St. Augustine, Florida: Civil Rights Distilled

Since yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, my mind naturally turns to the civil rights movement. It seems that one of the best kept secrets about that movement were the events that took place in St. Augustine, Florida, just an hour south of where I now sit.

St. Augustine is known as our nation’s oldest city, but that’s not really accurate. It’s actually “the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the continental United States.” That’s a mouthful. No wonder they prefer to say oldest city.

I lived there for 5 years, and commuted there for work for an additional 4, so I can say with some authority that you can’t spit in that town without hitting something historic. As a matter of fact, that makes it a nightmare for new construction, because you have to have an archeologist consult before you can turn over the first spade of dirt.

People tend to make the mistake of thinking that the area’s historical significance ended when the Spaniards landed in 1565, or, more generously, when Henry Flagler built his iconic hotel (more about the Ponce de Leon below) in 1888. Au contraire. It was also a little tiny ground zero (amongst so many other ground zeroes throughout the country) for this nation’s struggle for civil rights.

Reading a history of St. Augustine from 1960 to 1965 is sort of like getting a distilled version of what was happening nationwide. If there was a civil atrocity happening anywhere in the country, it was bound to be happening in St. Augustine, too. That’s pretty darned remarkable when you consider that the population was only 14,734 according to the 1960 census.

For an excellent timeline of events, check out the St. Augustine Movement page, or the wonderful Accord Freedom Trail Page, but here are some of the eye popping details from those sites.

  • March 15, 1960: 6 students from Florida Memorial staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s. On the third day students were hit with clubs, fists, and chains. The door had been locked so that the police could not enter.
  • In the summer of 1961, Henry Thomas, returning from Howard University, attempted to break the segregation barrier at Woolworth’s lunch counter. Not only was he carried off to jail but they tried to have him committed to a mental institution.
  • April 6, 1962: A suit is filed to desegregate St. Johns County public schools.
  • June 16, 1963: A meeting was held in the city where Police chief Stuart read aloud from various right-wing journals denouncing Communist influence on “niggers.”
  • June 19, 1963: Robert B. Hayling, who had taken over the youth council of the NAACP was quoted as saying, “”We are not going to die like Medgar Evers.” “Passive resistance is no good in the face of violence.” “I and others of the NAACP have armed ourselves and will shoot first and ask questions later.”
  • July 1, 1963: A shotgun fight breaks out at the home of at Dr. Hayling between white and black youths. Buckshot was fired at Hayling’s house from a 1953 green Pontiac. Six youths were wounded. Two white kids were caught with guns. The black youths had also had a gun but no evidence was taken of them having fired it. On July 16 Judge Charles Mathis would dismiss all the cases.
  • July 17, 1963: A sit-in was held at a local pharmacy. There were 16 arrests made for trespass. On August 1 the adults were given fines of $100 or 45 days in county jail. They were convicted under the Florida Undesirable Guest Act. Four of the children were later sent to reform schools in Ocala and Marianna. These became known as the St. Augustine Four. The two girls were then taken to Forest Hills Schools for Girls in Lowell, Florida. They were put in isolation for 56 days. The next night in a demonstration at the county jail the 250 protesters were assaulted with night sticks.
  • August 31, 1963: Police use cattle prods and dogs to arrest 12 demonstrators at Woolworth’s, McCrory’s and Del Monico’s Restaurant.
  • September 18, 1963: A Ku Klux Klan rally is held 1 mile south of St. Augustine. Dr. Hayling, his driver, and two other men were brought to the meeting and beaten. Rev. Cheney made it to a phone booth to call for help. The KKK filed charges against Dr. Hayling and others for the incident. They supposedly gave the sheriff Dr. Hayling’s handgun. Judge Marvin Grier fined Hayling $100 with a conviction of assault.
  • Starting on September 27, 1963 the St. Augustine Record would publish the date, time and location of all KKK meetings. At this point the FBI began to think that there was Klan influence in the Sheriff’s office. The Record also later published the addresses of all children who integrated schools.
  • On October 22, 1963 Molotov Cocktails were thrown at the homes of the 3 families who had integrated St. Johns County Public Schools. One house was severely damaged.
  • Early 1964 witnessed firebombs, grenades, and shootings galore, and an influx of civil rights activists, mostly white college students from up north.
  • March 30, 1964 150 demonstrators marched through downtown to the Ponce de Leon Hotel dining room. City police arrive with dogs and cattle prods. 117 demonstrators were placed in the county jail.
  • That same day, Winston W. Davidson, a white minister from Connecticut, picketing against segregation in downtown St. Augustine, was surrounded by white citizens who bodily prevented him from picketing while burning him with cigarettes. He was arrested for “blocking a public sidewalk” and “interfering with the lawful orders of an officer.”
  • May 18, 1964: Dr. Martin Luther King visits St. Augustine. At the Baptist church he calls St. Augustine a “small Birmingham” and says that he will return.
  • June 9, 1964: More than 200 people marched downtown when violence broke out with whites attacking the white demonstrators. The Monson Motor Lodge  was the focus of more protests and arrests.
  • June 11, 1964 Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Robert England among others were arrested at the Monson Motor Lodge. (This was Dr. Kings’ 12 arrest in the movement.) They were given 10 day jail terms. Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy were later moved to Jacksonville jail for safety.
  • June 18, 1964: An incident occurred when the manager of the Monson Motor Lodge placed an unknown substance (some claimed it was acid) in the swimming pool water when an attempt was made to integrate the pool. An off-duty policeman jumped into pool to beat the swimmers.
  • That same day, a Grand Jury called on King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to leave St. Augustine for one month to diffuse the situation. The jury claimed that King and the SCLC had disrupted “racial harmony” in the city. King replied that the Grand Jury’s request was “an immoral one.” “The Negro community (was asked) to give all, and the white community to give nothing… St. Augustine never had peaceful race relations.”
  • June 25, 1964 saw serious rioting at St. Augustine Beach as a group of whites attacked 75 people during a “wade-in” to desegregate what was in theory but not in practice a legally desegregated beach. Richard Cubbage, 19 years old, a white protester against integration had his head cracked open by police. That evening 500 whites crashed through police lines and attacked demonstrators. Nineteen people were hospitalized.

