In the years before the Civil War, American slaves fleeing bondage in the South didn’t always head northward. Sometimes, the closest path to freedom led them deeper into the South and into Spanish Florida.
Today, visitors to Florida can explore some of the notable stops on that journey, from a militia post where freed slaves helped defend St. Augustine against the advancing British, to points in South Florida where groups of runaway slaves escaped American soil for freedom on Caribbean islands.
This southern leg of the Underground Railroad isn’t commonly explored in history books, which commonly chart former slaves’ flight to freedom with help from benevolent northerners on their way. The Florida story is different, say historians, because it focuses on how former slaves won freedom for themselves.
“It’s important to bring to light and elevate that the Underground Railroad wasn’t just simply people escaping to Canada,” says Carol Miller, national program manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a National Park Service program. “People also sought to determine their own futures by escaping into frontier borderland areas, and Florida during that time was such a place.”
The Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service brought the National Underground Railroad Conference to the South for the first time in 2012. Organizers chose St. Augustine, rich in history of the New World as well as for black Americans, as the site.
For Derek Hankerson, who helped organize the event as executive director of St. Augustine’s Freedom Road, the conference provided an opportunity to reshape the traditional underground railroad story.
“I want Americans to realize what it is to pursue happiness, what it is to seek out your life and liberty,” Hankerson says.
Several Florida locales help tell this story for visitors. Together, they help make up Florida’s Black Heritage Trail and the National Park Service’s National Underground Network to Freedom:
The allure of freedom in Florida sprang from the pledge of the king of Spain, who decreed in 1693 that African-born slaves who reached St. Augustine and converted to Catholicism would be granted freedom.
That promise led to the founding of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, commonly known as Fort Mose, the first legally sanctioned community of free blacks in what would become the United States. The community was established in 1739, 120 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
The militia outpost was manned by freed blacks who helped protect St. Augustine from British invaders. The people who lived there developed a community of soldiers, craftsmen and artisans, and the settlement saw bloodshed in 1740, when it protected the fort against the advancing British in a skirmish known as the “Battle of Bloody Mose.”
Today, nothing remains of the original fort or wooden structures that made up the Fort Mose community. But the 23-acre Fort Mose Historic State Park includes a visitor center and museum that tells the settlement’s story, plus a boardwalk visitors can use to explore the grounds.
Eighty years after Fort Mose was founded, Florida became a U.S. territory, popular among runaway slaves not because of its favorable laws but because of its access to other ports of freedom.
Today, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne is a beachgoers’ paradise, where visitors sunbathe and swim on the one-mile stretch of oceanfront sand. But in the 1820s, it was an important rendezvous point for people seeking freedom.
Even the famous lighthouse on the beach — the oldest remaining structure in Miami-Dade County, it was built in 1825 and rebuilt in 1846 — isn’t as old as the earliest stories of Seminole Indians and runaway slaves who set sail from here to reach the Bahamas.
Even today, the community of Red Bays in the Bahamas, founded by Florida runaways, still exists. And though the lighthouse remains one of the biggest tourist attractions on Key Biscayne, the building and usage of it “kind of ended that as a place where people could go and surreptitiously escape,” says Miller, of the National Park Service.
The Fort Jefferson National Monument, part of picturesque Dry Tortugas National Park in Key West, honors one of the largest coastal forts ever constructed — and the site of a failed slave escape.
The fort was built largely with the help of enslaved blacks. And in 1847, seven slaves plotted an intricate escape that involved stealing all four of the fort’s seafaring vessels, including a tiny boat owned by the lighthouse keeper. The men were captured two days later, 120 miles from the Dry Tortugas, likely on their way to the Bahamas.
Visitors from around the world seek out this national park for its ample snorkeling, fishing, birdwatching and beaches, and visitors can explore the historic 19th century fort.
Two other Florida sites on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom include the Southeast Archaeological Center in Tallahassee and the Family Heritage House Museum in Bradenton.
At the Family Heritage House Museum, visitors can explore African-American history and achievements, including a research center devoted to the underground railroad. The Southeast Archaeological Center contains extensive collections of artifacts and research relevant to the underground railroad.