Thursday, July 23, 2020

Bethune-Cookman School of Religion Dean Randolph Bracy, Jr. on St. Augustine's African-American History (Orlando Sentinel)

St. Augustine, not Jamestown, is where American Black history had its birth | Commentary

A guest writer notes that St. Augustine, not Jamestown, Virginia, is where American Black history was born.
A guest writer notes that St. Augustine, not Jamestown, Virginia, is where American Black history was born. (
It was George Santayana who famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Growing up in Florida, I was taught in a segregated elementary school that American history started with the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. I would later learn that there was a black presence in 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia, literally one year earlier than the Pilgrims landing, from Lerone Bennett Jr.’s book, “Before the Mayflower,” which made the declaration that there were slaves brought to America before the Europeans arrived.
Imagine my confusion when I later learned during the 1960s that the Spanish landed in this country in 1565 and established the colonial settlement of St Augustine; literally more than a half century before the English in 1619. I remember the debate that broke out across the state of Florida in 1965 regarding the 400th anniversary of this state’s founding about which settlement was first: Jamestown or St Augustine.

Randolph Bracy Jr.
Randolph Bracy Jr. 

Recently there has been much excitement across America regarding 1619 and The New York Times’ compendium about Jamestown, Virginia, and the scholarly research that has gone into this work to make the strong affirmation that 1619 was the year that it all started for Black America. From where I stand, the writers must be saluted for this seminal work. However, before the dust settles, it should be noted that American Black history did not start in Virginia in 1619 but in Florida in 1565.

How did I arrive at this position?

I was teaching a graduate class on Black history in the early 2000s when one of my students asked me if I knew anything about Fort Mose outside St. Augustine. I had to plead ignorance but starting researching and found that black American history started in Florida, not Virginia. My wife and I scheduled a weekend in St Augustine to become acquainted with this little-known part of American Black history.
Over that weekend, I learned that Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish conquistador, set foot on Florida soil with slaves on Sept. 8, 1565, and named the colonial settlement St Augustine. I also learned that the first Black child born in America was in the Spanish colony of Florida in 1606; 13 years before Jamestown.
Why, then, all the confusion, with one group saying Virginia and the other Florida. Which one is right? It depends on who is telling the story. The English tell the story from the 13 colonies perspective. The Spanish begin the story with their first colony — Florida.
Adding another piece to the puzzle, American history gives much attention to the Underground Railroad, where slaves escaped from the South into the free states of the north and into Canada. But little is reported about Florida, which served as a Spanish safe haven for escaping slaves from the English colonies of South Carolina and Georgia. A historical case in point is the Stono Rebellion, which took place in 1739 outside of Charleston where slaves led an uprising and massacred scores of whites, and subsequently scores of slaves were killed on their way to St Augustine seeking sanctuary.
This historical event occurred because Florida was under the control of the Spanish, and was at war with the British. Slaves escaping from South Carolina or Georgia could gain their freedom by making their way south across the St. Johns River into Florida and converting to Roman Catholicism.
Why are these events important? Black history tells America’s real story. No matter how painful or horrific the institution of slavery was, whether it occurred at St. Augustine or Jamestown, the story must be told to the present generation, for it pulls the cover off America’s shameful past and lets the present generation know the real story behind the mantra that Black Lives Matter.
I close as I began because George Santayana had it right — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Stay Woke!
Randolph Bracy Jr., a pastor, is dean and distinguished professor for the School of Religion at Bethune-Cookman University.

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