One: New technology illuminates Black history at Ft. Mose
As the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in what is now the United States, Fort Mose Historic State Park has long played an important role in telling the history of slaves who risked their lives in an escape to freedom. It is exciting to know that new technology will help the park do that in a more modern and accessible way.
Last week, thanks to support from Florida Power & Light and the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, the park unveiled new interactive signage that will highlight its historical significance through a self-guided tour.
Every February, Fort Mose hosts a three-day event in which reenactors detail that history for thousands of visitors. Now, thanks to FPL and the Community Foundation, anyone can benefit from their expertise year-round. Simply scan a QR code and learn the history of a specific location on the flight to freedom.
More: Fort Mose’s ‘Flight to Freedom’ to become year-round Black history trail in St. Augustine
The mechanics are simple, but the significance is not. Bringing this historic site further into the modern age expands its reach and the ability to effectively tell the story of the official National Historic Landmark Flight to Freedom Trail.
A visit to Fort Mose has always been a great opportunity to learn about its rich history. Now that story is being told in a more modern and interactive way. I encourage everyone to make the trip. You’ll be glad you did.
Two: History is inspiring positive change
George Floyd’s death was not in vain. It awakened the world to the tremendous injustices occurring throughout the world with people of color.
When I first came to this beautiful city some 27 years ago, I felt the sting of racism in many public places and from some people I met. My grandchildren enjoyed visiting me but all white people left our pool when they entered. Four years forward, adults remained in the pool and splashed joyously with my grands.
Racial relations have certainly moved forward. The Record newspaper is credited for the tremendous job done to highlight history of people of color, such as a recent story honoring Native Americans land by Nancy-Sikes Klin.
From other stories, readers have learned about the first sanctioned free Black community in America. This is Fort Mose, in St. Augustine – not Jamestown. Today, the Accord Civil Rights Museum vividly and factually portray the history of that period, and the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center provides the entire Black history from when the Moors conquered Spain to the present. As a result, more residents and visitors have become knowledgeable about our contributions, our pain and our joy.
Increased knowledge has helped residents denounce racism, embrace diversity and confirm the need for bettering the lives of families. Programs like Compassion St. Augustine has brought enhancement programs to incarcerated youth, the West Side Coalition has worked toward a better community for poor families.
In spite of the pandemic, I am witnessing a tremendous population growth in St. Augustine but we need to find ways to attract Black and Brown people. It means a review that looks toward change of local and state policies and statutes that affect marginal groups negatively, and should lead us to restructure many of our social and economic programs. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”
Dorothy Israel is a longtime community activist.
Three: The forgotten souls of Fish Island shed a grim light on Jesse Fish
Thank you for acknowledging in your recent article, some of Fish Island’s storied past and the many facets of Jesse Fish, but as we celebrate Black history month, let us also remember the many enslaved African people connected to Fish Island Preserve by way of Jesse Fish, and the many generations of his mixed race descendants, whose stories and contributions lie buried deep within the history of our beloved Fish Island, one of the very few, remaining places in the oldest city in America connecting the intersection of plantation life, the African diaspora, and the Atlantic slave trade in 17th, 18th, and 19th century St. Augustine. Fish Island is not just the story of a little boy, who according to McPhee, became “Florida’s first orange baron” and his orange plantation that represents the very origins of the commercial orange industry in our nation, but it is inextricably linked to the many enslaved people who lived, worked, and died on “El Vergel.”
More: St. Augustine History: Jesse Fish, an ‘opportunist’ with a troubled life
By 1834, 2.5 million oranges were shipped from St Augustine, and although colder climates eventually drove Florida’s orange industry further south, it began here in St. Augustine. In context, Fish arrived in St Augustine from New York as only a child himself, well-connected to and under the employ of William Walton and Company, patriarch of one of the largest merchant shipping companies of that era, and also known to be the “importer of more slaves in early century than all other West Indian merchants combined.” According to historian Jane Landers, Fish also had strong familial ties and business partnerships with New York mariners and Charleston merchants with known ties to the Atlantic slave trade.
More: Jesse Fish’s claim to Anastasia Island played out for decades
Sixteen years passed from Jesse Fish’s arrival in St Augustine to when records mark the beginning of his own involvement in the human trafficking of enslaved African people. According to Landers, Fish “introduced most of the African-born Slaves registered in the decade preceding Spain’s loss of Florida.” Between 1752-1763 Fish is on record as registering 133 enslaved African people, 83 of whom were children who ranged in age from 5 to 16 years. The youngest of these was a five-year-old girl, named Melchora. The year of registration, assigned name, and nation of origin for each person can be found in Appendix 9 in Landers’ book, Black Society in Spanish Florida. They represent a diverse cultural heritage from over 40 African nations. Landers also describes the process of registering each enslaved person. They were examined, assigned a new name, a monetary value, and then subjected to branding. Leaving behind all traces of their former lives and identities, they were made part of the free labor force that built Florida.
Based on census records from 1783, 1786, 1787, and in his 1796 probate record, Fish owned 16, 14, 17 and 11 slaves, respectively. Except for his probate record, their names are omitted. In addition to the two children from his first marriage and their mother, Fish left behind seven mixed-race grandchildren, Sophia, Betsy, John, Maisy, Diana, Harriet, and Phebe, whose mother, Clarissa, was Jesse Fish Jr.’s West Indian servant of African descent. Based on baptismal records found recently by Landers, Fish Sr. also had another mixed-race daughter, Maria Juan Francesca, whose mother was a free Black woman, Eva Fish. Their stories are yet to be told.
Whenever I visit Fish Island, I am reminded of the many souls connected to this remarkable place and their forgotten place in the history of our community. Explore the city’s website to learn more about Fish Island’s emerging story.
Susan Hill is a member of the Friends of Fish Island and has done extensive research into Fish Island’s history.
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