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Fort Mose: And the Story of the Man Who Built the First Free Black Settlement in Colonial America Hardcover – September 1, 2010
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From School Library Journal
Gr 4-8–In the 18th century, some Africans escaped slavery in England's southern colonies to find freedom in the Spanish colony of Florida. As a leader of St. Augustine's community, African-born Francisco Menendez helped establish Fort Mose, the first free black community on North American soil. Turner does an excellent job of explaining how the residents of Fort Mose probably blended African, English, and Spanish traditions to create a unique–and uniquely American–culture. Her careful choice of words and images demonstrates that drawing such conclusions about early American history can be difficult when written records are hard to find and sketchy at best. For instance, a 16th-century sketch of a Florida Timucua Indian village is juxtaposed with a 20th-century photo of a West African village. Captions explain that Menendez “would have been familiar” with the design of these African buildings. The text also elaborates on how Fort Mose buildings probably combined Native American and African architectural elements. An afterword explains that Fort Mose no longer stands, but its site is included in Florida's state-park system. Turner describes her research in an author's note. This is a useful addition to libraries with strong African-American history collections, and for teachers and librarians looking for unique stories about colonial America.Mary Landrum, Lexington Public Library, KY
© Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
*Starred Review* This well-researched book introduces Francisco Menendez, a strong, remarkable African man whose struggle for freedom in America predated the Civil War and even the American Revolution. Born in West Africa around 1700, Mendez was captured and sold as a slave in South Carolina. After fighting with the Indians of the southeast in the Yamasee War, in which they rose up against the English colonists, he went to St. Augustine seeking sanctuary and freedom but was enslaved by the Spanish. Eventually, he was granted unconditional freedom and named the leader of Fort Mose, Florida, the first “officially sanctioned free black town in what is now the United States.” Though there are challenges in writing Menendez’s life story when so little is known, particularly about his early life, Turner’s graceful account clearly distinguishes between fact and supposition. The paragraphs discussing the transport of slaves and their treatment at the “pest” house on Sullivan’s Island are particularly vivid and informative. Back matter includes a glossary, source notes for quotes, and an extensive source bibliography. Brightening every page of this large, handsome book are deep-green borders of tropical leaves. Illustrations include period paintings, drawings, maps, and documents. A significant addition to African American history collections for young people. Grades 7-10. --Carolyn Phelan
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This book, as its title suggests, is the story of the first black settlement in Colonial America and the man who built and ran it, Francisco Menendez. Not much is known for sure about Menendez's early life, except for the fact that he was born in the Senegambia region of Africa in the Mandingo tribe. The book traces the likely experiences that Menendez would have had as a child in Africa and the likely path he took to slavery in the Carolina colony (later South Carolina).
The Senegambia region of Africa was known as the "Rice Coast" because rice was one of the main crops grown there. Slaves from this region were particularly attractive to slaveowners in the Carolina colony because they had discovered that rice was one of the few profitable crops that could be grown there. Mandingo slaves were particularly valuable for their experience with rice growing. This is rather different than the typical image of how slaves were purchased that is presented in history books. History books typically focus on slaveowners examining the teeth and muscles of glistening Africans stripped to the waist, as if they were purchasing a pack mule or other labor animal. I have no doubt that was part of the process, but what this book makes clear is that slaves were sought for their knowledge, skills and experiences, not just their brute labor capability. This shows that even the slaveholders recognized that blacks were not the inferior, ignorant beasts of burden they often made them out to be.
While Menendez was enslaved by the English colonists in Carolina, the Spaniards, who controlled most of Florida, advertised that any slave that made it to St. Augustine would be free. This prompted many slaves to attempt to escape and/or rebel against their owners in order to make it to St. Augustine. Although it is not known exactly when, Menendez arrived in St. Augustine with the help of the Yamasee Indians, to whom he had escaped from slavery in Carolina. Unfortunately, upon arrival, Menendez was taken into servitude, despite the promise of freedom. Fortunately, his master was an honorable man, and Menendez had such respect for him that he took his name as his own.
The area north of St. Augustine was an important battle ground between the English and the Spanish. The Spanish governor sent Menendez and other Africans, Indians and Spanish people to set up a fort in this area - Fort Mose (pronounced "Mo-SAY"). Menendez led the fortress settlement and defended the Spanish against the English with skill and loyalty and repeatedly petitioned to earn his freedom because of his service. Unfortunately, he was recaptured into slavery while attempting to gain a personal audience with King Phillip. Fortunately, although we don't know how, he was able to escape again and retook his position as leader of Fort Mose.
Eventually, however, as a result of the Anglo-French war, Florida became British territory and Menendez and his fellow Africans and Indians would have again been subject to English colonial laws and slavery. Most of the Spanish, Africans and Indians of St. Augustine fled instead to Cuba where they led a scattered life of privation. Menendez eventually died in Cuba at the ripe old age of 70 - rather astounding for colonial times.
This book is important for filling in gaps in knowledge regarding the roles of Africans and Indians in the settlement of the American colonies and for giving a name and face to the hitherto unknown heroes who built America. The book is also richly illustrated, showing housing, ships and other artifacts similar to those of Menendez's time. Unfortunately, so little is currently known of Menendez's life that we don't get much of a sense of him as a person. I hope that future historical, archeological and anthropological research will reveal more of Menendez's personality and character. In the meantime, this book is a valuable addition to any child's library, particularly black and other minority children who don't always see their faces reflected in the history that's presented at school.
While we don't know exactly where or when Menendez was born, or what his birth name would have been is West Africa, Turner describes the naming rituals his parents probably would have used. We learn about the rice plantations in the Carolinas in the early 18th century and how Menendez would have used previously acquired skills to add to the local economy. The relationship between the Spanish, British, Native Americans and Africans is essential to understand how Fort Mose developed and it is developed in a manner that is clear and concise. By combining what is known about Fort Mose with what is know about Menendez, readers are able to understand the importance of Fort Mose in the history of the United States and the role Black people played in making the Fort important. This story helps raise our perception of Africans brought to America from being perceived as slaves to being seen as people.
Images are used to document the details of the book. There are portraits, copies of journals and photos of the land that Fort Mose is believed to have once occupied. My only small criticism of the book is that the artists who created these images and the museums that store them are not identified.
Fort Mose would probably be suitable for middle through secondary students. I could easily see juniors and seniors in high school using the information in this book to become acquainted with the topic and to identify resources for further study. The author treats the reader as if they value good research and enjoy learning history