Harriet Tubman did wonderful work in the Underground Railroad, but this is not a story about her. This is an earlier account of an Underground Railroad, that went from South Carolina to Florida in the late 1600s and into the 1700s. At that point, the Spanish still owned Florida. They wanted to increase their population and offered a deal; Africans and African descendants could gain freedom there and Spanish citizenship, in exchange for swearing loyalty to the Spanish Crown, becoming Catholics and the men serving in the militia.
That was what King Charles II ordered in 1693, however the governor of Florida, Benavides decided freeing fugitives only applied to enslaved people during wartime. So when African Francisco Menéndez left South Carolina for Florida with his wife and eight others in order to escape slavery in 1724, they unfortunately exchanged one sort of forced servitude for another. Menéndez was the surname of Francisco’s enslaver in St. Augustine, the royal treasurer Francisco Menéndez Márquez y Posada. Francisco was originally from Gambia and his Mandinga name was not recorded. Although Menéndez served in a Black Militia to defend the city of St. Augustine from the British, he was not awarded his freedom until 1737, from the new Florida Governor Manuel de Montiano.
The newly freed Captain Menéndez was appointed the leader in charge of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé, known informally as Fort Mosé, a new village of around 100 free Blacks. This was the first officially sanctioned free Black city in North America. I would like to celebrate this amazing achievement. I wish the story ended there. But the tides of history and European greed did not stop at this high point of justice. The British destroyed the fort in 1740. The fort was rebuilt in 1752. Finally, when the Spanish gave Florida to the British in 1763, the group from Fort Mosé including Menéndez and his family left for Cuba.
Lost for two centuries in a marshy area, in 1986 the site of Fort Mosé was rediscovered by Kathleen A. Deagan and historian Jane Landers. This is one of the many stops visitors can make on the Florida Black Heritage Trail.
Viva Señor Menéndez, ¡Olé! –Rebecca