Black Catholic History Month: Preserving St Augustine’s Documents

Okay, the headline takes some liberty: we’re talking about saving Catholic records in  St Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest city. But before we get to that, let’s understand why we’re covering this during Black Catholic History Month (not that it wouldn’t always be of interest to those interested in Catholic history generally).

In a number of communities around America you will find parishes named for  St. Monica, frequently in African-American neighborhoods.  She was an Algerian Christian of Berber descent.  Although not of the same racial group as most African-Americans, was embraced by early African-American Catholics as someone of virtue from Africa.  St. Augustine’s father was a man named Patricius, from whom Augustine probably got most of the vices of which he famously asked God to relieve him, “but not quite yet.”  So Augustine was half North African.  As a result St. Augustine himself holds a place of  special reverence for some African-Americans.

The city we now know as St. Augustine Florida, was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers. This was decades before any European settlement in North America.  And  the history of the city from then until now is inextricably bound up with the history of African-Americans. The earliest record of a black child being born in America is from St. Augustine in 1606, more than a decade before blacks first arrived in Virginia in 1619.  It is, of course, a baptismal record.


The first Catholic Mass in North America was celebrated at St Augustine, Florida in 1565 (Image courtesy of Roman Catholic Diocese of St Augustine)

You may recall from your high school history that the British and the Spanish did not get along very well in the days of the 16th century through the 18th century. The British tried a number of times to dispossess the Spanish of Florida, but were mostly unsuccessful. The Spanish provided sanctuary for slaves who escaped from the British colonies in North America.  The first such area of sanctuary was in St. Augustine in 1738, known as Fort Mose.


Right: Artist’s rendition of Fort Mose, haven for freed slaves near St Augustine, Florida. The military commander of Fort Mose, officially known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, Captain Francisco Menendez, was an escaped slave from South Carolina. [Image courtesy, US Dept of the Interior, National Park Service]

Black Catholics were not  novel around St Augustine.

Within [the Cathedral-Basilica of St Augustine] , a certain number of marriages took place between African-Americans and Spanish Catholics. More common were baptisms of Catholic children born of Catholics and African-Americans, with various religious rights being passed to slave children. One example is found in Zephaniah Kingsley, a fabulously wealthy plantation owner in what is now Duval County, who took Anna Magigene Jai, the daughter of an African chieftain, as his acknowledged wife. While the couple was married outside the church, Anna remained a devout Catholic and throughout the early 1800’s made sure that priests from the Cathedral in St. Augustine traveled to the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island to baptize each of their four children.

Historical Overview of the Roman Catholic Dicoese of St Augustine, Florida

Then came the so-called French and Indian war (or the Seven Years’ War as it was known in Europe).  When that war was over in 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave Florida to the British.  When war broke out between Britain and its colonies in the 1770s, St. Augustine became a Loyalist community. however, the Spanish crown sided with the colonists.  As a result, when the war was over, the new United States ceded any claim to Florida to the Spanish.

As for slavery, under Spanish rule after the Revolutionary war, Florida continued to welcomed runaway slaves as long as they converted to Catholicism and swore allegiance to the king of Spain. A number of slaves escaped to Florida from Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

But Spanish rule in Florida came to an end in 1821. Spain being then preoccupied with Napoleon found it prudent to give Florida to the United States.  During the American Civil War, Florida became a Confederate state. The one US soldier at the fort in St. Augustine was dispossessed by Florida state troops in January 1861.  However a force of Union troops retook St. Augustine in March of 1862.

Despite its status as a haven for escaped slaves in an earlier era, Florida soon adopted Jim Crow laws.  When the civil rights movement began, it played out in St. Augustine just about the way it did across the most of the South: protests by supporters of civil rights resulted in them being jailed by the hundreds and violent backlashes by groups like the KKK.

Today, however, St. Augustine is a peaceful historic village of about 12,000 people.   Its historic district includes such as national historic landmarks as Fort Mose, where that original haven for escaped slaves was established.

St. Augustine is proud of its heritage and history and now efforts are underway to preserve historic documents of the Church.

The Associated Press reported last week:

Sister Catherine Bitzer slowly opened a file box and carefully removed a brittle page, scarred by years of neglectful storage, mold and insects. At 415 years old, the marriage record written by a Roman Catholic priest is still readable and is one of the oldest known European records from the United States.

It’s among thousands of artifacts detailing the lives of the Spanish soldiers, missionaries and merchants who settled St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest permanent city. The church kept the only official records, a role that today is filled by government.

Read the rest of the story here at Google News.  To learn more about the city of St Augustine, check out one of Denise Olson’s great blogs, Family Matters, Moultrie Creek, or Graveyard Rabbitt of Moultrie Creek


One Response to “Black Catholic History Month: Preserving St Augustine’s Documents”

  • Denise Olson says:

    Great article! You can find a painting of the battle for Fort Mose on the Heritage page at the Florida National Guard’s web site and thanks to both the National Park Service, Florida’s State Park system and the Fort Mose Historical Society, Fort Mose is getting the attention and support it deserves.

    Thank you, too, for the very kind words.

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