Expanding History's Focus Recognition for the Area's African-American Landmarks -- before It's Too Late

Article excerpt

ST. AUGUSTINE -- Inside the Mark W. Lance National Guard Armory in St. Augustine, Clarence Williams sits behind a table, making sure visitors sign a register before wandering through the small auditorium.

"This is only the beginning," the retired New York City police sergeant said. "We've got a long way to go."

Rhythmic music plays softly in the background. To Williams' left, a series of displays wind around the room, recalling a long-ago community and military installation that has been mostly overlooked in this city of history.

Fort Mose (pronounced mo- zay) was America's first free black settlement.

Despite its significance, until recently you wouldn't easily find directions to America's oldest community of freed slaves.

Historian David Nolan knows how to get there, though: Drive to the north end of the city on U.S. 1 to the Super 8 Motel. From the parking lot, look across the salt marsh. See that small island covered with red cedars and palmettos?

That's it. That's what is left of Fort Mose.

Like many of Florida's African-American landmarks, the fort was virtually ignored as developers focused on condominiums and outlet parks and restoring anything related to the state's Spanish colonial roots.

But now, as "heritage tourism" takes hold, some in Florida are recognizing important black sites. Historians in St. Augustine only hope it isn't too late.

"Eventually St. Augustine comes to terms with those things in its past," said Nolan. "But my great fear is we'll lose the landmarks."

The fort was established in 1738 by a group of black slaves who had run away from South Carolina to St. Augustine. Because Spain needed a northern fortress to protect itself from growing British colonies in Georgia and the Carolinas, Spain granted the runaways freedom and land if they converted to Roman Catholicism and pledged allegiance.

The community was known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, and was the first settlement of ex-slaves to exist legally.

Its fort was destroyed during a British siege two years after its founding. But a second fort survived from 1752 to 1763, when Florida was given to the British, and the people of Fort Mose relocated to Cuba with the Spanish.

The abandoned fort was destroyed during the American Revolution.

Today, the first fort is under water. Artifacts from the second fort are no bigger than a thumbnail. The island is too fragile to build on, and visitors have to wait until low tide to reach it.

Williams, who is black, said there are those in the community who have been working to get the recognition the fort deserves.

The display that will be at the Armory all through Black History Month month was obtained from the University of Florida.

It still does not have a permanent home in the city, but that is in the works, too.

The Florida Park Service owns 27 acres of the fort site, but most of that is wetlands. They are negotiating for land to the north and south. They are now building an improved road to the site, and would include boardwalks, a pavilion and an observation deck in the next several years if they can get the other land. Though there's little to see other than egrets and spoonbills, interest has grown. A national grant is paying for 100,000 brochures. They should be in the visitors center by June.

"We've been at this 10 years," said Williams. "It will enlighten people."

History has always been preserved -- or peddled -- in St. Augustine.

You'll find America's oldest wooden schoolhouse, said to have been built before 1763. You'll see the 1672 Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest structure in the city. Even the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum of oddities is America's oldest.

What you won't find are markers pointing to the property owned by a black general in the Spanish militia. You won't learn much about the school where nuns were arrested for teaching blacks, or about the 1880s black baseball team made up of waiters from the Ponce de Leon Hotel. …