While most Americans are familiar with the Underground Railroad that helped Southern slaves escape north before the Civil War, the first clandestine path to freedom ran for more than a century in the opposite direction.
Stories of that lesser-known “railroad” will be shared June 20-24 at the National Underground Railroad Conference in St. Augustine, Fla. The network of sympathizers gave refuge to those fleeing their masters, including many American Indians who helped slaves escape to what was then the Spanish territory of Florida. That lasted from shortly after the founding of Carolina Colony in 1670 to after the American Revolution.
They escaped not only to the South but to Mexico, the Caribbean and the American West.
And the “railroad” helps to explain at least in part why the lasting culture of slave descendants – known as Gullah in South Carolina and Geechee in Florida and Georgia – exists along the northeastern Florida coast.
“It’s a fascinating story and most people in America are stuck – they are either stuck on 1964 and the Civil Rights Act or they are stuck on the Civil War,” said Derek Hankerson, who is a Gullah descendant and a small business owner in St. Augustine, Fla. “We have been hankering to share these stories.”
Because there are few records, it’s unknown how many African slaves may have escaped along the railroad. But the dream of freedom in Florida did play a role in the 1739 Stono Rebellion outside Charleston, the largest slave revolt in British North America.
Slaves likely started fleeing toward Florida when South Carolina was established in 1670, said Jane Landers, a Vanderbilt University historian who has researched the subject extensively. The first mention of escaped slaves in Spanish records was in 1687 when eight slaves, including a nursing baby, showed up in St. Augustine.
Spain refused to return them and instead gave them religious sanctuary, and that policy was formalized in 1693. The only condition is that those seeking sanctuary convert to Catholicism.
“It was a total shift in the geopolitics of the Caribbean and after that anyone who leaves a Protestant area to request sanctuary gets it,” Landers said.
That promise of freedom played an important role in the Stono Rebellion, when a group of about 20 slaves raided a store, collecting guns and other weapons, in September 1739.
Mark Smith, a historian at the University of South Carolina, said the slave leaders were from what is now Angola in Africa. They were Catholic, because their homeland was at the time a Portuguese outpost. And they are thought to have been soldiers in their native land.
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