The Checkered Past of Public Libraries in America

Well, my goodness. I just read a fascinating and highly recommended article entitled A History of the American Public Library by Ariel Aberg-Riger, and I learned a great deal about libraries that I didn’t know previously. Some of the facts below are profoundly disappointing, but in an odd way, they give me hope. Because if our libraries can emerge from their dark past to become the amazing institutions that they are now, then perhaps there is hope for our government as well. Fingers crossed.

I’ve always known that one of the very first libraries in America was started by Ben Franklin in 1731. What I didn’t know was that this could hardly have been considered a public library. You had to pay an annual fee, so it was basically a collection for Franklin and his rich white male cronies. Women and African Americans weren’t welcome, and the working poor couldn’t afford a membership. This makes me think rather less of Ben. As enlightened as we’d like to think he is, without a doubt he was a product of his times.

In the wake of Ben’s library, I was pleased to see that women’s clubs cropped up as well, until I discovered that these, too, were exclusively for rich white women. They claimed to believe in the importance of having access to books, but they kept out Jewish, black, and working-class women.

So other libraries were established, each one every bit as exclusionary as the first. There were libraries for people of color, for example, and Jewish libraries. But women did seem to advocate public access to libraries long before men did. Funding was an issue, though, until Andrew Carnegie took up the torch and donated 60 million toward library construction.

It wasn’t really until the turn of the last century that libraries became truly public, but they still had to contend with segregation to a shocking degree. Many civil rights sit ins took place in libraries for that very reason.

Now libraries are a source of reliable information, internet access, education, and community gathering places, and all these services are basically free to all. That’s why I love libraries so much. Knowledge is power.

So naturally, Trump is trying to cut federal funding for libraries. Because he’s a man of the people. Sigh. Please support your public libraries, folks. They’re the last truly democratic institutions that we have, and it was a long and winding road to get them to that place.

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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.”

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Stop by and touch the handle. With reverence.

Unwanted Legacies: The Shame that is Nathan B. Forrest High School

Here in Jacksonville, Florida, we have a high school named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a confederate general who led the massacre of African American union soldiers at Fort Pillow and was one of the earliest members of the Ku Klux Klan.

That school was named based on the recommendations of the Daughters of the Confederacy, as a reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that (gasp) did away with segregation.

At the present time, the student body of that school is predominantly African American. Go Rebels! Rah rah rah!

Only one other school in the entire country is still named after this man, and it’s in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. At least that’s in the state of his birth. He never set foot in Jacksonville. Any other schools that bore his name had the good sense to change that years ago.

This is a blight on the city of Jacksonville. Not that we haven’t tried to change this in the past. The last time was in 2008. Unfortunately the school board’s vote went along color lines and was 5-2 to retain it. Too bad there were only two African American school board members that year. Ignorance abounds.

It’s time to make a change. I strongly suspect there are no Adolf Hitler High Schools anywhere on earth. Why would we continue to honor a racist thug?

But here’s where it gets sticky. Where do you draw the line? We have four other schools named after Confederate generals, and one named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

And Jacksonville was named after Andrew Jackson, a slave holder and the president responsible for forcibly relocating untold numbers of American Indians.

History isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always something to be proud of. And it shouldn’t be forgotten, but quite often it shouldn’t be honored, either.

Granted, changing the name of Jacksonville would be unbelievably expensive. But changing the name of a high school where students are supposed to express school spirit and wear t-shirts and cheer for their teams…a school named after a man who helped found the most racist organization on earth…a man who had no connection whatsoever to our local history (thank heavens)…This, to me, is a no-brainer.

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Update December 17, 2013: It gives me great joy to announce that the Duval County School Board finally saw fit to do the right thing last night, and voted unanimously to change the name of Forrest High School.  The new name has yet to be chosen, but it will take effect in July. That means that this year’s seniors will be the very last to graduate from Forrest High School. Now Jacksonville will be able to hold its head up a little higher.

Update January 7, 2014: The school has been named Westside High School, and the students chose to change their mascot from the Rebels to the Wolverines. Yay, team!

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(To add insult to injury, this is the Forrest High School Mascot)

The Cigarette Girl and the Waving Man

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Connecticut, so when we moved to a small Southern town in the 1970’s, it was quite a culture shock. The segregation was more subtle than it had been in the 50’s, of course. We all went to school together. But we certainly didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same churches or socialize in any significant way. Every rural town has its characters, but in Apopka, Florida where I grew up, ours were even more tragic or heroic or, I suppose, both, due in part to this unofficial segregation.

Every day, rain or shine, you were bound to come across the cigarette girl. She looked like she was in her early 20’s. She was always in a ragged house dress and barefoot, summer or winter. I never saw her move, but she must have, because she popped up on various street corners throughout town, and she’d just stand there in a catatonic state, looking like an impoverished, unkempt and extremely neglected statue. The saddest thing about her was that she always had cigarette butts stuck haphazardly in amongst her corn rows. It was disgusting. It was tragic. And the fact that her family and the powers that be in the city did absolutely nothing for her, and I felt completely unequipped to do anything myself, made me feel like the world was not a safe place, and that you couldn’t count on adults at all. Whenever I saw her I was mesmerized by her, but was too afraid to approach her. I tried to find out her story, and I did hear a rumor that she had been gang raped when she was 5 years old, and hadn’t been “right in the head” since. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I do know that the entire town seemed to be content to let her roam the streets like a stray dog, and there’s something very, very wrong with a community that’s willing to do that.

On the way home from school or the library or the drug store, we would have to drive through the poorer neighborhoods because we were extremely poor ourselves, and therefore lived on the outskirts of town. Every single day unless it was raining, we would pass this broken down shack next to the railroad tracks, and sitting out front on one of those ratty old webbed lawn chairs would be a very old, weathered man. Whenever a car would drive by, he’d wave and smile, so I called him the waving man. I knew nothing more about him. He never had anything with him. No newspaper, no radio, no book, not even a glass of sweet tea. But he never looked bored. He just sat there and waved his wrinkled old hand as if that was his calling, as if he had always been there and always would be.

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(Image credit: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/lreyns/interesting/ )

At the time it never occurred to me to stop and talk to him. I think I’d have been too scared because of the neighborhood or too intimidated to cross our great cultural divide. But I was always curious about him, and would have loved to know his story. He looked happy, and yet I’m amazed that shack he lived in didn’t fall down every time a train went by and rattled its already shaky foundation. I never saw him with friends or relatives, but he looked much too old to be taking care of himself. Still, he was there, day after day, smiling, waving, enduring and apparently timeless, living his life. And I would always wave back. I hope he was content and cared for by his neighbors during his last days, but I’ll never know, now.

The last time I went back to Apopka it had changed so much that I could barely find my way around. The drug store was a mere shadow of its former self. The library, once housed in a cozy corner of a strip mall, had moved on to bigger, more modern accommodations. Everything seemed bigger and more modern, in fact. My town had joined the 21st century at last. But I will always remember it as a small town that looked the other way, and maybe that was good, and maybe it wasn’t. That was just the way Apopka was.