St. Augustine’s Spanish heritage is easy to spot, with the Spanish architecture and the artifact-filled museums, but the Nation’s Oldest City also has a rich African-American history.
St. Augustine is the place where slavery started in America. The Spanish brought the first slaves with them beginning with Pedro Menendez in 1565.
St. Augustine was also where slavery ended.
Fort Mose, established in 1738, was the first free black settlement in the United States. Slaves from the British colonies up north followed the original “Underground Railroad,” which headed not to the north, but south, to the Spanish colony of Florida and Fort Mose.
The settlement of Garcia Real de Santa Theresa de Mose, also referred to as Mose, was inhabited by former slaves, many of West African origin, who escaped from Georgia and the Carolinas between 1738 and 1763.
To secure their freedom in Spanish Florida, the slaves had to swear allegiance to the King of Spain and convert to Catholicism.
These ex-slaves came with many talents. They had skills as masons and carpenters. They were iron smiths, builders and laborers.
The were very important to St. Augustine.
In addition to being part of the militia that helped keep St. Augustine safe, the free Africans worked in the coquina mines and helped build the Castillo de San Marcos.
Later in the 1700s, nearly two centuries before Colin Powell, there was another great black general. His name was Jorge Biassou.
Biassou led the slave uprising against the French in Haiti and came to St. Augustine in 1791. The Spanish made him a soldier because of his great knowledge. He later became the second highest paid official in St. Augustine. Today, a historic marker honors his legacy. Biassou died in 1801 and is buried in the Tolomato Cemetery in an unmarked grave, a wonderful story of one of St. Augustine’s great black men.
St. Augustine is also the birthplace of the first black college graduate, who later in life became the first black physician in Jacksonville and the second black physician in the state of Florida. Alexander Darnes was born in 1824 in St. Augustine and died in Jacksonville in 1894. A life-size statue of Dr. Darnes sits in the garden of Kirby Smith’s House, 12 Aviles St., where he lived as a child.
St. Augustine was under Union control during the Civil War and as a result was one of the few places where Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation actually freed slaves.
After the Civil War, many blacks settled in St. Augustine in what is now known as Lincolnville. At the time, the area was called “Little Africa.”
In the late 1880s, the neighborhood was renamed Lincolnville in honor of Abraham Lincoln.
Flash forward to the 1960s.
The era proved to be some of the worst times in St. Augustine for African-Americans.
Because African-American citizens wanted equality and dignity and human rights shown to them, they began to march for equal access in the city. The goals were to have access to restaurants, motels, movie theaters, libraries and other public places — to have opportunities to be hired as local fire and police, and to be a part of a biracial commission that would work to improve communications on issues between African-Americans and whites.
These modest goals were rejected by government officials and business leaders and even church officials.
The African-American community organized a non-violent campaign of sit-ins, kneel-ins, sleep-ins and wade-ins.
Activists, many of them just 14, 15 and 16 years old, were beaten on the streets of St. Augustine by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups. Many who marched for freedom were spat on, hit with bricks and rocks, and attacked with sticks and bats, 2-by-4s, chains and broken glass.
Not because they had done something wrong. Not because they had committed a crime, but only because of the color of their skin.
After multiple incarcerations, countless beatings, several dodged bullets and many lost jobs, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed on July 2, 1964.
Many great African-Americans helped make St. Augustine the city it is today, but the strength, courage and bravery of those who stood up for dignity and equal rights in the civil rights era are a particular source of regional pride.
Many historians believe events that took place in St. Augustine in the spring of 1964 led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.