he needed to call for change.
On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
“The purpose of the law is simple. It does not restrict the freedom of any American. It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, in hotels, restaurants and movie theaters, others places that provide services to the public,” stated the President.
In this moment, St. Augustine’s history of African freedom, had come full circle.
It should be a community remembered and celebrated as a symbol of African-American liberation.