ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla (Reuters) - With the North Star as the guiding light for runaway slaves and Canada as the Promised Land, the underground railroad that U.S. schoolchildren read about in textbooks points to freedom in just one direction - the north.
But scholars gathering this week for the National Underground Railroad Conference will head south to St. Augustine, Florida, home to the former capital of Spanish Florida and a flight-to-freedom story rooted in the 17th century that is unknown to most Americans.
The historians’ focus will be on this different perspective of the underground railroad, said Diane Miller, program manager for the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
“We have conceptually understood the underground railroad as assistance provided to poor, uneducated, helpless, unknowledgeable African slaves who needed the benevolence of wealthy white people, Quakers or other abolitionists to help them by taking them place to place,” Miller said.
“The story going south is much more militant. You have Africans essentially becoming military people and setting up their own communities.”
Florida’s role in this pivotal moment in American history is one of many stories the state is hoping to tell as it prepares to celebrate its 500th anniversary next year.
After 1819, when Spain ceded Florida to the United States, the Spanish perspective was mostly relegated to the margins of history.
“The history books were written from an Anglo-centric point of view,” said Jane Landers, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has researched the slaves’ flight to Florida and written a children’s textbook about Florida history. “The 13 colonies really removed Florida from the story.”
Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the Florida peninsula in 1513, and St. Augustine was established by the Spanish in 1565, long before the British founding of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.
African slaves arrived in Virginia with British settlers. The Spanish had African-born slaves, too, though the Spanish system was less oppressive, allowing slaves to keep their families together, buy their freedom, make claims in court and even own property and become slave owners.
In 1693, the king of Spain guaranteed freedom to any slave from the English colonies who reached Spanish territory and converted to Catholicism. His decree was also self-serving, as freed slaves helped buoy Florida’s defenses against the British.
Knowledge of a southern path to freedom isn’t new, but the history has received ample research attention in only the past generation or so.
St. Augustine families, for instance, have long known about Fort Mose (pronounced Moh-ZAY), home to former slaves who fled the Carolinas, formed a militia and established a fort north of St. Augustine to help protect the city.
The community grew to include soldiers and their families, as well as craftsmen and artisans, and is considered the first legally sanctioned community of free blacks in what would become the United States. In 1740, the militia defended St. Augustine against the British in the Battle of Bloody Mose.
The fort’s original location was not uncovered until the 1980s, with help from archaeologists at the University of Florida. Though no structures remain, the site was named a National Historic Landmark in 1994 and is now a state park with a small museum.
Derek Hankerson, executive director of Freedom Road, which offers historic tours of northeast Florida, is helping to stage this week’s underground railroad conference. Hankerson grew up in Maryland but frequently visited relatives in St. Augustine, where he was flummoxed by the history he saw in Florida but never in his history books.
He said he would return home from visits questioning why 200 years of history were missing from what he learned in school. “I don’t see a thing about Florida. I don’t see a thing about blacks,” Hankerson said. “All I see is 1776. And you want me, at 10 years old, to believe this hogwash?”
The disparity led him on a lifelong journey to tell the fuller history of the United States, and he considers a visit to Florida from underground railroad scholars to be a victory.
The conference typically is held in spots such as Pennsylvania, where Quakers first protested slavery in the 17th century, and Indiana, home to Levi Coffin, the abolitionist who has been called the “president” of the underground railroad.
Experts will discuss the paths south and west out of slavery. Even after Florida became a U.S. territory, it remained a portal for runaways destined for Caribbean islands such as Cuba and the Bahamas.
Residents of Red Bays, a Bahamian community founded by runaway slaves who set sail from Florida, will be among the guests at the conference, which began on Wednesday and runs through Sunday.
“It’s important to bring to light and elevate that the underground railroad wasn’t simply people escaping to Canada and hiding in attics and tunnels and other hidey-holes,” Miller said. “It was a story of empowerment, of people seizing their opportunity to liberate themselves and to determine their own futures by escaping into frontier borderland areas.”
Editing By Colleen Jenkins and Xavier Briand