Citizen Series: Civil Rights in America


Citizen Series: Civil Rights in America

Derek Boyd Hankerson

St. Augustine Middle Passage Committee, Board Member
Freedom Road Productions, Writer and Producer
Gullah-Geechee, Direct Descendent
Yamassee/Muscokee Native American Tribe, Member

In commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, signed on July 2, 1964, by President Johnson remember that Spanish La Florida assisted Africans in earning freedom almost 300 years before this legislation.

The relationship between Africans and Spain is long. Spain co-existed with Christians and was ruled by Africans (Moors, Berbers, and Muslims) from 711 to 1492. The Moors built architectural and educational structures in Grenada and Andalusia. Their capitol, Cordoba, was considered the most civilized in Europe during the 10th century. They developed agricultural methods and irrigation systems that are still in use; and introduced cattle, horses, citrus fruits, figs, pomegranates, sugar cane, cotton, silk and rice to the Iberian Peninsula.

During the 15th century war between Christians and Muslims in Spain, the Christians prevailed; but, most of the slave laws enacted in Spain and its American colonies were based upon long established less stringent and not race-based Islamic or Muslim codes. Freedom could be earned by militia service, Christian conversion, and self-purchase; unlike the British chattel system.

Spanish and African explorers established missions, and militia posts in North America (California, Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and Carolina) before settling the Territory of St. Augustine in 1565. Black conquistadors traveled with Spaniards on explorations as experienced and outstanding mariners, navigators, soldiers, linguists, and cultural mediators between the Spanish and Native Americans.

In the continued effort to settle La Florida after Ponce de Leon’s 1513 arrival, Spanish explorers searched for areas as wealthy as Mexico and South America. An ill-fated attempt to settle Florida in 1527 resulted in a series of storms and ship wrecks stranding four survivors from this expedition near present-day Galveston, Texas. This included Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and the enslaved African, Estevanico (Estaban) the Moor, who wandered through southern Texas and northern Texas for more than eight years. Only 7 of the initial 8,000 survived in wilderness never previously seen by non-Natives. In 1536 the party finally arrived in Mexico City.

Estevanico, a Muslim born in Azzemour, Morocco, is heralded as “the first black man in North America.” Enslaved as a teenager and converted to Catholicism, he was purchased by the soldier Andres Dorantes, and served on an expedition with Pamfilo de Narvaez to colonize the New World. They left Spain in 1527 intending to explore the northern and western shores of the Gulf of Mexico, but they were blown off course and landed near Pensacola, Florida and traveled to Texas.

Estevanico, mastered Native American and sign languages, and local medicine practice. His skills as a scout and mediator between Natives and Spaniards eventually earned his freedom. In March of 1539 Estevanico and others departed San Miguel, Mexico, on a quest for the mythic “golden city”. Traveling northward, by May, he reached the Zuni settlement of Hawikuh near St. Johns, Arizona, where Native Americans suspected that he was a Spanish spy and killed him.

Other Black conquistadors also earned their freedom through military service. Juan Garriado who travelled with Ponce de Leon is credited with the first New World cultivation of wheat. Born in West Africa in 1480, Garrido converted to Christianity and renamed himself. Arriving in Santo Domingo about 1502, he participated in the invasion of Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1508. By 1519, he joined Cortes’ forces and invaded Mexico, participating in the siege of Tenochtitlan. He married and settled in Mexico City while continuing to serve the Spanish for more than 30 years in expeditions to western Mexico and the Pacific.

In 1688, enslaved Blacks were enabled to self-emancipate by escaping to Fort Mose, St. Augustine. This was a period when the Spanish, to thwart North American British colonial expansion, offered edicts and proclamations allowing Africans to acquire civil rights through Christian conversion and military service.

Fittingly, St. Augustine is named after San Augustine of Hippo, Algeria, North Africa. The Spanish arrived on his feast day, September 8, 1565. Spanish and Africans have a long and glorious history in the New World in establishing a powerful foothold which still exists today.