African history to be honored during 450th celebration

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kimeko.mccoy@staugustine.com
While St. Augustine celebrates its 450th anniversary of continued settlement, one group asks that some of its earliest arrivals not be forgotten.

Along with the European, Spanish and Native Americans, some of the earliest documented people to arrive in St. Augustine are the Africans.

When Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived in St. Augustine, he brought Africans with him. Although St. Augustine may not have been the first Middle Passage, it does hold the oldest port.

To commemorate those of African-decent, national organization Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP) with local community organization The St. Augustine Middle Passage Committee will host a ceremony and unveil a historical post marker.

According to MPCPMP, about 40 to 60 people of African descent arrived with Menendez to build the military outpost that would go on to become St. Augustine.

MPCPMP Executive Director Ann Chinn said although this history is important, it is this history that is often downplayed in comparison to emphasis on Fort Mose and the civil rights movement.

Minorities were some of the builders of St. Augustine who contributed to history, she said.

“We have all benefitted presently regardless of what our belief system is,” she said.

Derek Hankerson of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission agreed and said often, history is cherry picked and the goal of the project is to “highlight the rich contributions of various minorities.”

Along with the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission, the St. Augustine Middle Passage Committee is working with the Black Catholic Commission of the Diocese of St. Augustine and MPCPMP to remember that history.

The event Saturday consists of two parts.

First is the commemorative ceremony to take place at the Castillo de San Marcos. The ceremony includes a Native American blessing, historical statement, prayers by diverse faith representatives as well as traditional libation led by spiritual adviser Malidoma Some.

The second half is a marker that will be unveiled Saturday at the Mission of Nombre de Dios.

Although the project’s approach is related to the Middle Passage, Chinn says that’s not the end of it.

Just by having that marker up, history will be extended.

“It’s not a pretty history. It’s not a pleasant history. It’s not a simple history,” Chinn said. However, she believes it should be out there.

Just like the Middle Passage was the beginning of Africans history in America, she hopes this is the beginning of history being told in its full extent.

St. Augustine historian Susan Parker said often times history was recorded by those who wrote it and “We have to rely on little reports of this and that.”

The elite and important were the ones who reported and have records in history. Even when it comes to women and children, Parker says information is scarce.

In addition to history being recorded by the prominent, she also says information about slaves is hard to come by because they often did not have surnames.

“Without surnames, it’s very hard to trace people and that’s especially true for the Africans,” she said.

According to Parker, there was slavery in St. Augustine from the day Menendez landed here up until the Emancipation Proclamation.

Slavery wasn’t heavily depended upon in St. Augustine because the city was originally established as a military post.

Up until Florida became a part of the United States, most blacks were considered property of the crown, Parker said.

Still, Africans contributed greatly to the building of St. Augustine.

Parker said, “They physically were involved in the building of it very often.”

While things were going on within higher levels of St. Augustine, Parker says it’s often forgotten about the jobs like cooks, cleaners, shop keepers and other laborers that kept St. Augustine running like a well-oiled machine.

The task of MPCPMP is to track down that information in order to help local communities where Middle Passage arrivals were made.

From there, a ceremony happens and a historical marker is placed to commemorate that history.

Chinn says that’s not the end but having that ceremony and marker will extend the history of some of St. Augustine’s builders.