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    Musings: Authors do it Write!

    Published 2-1-2021

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    When it comes to Black History Month, no place figures more in Black history than Saint Augustine.   Walk through almost any section of the city and you will find reminders of its rich Black history. In 1606, 13 years before the first enslaved Africans were brought to the English colony of Jamestown in 1619 an event happened that was little noted but it was of great historical importance in Black history.  The Cathedral Archives in St. Augustine recorded the birth of the first African American child in the continental United States. This free child was the first spark in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.

     fort mose

    In the colony of St. Augustine, about 12% of the population was African and of those about one fifth were free persons and respected citizens of the colony. Is is any wonder that escaping slaves from the Carolinas caught the Underground Railroad of the era and headed not North but South to the welcoming Spanish colony of San Augustine. Here, in 1738, the first free community of ex-slaves was established as the northernmost defense line of the colony and called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose or Fort Mose. Today, it's Fort Mose State Park.


    Thomas Jackson, past-president of the Fort Mose Historical Society, reenacts a militia soldier. He explained the history behind his character, "The Spanish said the runaways could live free in Spanish Florida if they would become Catholic and the able-bodied men joined the militia. That's why Fort Mose was established, to defend St. Augustine."


    The Battle of Blood Mose proved the value of these African American militia to the colony. Since that time, St. Augustine has many s. One Black citizen offered this opportunity was Jorge Biassou, one of the original leaders of the Haitian slave uprising of 1791. He became a Spanish general and was sent to St. Augustine in 1796. He was the second-highest paid official in St. Augustine and remained there until his death in 1801. You can visit his grave in Tolomato Cemetery on Cordova Street.


    Credit Lincolnville Museum

    After emancipation, a section of town just outside the city walls became a haven for the formerly enslaved people. It was called “Africa” or “Little Africa” then. Today, it’s known as Lincolnville. The community thrived and in 1925 Excelsior School was built to serve as the first public black high school in Saint Johns County.

    Credit Lincolnville Museum

     After desegregation, the school housed government until the 1980. In 2005 it opened as Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center, to showcase Saint Augustine’s African American heritage.  the museum was renamed The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center in 2012The museum has exhibits ranging from earliest days in Saint Augustine to Martin Luther King,  time in the city. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and many of the prominent national Civil Rights leaders left St Augustine on July 1, 1964. The fight here was not over completely but it was well on its way. President Johnson spoke in Washington as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964 with Rev. King at his side. Speaking of the racial violence and injustice, the president said, "…it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it…"


    It’s not all deadly serious here. One fun exhibit at the museum is a piano from a local jazz club (The Odd Fellows Hall) where Ray Charles, a Saint Augustine resident as a young boy, as well as visiting greats like Fats Domino played.

    Moving on to more modern history, in 1937, when a young blind boy enrolled at The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.  Then the campus was segregated.There was a complex of buildings for the 300 white students (the North Campus) and a single building for the 90 African Americans. The school was was finally integrated in 1967 and today there is a building on the campus named for that boy, The Ray Charles Center that houses male high school seniors.


    That’s why at just about every festival in Saint Augustine, you’ll find a Ray Charles impersonator. I even included a character my newest books, The Realtor Series, that does just that.


    It’s interesting how history repeats itself. It was one of Biassou's descendants, Henry Twine, who as president of the local NAACP chapter almost a century and a half later, fought alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in another battle. This one designed to bring equality to the African American citizens of St Augustine. Twine later became the first black vice-mayor of St. Augustine and served as city commissioner from 1983 to 1992. It is largely through his efforts that Fort Mose became a state park.


    You’ll find a state marker in front of his and his wife, Katherine Twine's, home at 163 Twine Street and Twine Park, located at the intersection of Riberia St and Lovett St.


    The ACCORD Civil Rights Museum was once the home of Dr. Robert B. Hayling, the dentist credited with bringing Dr. Martin Luther King to St. Augustine and forever removing the "White Only" signs. The museum is small but packed with unique memorabilia and priceless signed documents of prominent Civil Rights leaders including Dr. King and Dr. Hayling.  Some of the artifacts are unique to St. Augustine like the "Monson Motel" sign where so much of the activities took place. It was at this motel that Dr. King was arrested and put in the St. Augustine Jail.


    He wrote a "Letter from the St. Augustine Jail" to a friend in New Jersey, Rabbi Israel Dresner, requesting support in the movement. The rabbi and his friends responded leading to the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history on June 18, 1964. This also occurred at the Monson Motel as did the infamous incident where the motel owner poured muriatic acid on a group of protesters peacefully swimming in the pool. This was where they arrested Mrs. Mary Parkman Peabody, the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts for her efforts in the Civil Rights struggle. An act that focused the attention of the nation even more on the activities occurring in St. Augustine.  Some are universal to the South, like the "Kelly's Colored Tourist Home" sign.

     Another thing the museum brings to life is Dr. Hayling, the person, what his life was like outside of his Civil Rights activities. His dentist office, lab and waiting room are preserved here. 


    Dr. Hayling paid a high price for his activities. There were bomb threats; his home was shot into barely missing his pregnant wife and killing his dog. When not of this stopped him, a group of racist, abducted him along with several men involved in the struggle, broke his ribs, knocked out some of his teeth  and smashed his right hand. Still he did not give up. When asked by a reporter what he was planning, Dr. Hayling responded, "I and the others have armed. We will shoot first and answer questions later. We are not going to die like Medgar Evers."


    Perhaps my favorite exhibit in the ACCORD Museum is Katherine Twine's Freedom Hat. I love the story of that hat. It shows the determination of people like the Twines and Dr. Hayling. Kat Twine's broad-brimmed hat with the inscription, "Freedom Now" became a famous symbol of the movement.   She wore it during the Civil Rights Demonstrations, because due to the large numbers of people being arrested, they were often forced to stand long periods of time in an unsheltered outdoor stockade. The hat's broad brim gave her a bit of relief from the blazing Florida sun.


    Evidence that we have moved past those dark days is seen in the marker and the Foot Soldiers' Monument in the plaza housing the former Slave Market. The corner of St. George Street and King Street where Andrew Young led a march has been renamed Andrew Young's Crossing. On January 27, 1986, Central Ave was renamed by the City of St. Augustine as "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Avenue." The street bearing his name in St. Augustine is one of only two upon which Dr. King actually led a march.


    Another spot bearing a Freedom Trail marker is St. Paul AME Church. Founded by a former slave, Richard James, the church has kept the torch aloft for equal rights.






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