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Henry Louis Gates Jr. Talks about the First Black Town in America

(The Root– Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 12: Where was the first black town in what is now the United States?

As the nation turns its attention to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s worth noting that decades before the United States was even formed, African Americans lived free in a town of their own — at least for a while.

Sometime between March and November of 1738, Spanish settlers in Florida formed a town named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, two miles to the north of St. Augustine. Initially, it consisted of 38 men, all fugitive slaves, “most of them married,” who had fled to Florida for sanctuary and freedom from enslavement in the Carolinas and Georgia. It came to be known as Fort Mose.

The enclave was the first line of defense between the Spanish settlers in Florida and their enemies, the English colonists to the north in Carolina (which did not officially split into North and South Carolina until 1729, and then the Southern part of South Carolina split in 1732 to form Georgia). Fort Mose was manned entirely by armed black men, under the leadership of Francisco Menendez, who became the leader of the black militia there in 1726. It deserves to be remembered as the site of the first all-black town in what is now the United States, and as the headquarters of the first black armed soldiers commanded by a black officer, who actively engaged in military combat with English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia.

Menendez, the first African-American military commander, was a colorful character. Historian Jane Landers is at work on a full-length biography of him, which I hope will be the basis of a documentary or a feature film.

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