African Roots

October 2, 2013
8 mins read

They have a dream that one day St. Augustine will be as much a tourist destination known for its rich history as “The Oldest Settlement for Free Africans in the New World” as it is for being “The Oldest City in the New World.”

They dream that the city will be more than a footnote in America’s civil rights saga. That it will be recognized once again as an area where diverse cultures flourish and work side by side, as they did for nearly two centuries after its founding by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565.

They are the organizers, some of them well-established futurists, of the African Market 
at Fort Mose, a family-friendly, three-day exhibition of African-influenced music, drumming, arts, products, culture and food to be held Oct. 12-14 on the grounds of the Fort Mose Historic State Park, just north of the landmark St. Augustine city gates on U.S. Highway 1. The Fort Mose site became part of the Florida Park Service in 1989, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and was listed the same year on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, the National Park Service designated it as a potential locale on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which recognizes the historical role of the Underground Railroad in ending slavery and the evolution of the civil rights movement.

Since the Fort Mose museum opened in March 2011 — admission is just $2 per person — park officials say fewer than 11,000 visitors have found their way to the site, tucked away off a residential road on the east side of the highway on 41.69 acres overlooking estuarine tidal marsh along the Intracoastal Waterway. The museum exhibits focus on the little-known history of the free Africans who played a vital role in the founding of St. Augustine in 1565 and life as it was for the residents of Fort Mose, established by the Spanish in 1733 as haven for those escaping the tyranny of slavery in the British colonies.

For Yul Anderson of Micanopy, who with his wife Brenda initiated the idea for the African Market, it is a celebration of a cultural heritage that had been hidden for centuries and a chance to give much overdue attention to Fort Mose as a treasure of African-American history.

African Market organizers are hopeful the Fort Mose site and St. Augustine itself eventually will be elevated to the same historic significance in civil rights history as Selma and Montgomery in Alabama. They see the African Market event as a launching point toward establishing Fort Mose as a premier destination in an emerging and lucrative cultural heritage tourism industry, defined in a 2005 federal government report as “travel directed toward experiencing the arts, heritage and special character of a place.”

The government report noted travelers to cultural and heritage destinations spend considerably more money — nearly 30 percent more — than other travelers.

“The importance of what we are doing in St. Augustine is getting clearer based on the St. Augustine citizen participation. We are so humbled by what we are doing, and look to be an active member of St. Augustine’s cultural tourism and economic development,” said Anderson, a 52-year-old Alachua County government employee who is also president and founder in 1995 of the African American Future Society.

Among those whose support he enlisted for the Fort Mose event is another futurist, St. Augustine resident and economist Hazel Henderson, a prolific author of books and articles on sustainable development, whose syndicated column appears in more than 200 publications around the world. She is also founder of Ethical Markets Media LLC which, through its Ethical Markets TV division, produced a television series shown around the world, “Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy,” also the name of a book she authored and published in 2007.

African Market organizers envision gondola tours through the Fort Mose estuaries so tourists can get closer to the original site of two Fort Mose locations, the first destroyed in 1740 by British invaders and the second abandoned in 1763, when the British took possession of Florida, forcing the free African residents to relocate to Cuba. The original fort sites are now on an island created after millionaire and railroad magnate Henry Flagler acquired the land and dredged it to fill marshlands for a hotel that is now Flagler College. Though there are no remaining visible structures of the forts, artifacts from the settlement were uncovered by a team of University of Florida scientists and archeologists who excavated the site in 1987. Many of those items are on display in the Fort Mose museum, providing a sense of the ingenuity and creativity of some 100 occupants when the population was at its largest, according to the official Fort Mose history.

They also envision Fort Mose becoming a permanent destination along the St. Augustine trolley tour routes. The trolleys will make Fort Mose a designated stop for the three-day African Market.

Anderson and Henderson first met more than 20 years ago in Washington, D.C., at a World Futures Society conference. They worked together on the Global Committee to Fund the United Nations, which produced a report in 1995: “The U.N.: Policy and Financing Alternatives,” which Henderson co-edited.

“Fort Mose is such an important part of U.S. history and it needs to be better known. It can be a wonderful addition to the cultural life of St. Augustine and Florida,” said Henderson, author of 10 books. A new book, “Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age,” is scheduled for release this month.

