This is the thirty-fifth entry in the series Honoring Black History.
In 1724, the man who came to be known as Francisco Menéndez escaped his enslavement in South Carolina and sought refuge in Spanish-controlled Florida. His quest for freedom, made alongside a number of other black slaves, was part of a series of events that led to the legal establishment of the first free black community in the United States.
In the late 17th Century, Spain and Britain were bickering neighbors in the southeast of what is now the United states. In 1693, Spain’s King Charles II ordered Spanish colonists to grant freedom and protection to any escaped British slaves who agreed to convert to Catholicism and serve Spain in the militia for four years. To be clear, Spain did not do this because it didn’t support slavery—far from it—they did it for two directly related reasons: it undermined the British colonists by depleting their workforce and it boosted the size of La Florida. Between 1688 and 1725 at least six separate groups of slaves escaped from South Carolina and settled in St. Augustine (the capital of Spanish Florida).
We don’t know his original name, but the man baptized in the Catholic Church as “Francisco Menéndez” was from the Mandinka nation in western Africa, located along the Gambia River. It’s believed that he was captured and sold by slave traders and likely arrived in Carolina some time between 1709 and 1711. A veteran of the Yamasee War, Francisco was appointed captain of the slave militia at St. Augustine in 1726, just two years after his arrival. His defense of the city in 1727 earned him a reputation for strong leadership and bravery.
Despite Spain’s promise and all he had done for Spain in such a short time, Francisco did not earn his unconditional freedom from slavery until nine years later, in 1738. In that same year, the Spanish governor established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose) about two miles north of St. Augustine. Slaves who had escaped from the British colonies were directed there and, with around 100 residents, Fort Mose became the first legal settlement of free blacks in what would eventually become the United States.
Francisco became the military leader at Fort Mose, which also meant he was the leader of that maroon community. The fort defended the northern approach to St. Augustine, a role that was challenged in 1740 when the British invaded Florida with their eyes on St. Augustine. The Fort’s residents evacuated to the capital and its militia and the Spanish eventually defeated the British and drove them back, but not before Fort Mose was destroyed.
After this battle, Francisco took his fight to the high seas with the Spanish, where they raided British ships. He was captured in 1741 by British sailors who, upon discovering his role leading the black militia at Fort Mose, tortured him and sold him back into slavery in the Bahamas.
A second Fort Mose was built in 1752. No one knows quite how it happened, but by 1759 Francisco was back in Florida and in charge of Fort Mose, yet again. That iteration of Fort Mose lasted until Florida was ceded to the British in 1763 as part of the Peace of Paris. Most of the inhabitants of Fort Mose, Francisco included, emigrated to Cuba with the evacuating Spanish. Once there, he established a community called San Agustín de la Nueva Florida that was modeled on Fort Mose.
You can visit the Fort Mose site, which is a national park.
- Fort Mose Site, Florida
- Fort Mose: Colonial America’s Black Fortress of Freedom, University Press of Florida, 1995
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