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Sunday Favorites: Angola and the Underground Railroad Part 2


Since the 1990s, the “Underground Railroad” definition has changed to encompass all forms of resistance against enslavement, including escape and flight. In Florida, African Americans could secure their freedom by escaping their owners and pledging their loyalty to adversaries of the U.S. government, particularly France and Britain. Initially, escapees sought refuge in Maroon communities in secluded Florida regions, according to the presentation “Angola and the Underground Railroad” by Sherry Svekis, a representative of the historical preservation non-profit, Reflections of Manatee.

Drawing of Fort Mose.
Drawing of Fort Mose.
Fort Mose State Park is the site of the first free African community in what is now the United States. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today
Fort Mose State Park is the site of the first free African community in what is now the United States. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

You can read the more well-known story of the Underground Railroad in Part One of this series. This segment is focused on freedom seekers from Georgia and Carolina who escaped to Florida and resided in a maroon community located near present-day St. Augustine.

The word maroon is derived from the French word “marron,” which translates to “runaway black slave” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. In Florida, maroon communities consisted of formerly enslaved individuals, Native Americans, and even Cuban descendants.

These individuals were lawfully free and protected by the Spanish government. For most of the 17th Century, Florida was owned by Spain. As early as 1687, the Crown of Spain offered asylum to runaway black formerly enslaved individuals if they agreed to do two things, convert to Catholicism and spend four years in the Spanish military, according to Svekis.

The idea was to gain allies and boost their military presence in Florida, posing a threat to Britain in the north. One of their strategic military objectives was to destabilize the plantation economy of the South with supported British colonies by establishing a free black community to see slaves seeking refuge.

In 1738, Black and Indian Americans directed freedom seekers, south to Florida, not north to Canada the more well-known asylum of the Underground Railroad. In Florida, the Spanish governor established a fortified town where former slaves existed known as the Real de Santa Theresa de Mose, located about two miles north of St. Augustine. Fort Mose became the first legally sanctioned Black town in the present-day United States, according to Svekis.

“The people of Fort Mose, like subsequent groups of Blacks who escaped into Florida, were guerilla fighters who made politically astute alliances with the Spanish and their Indian allies. They waged a fierce war against their masters.” Svekis stated. “The Black militia fought alongside the Spanish regulars to drive off the British forces who attacked St. Augustine in 1740. Black troops also fought in the counter-offensive against Georgia two years later.”

Following the conclusion of the Seven Years' War, the British acquired the territory of East Florida through the Peace of Paris in 1763. Many Free Black civilians chose to migrate to Cuba alongside the departing Spanish settlers. For centuries, the existence of Fort Mose faded into obscurity until the 1970s when historical research and archaeological endeavors pinpointed its location and unearthed remnants of its inhabitants. Today, Fort Mose has been designated as a state park, hosting an engaged community of re-enactors who vividly portray historical events, including the pivotal battle of Fort Mose where they successfully repelled English forces, along with participating in various other events held throughout the year.

Tune in next week, as we examine another Black fort here in Florida.


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