For nearly a year, Anderson had been working on permits for the Fort Mose event, lining up performers, programming and exhibitors, and securing support from state agencies and historic groups. He received an important commitment for handling the accounting and providing African dance and drumming performers from Ozilly Connection Inc., a not-for-profit 501c3 corporation that promotes the cultural heritage of African Ivory Coast nations. Anderson is also director of marketing for the Ozilly organization, whose mission includes “providing the very best in [African] cultural arts, charity, education and entertainment with community involvement” and improving understanding throughout the United States. Their motto: “Let art bring us together.”

Key to getting the African Market off the ground was the commitment of the outdoor advertising division of Clear Channel to provide an estimated $200,000 in free advertising on 13 digital billboards now seen across Duval County.

Anderson also lined up support with members of the St. Augustine African-American community, which, he said, has often felt left out of programs highlighting 
St. Augustine’s African roots. The landmark 
St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1875 and built in an Italian gothic architectural style in 1920 at its present location, 69 Washington St., committed to a gospel concert at 6 p.m. Oct. 12. The African-American church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. held a rally of 500 supporters on June 9, 1964, the day before his historic demonstration at a motel restaurant, according to a University of North Florida repository of historic places.

“A lot of the members of the St. Augustine African-American community didn’t even realize Fort Mose existed or were aware of its importance in history. The local community is now accepting their role in American history,” Anderson said. He is encouraged by many of the previously untold stories from residents now contacting him about their own civil rights struggles.

For an associated African Market dance party at Limelight Theatre in downtown St. Augustine, held 7 p.m. Oct. 13, Anderson gained commitments from the African-American owner of Quiet Storm vodka and the power drink company that makes Grind Hard Endurance to donate products for the $25 a ticket gala.

He also lined up a lecture on business opportunities in African nations, held 6 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Fort Mose museum, featuring Atlanta and Miami consulate representatives of Ivory Coast nations and The Congo. Anderson describes them as “evaluation specialists” and former government officials who can make sure an investor will get value for dollars invested, especially in West Africa.

The seed money Anderson needed to cover the costs of the market event — about $10,000 — was secured Aug. 1 in a fundraiser held at Henderson’s home. One of the largest contributors was Nena Vreeland, whose late husband, Harold, was an anthropologist and civil rights activist. Vreeland, an active senior citizen like Henderson, met the futurist and author at a gym shortly after moving to St. Augustine in 2002.

It was Vreeland’s $20,000 donation in the memory of her husband that was instrumental in the commission of the $70,000 Foot Soldiers memorial, a bronze sculpture placed in the St. Augustine Plaza in 2011 that commemorates marchers who, in the early 1960s, staged peaceful protests to advance civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the many who marched in the city; his arrest on June 11, 1964, is seen as a defining moment in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vreeland said she hopes bringing attention to Fort Mose and St. Augustine’s early history as a diverse community will help the healing process for many residents in the area who suffered brutal beatings and other abuses, including loss of jobs and threats to their lives for their civil rights activism in the early 1960s. Folio Weekly recounted those days of bloodshed and the bitterness in a January 2011 story. The irony doesn’t escape Vreeland and the other organizers of the African Market that the city tarnished by headlines of race-related brutalities in the 1960s was — for nearly its first 200 years — a city of great diversity, where free Africans mingled, worked and traded freely with native Indians and Spanish settlers.

Vreeland also said she wants their efforts to shed light on Spanish civil rights heritage. Many Americans are unaware the Spanish and French abolished slavery hundreds of years before the United States did, she said.

Her own appreciation for the value of diversity was established during her childhood years growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and later living in Brazil, a country that celebrates and embraces many cultures. She also mingled with many cultures in 24 nations during her years working for the Agency for International Development. Her involvement in Fort Mose is one of the ways to compensate for the sins of her own family’s forefathers, who were Mississippi slaveholders, she said.

Fort Mose’s Spanish heritage connection is important to another of the African Market supporters — Rosalinda Sanquiche, who is of Puerto Rican descent. She is executive director of Ethical Markets Media, which has an office adjacent to Henderson’s home. Since 2007, the company has tracked an estimated $5.1 trillion of private money invested in green technologies.

“The beauty of Fort Mose is it transcends nationalities. It is easy to forget that,” 
Sanquiche said.

For Carol Eklund, an accountant who also provided seed money for the African Market, it’s a way to show appreciation for those who lived through some of St. Augustine’s worst days of racism, especially families from the Lincolnville community where one of her coworkers grew up.

Anderson also has a dream that one day he will have time to develop economic indicators of black America, a sector whose future will be brighter as a result of a greater public understanding of the contributions of African descendents in America’s greatness, he said. ο

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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