Six free black towns in Florida
Wherever slavery has existed, the enslaved have endeavored to escape to freedom. Under Spanish rule, Florida was a destination for freedom seekers escaping plantations in Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama to establish communities of their own prior to the Civil War. Though long overlooked and underrepresented, these communities shaped the Florida we know today as much as anything else in the state's history. Here are the stories of six of these forgotten communities.
At the time of its establishment, Angola was the free black settlement that was farthest from North Florida. Its location along the southern bank of the Manatee River (present day Bradenton) meant it was easily defended and readily accessible to the Gulf to reach Spanish and British allies in Havana or the Bahamas. Farmsteads were in operation at Angola as early as 1812, with residents trading with Cuban fishermen along the Gulf and Seminole cattlemen in the interior peninsula. After the black community of Prospect Bluff was destroyed in the Panhandle, British Captain George Woodbine transported 80 black troops to Angola in 1815. While most black settlements throughout the state were small to escape detection, it was estimated that Angola’s population was between 600 to 750 residents.
When Andrew Jackson became Florida’s territorial governor in 1821, his first order of business was to find and destroy Angola in order to end the territory’s reputation as a haven for runaway enslaved. Survivors of Jackson’s raid fled inland to Minatti or to Cape Florida, now Key Biscayne in Miami. At Cape Florida, Cuban and English boats delivered the refugees to the Bahamas where British officials settled them on Andros Island. Many of their descendants still live there today at Red Bays. It is estimated that nearly 300 freedom seekers reached the Bahamas aboard 27 sloops and canoes from Cape Florida. In order to eliminate this situation, the Americans built a lighthouse at the cape. In 2004 a large historical marker was erected at the site to mark it as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Trail.
(Ennis Davis, AICP)
Located two miles north of St. Augustine, Fort Mose was the first free black settlement to be legally sanctioned in what would become the United States. Originally known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the settlement was established by Spain in 1738 to attract freedom seeking enslaved from the British colonies to the north and thereby destabilize the British plantation economy. Inhabitants at Fort Mose had to agree to become Catholic, join the Spanish militia and defend St. Augustine in the event of attack. At its height, the walled fort had a population of about 100 and its own church. It is believed that its presence inspired the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in September 1739. A precursor to the Underground Railroad, Fort Mose was abandoned for good when the Spanish transfered Florida to the British in 1763. Black militia members either relocated to Cuba or remained in Florida, with many joining Creek and Seminole settlements. On October 12, 1994, Fort Mose Historic State Park was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
(Ennis Davis, AICP)
(Ennis Davis, AICP)
Minatti was a community of Black Seminoles, free blacks, and freedom seekers established along the Peace River during the late 1810s. Minatti (meaning “manatee”) was near the former Lake Hancock plantation of chief Oponay and its residents were Red Stick Creek allies. Minatti’s freedom seekers were runaways from plantations along the St. Johns River and the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The inhabitants cultivated crops such as corn, potatoes, peaches, and inland rice. The black settlement was also the home of subchief Emathlachee and great black war chief Harry. Minatti’s population increased as a result of Andrew Jackson destroying Angola in 1821. Minatti was also affiliated with the nearby Seminole village of Talakchopko, a community associated with Seminole leader Osceola. Along with Talakchopko, Minatti became the epicenter of Seminole resistance to American incursion, leading to the Second Seminole War and the destruction of both communities in 1842.
An aerial of Lake Hancock and the mouth of the Peace River where Minatti was once located. Lake Hancock is located between the present day cities of Lakeland, Winter Haven and Bartow. (Southwest Florida Water Management District)