What Catholic Church records tell us about America’s earliest black history

For most Americans, black history begins in 1619, when a Dutch ship brought some “20 and odd Negroes” as slaves to the English colony of Jamestown, in Virginia.

Many are not aware that black history in the United States goes back at least a century before this date.

In 1513, a free and literate African named Juan Garrido explored Florida with a Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de León. In the following decades, Africans, free and enslaved, were part of all the Spanish expeditions exploring the southern region of the United States. In 1565, Africans helped establish the first permanent European settlement in what is St. Augustine, Florida today.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive which I direct as a historian at Vanderbilt University includes Catholic Church records from St. Augustine.

These records date back to the 1590s and document some of the earliest black history of the U.S.

Catholicism and runaway slaves

These Catholic Church records show that everyone was treated in theory as “brothers in Christ” and that the Church helped incorporate Africans into Spanish communities. It also helped free some slaves.

St. Augustine’s Catholic records show that after English Protestants established a settlement in what became South Carolina in 1670, their African slaves began to flee southward seeking admission into the “True Faith” – which to the Spaniards meant Catholicism.

Florida’s Spanish governors sheltered them and saw to their religious conversion, seeking royal approval of their actions. After some deliberation, in 1693, Spain’s monarch ruled that all slaves fleeing Protestant lands to seek conversion in Catholic colonies should be freed. Word of the fugitives’ reception in St. Augustine spread quickly through South Carolina, generating bitter complaints among planters and encouraging additional southward escapes by their slaves.

By 1738, the number of slave runaways reaching Florida had grown to approximately 100. Based on Spain’s religious sanctuary policy, Florida’s Spanish governor freed the runaways and established them in a town of their own called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, two miles north of the Spanish city of St. Augustine. Mose was modeled after the nearby Indian towns where Catholic priests were also assigned to teach the “new Christians” the principles of the Catholic faith.

A museum presents the stories of Mose’s people. Jane Landers, CC BY
The site is now a National Historic Landmark, listed on the National Park Service Underground Railroad Route, and has been nominated for a UNESCO Slave Route designation. A museum based on both archaeological and historical studies presents the stories of the Mose townspeople.

African heritage in church records

The records in St. Augustine’s church reveal the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nature of Mose.

Its leader and captain of the town’s militia, Francisco Menéndez, was of Mandinga ethnicity and came from the Senegambian region of West Africa in modern-day Senegal. He probably spoke a variety of languages but learned Spanish as well and wrote petitions to the Spanish King. Others at Mose came from the Congo nation, that is today in West Central Africa.

Pedro Graxales, the Congo man who was sergeant of the Mose militia was married to a slave woman of the Carabalí nation, from what is today southeastern Nigeria. The couple chose godparents from Congo for their children.