This was not the end of the movement, and it can easily be argued that racial tension exists in St. Augustine to this day.

Sadly, many of the St. Augustine landmarks of the movement are now gone. All that is left of the Woolworth’s, where I used to be able to go to and eat at the very counter which hosted all those sit-ins, are the door handles. Monson’s Motor Lodge, where I used to sneak in and swim where acid once graced the water, is now gone. The Ponce de Leon Hotel is now, ironically, part of Flagler College, where I obtained my bachelor’s degree. I ate many an inedible meal in that dining hall that once bore witness to cattle prods.

Even more ironic is the fact that the slave market from the late 1500’s, located just across from the Woolworth’s, still stands, although it has been rebuilt a few times since then.

But for all its triumphs, tragedies and ironies, St. Augustine played an important part in the civil rights movement. That can be considered a point of pride or a point of shame, depending on which side of the issue you stand.

Martin Luther King said this about St. Augustine in 1964:

“Even if we do not get all we should, movements such as this tend more and more to give a Negro the sense of self-respect that he needs. It tends to generate courage in Negroes outside the movement. It brings intangible results outside the community where it is carried out. There is a hardening of attitudes in situations like this. But other cities see and say: “We don’t want to be another Albany or Birmingham, and they make changes. Some communities, like this one, had to bear the cross.”

Woolworths_1024x683

Stop by and touch the handle. With reverence.

5 thoughts on “St. Augustine, Florida: Civil Rights Distilled

  1. Carole

    Believe it or not, I was oblivious to what was happening. In the late 50’s there were bombings in the Apartments where we lived, because “them coloreds” were trying to move in. But the early 60’s in North Miami and Hialeah I can’t remember much except by 65′ I had three babies at the grand old age of 22. i do remember Kent State and news shows of fire hoses and cattle prods being used and not understanding why “they” would be doing that to humans. I feel shamed to this day that I was so involved in my own little world that I had not opinion or concern of what was happening elsewhere. I have spent the last 50 years trying to look at the Big Picture and honor everyone with respect and dignity.

    1. Well, then you arrived exactly where you needed to be. And I’m quite sure that you were not the only one in the dark. This was not the age of social media, and therefore it took a little more effort to stay in the loop. And you definitely had your hands full.

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