Black History in St. Augustine
Civil Rights marchers at the Plaza de la Constitución, 1964. C. Farris Bryant Papers, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries
Over 450 years of Black history fill the streets of St. Augustine. From the city’s origins in 1565, Black men and women built their lives on the shores of the Matanzas River. The names of their children and grandchildren fill local Catholic parish records as early as the 1590s. Their sweat, skill, and resilience contributed to the construction of a city and state. Yet, the changing tides of history, colonial powers, and racial prejudices buried many of their stories.
This exhibit cannot convey the full depth of Black history in St. Augustine over a few labels. The experiences of Black St. Augustinians are vast and expansive, with many layers. It extends into art, culture, lifestyle, gender, and each person – past and present. It is a necessary part of U.S. history, as Black St. Augustinians have and continue to contribute to shaping this land and nation.
We acknowledge that we are two white women with different lived experiences than that of the people featured in this exhibit. We can never fully-understand their experiences and perspectives. Nor are we experts in St. Augustine’s Black history. Instead we seek to fill in the gaps created by our distinct life trajectories and our work at Governor’s House Library in St. Augustine, Florida.
This exhibition would not be possible without those who came before us and currently work to expand our knowledge of Black lives, scholarship, and white privilege. We thank the leaders at Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center and Fort Mose Historical Society for their continued support and conversations as we move one step further on the long journey of healing needed to repair the wound of anti-Blackness. Special thanks to Antonette Jones specifically for her research assistance and support. And to those we learned from over dinner tables, whose names we regretfully have forgotten over the years. Throughout this exhibit, remember that this is only a small glimpse of Black history. We encourage you to continue growing your own understanding and knowledge about Black experiences and culture in the United States with us.
Note on Language and Identity Terms
Identity is a complex and ever-changing social construct. Not all St. Augustinians of African descent identified as Black, African, or African American. In this exhibit, we use the term Black not to diminish but rather to acknowledge the diverse cultures, people, backgrounds, and experiences of the African Diaspora.
Curated by Laura Marion & Casey Wooster | Designed by Katiana Bagué & Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler
Defending and Defining Freedom
What does freedom look like? Spanish expeditions included free and enslaved Black people, who served as translators, soldiers, sailors, and artisans, amongst others.
As early as 1678, those enslaved in nearby British colonies sought freedom by traveling south to St. Augustine. Spain granted sanctuary in return for military service and conversion to Catholicism. Others soon followed, starting the precursor to the Underground Railroad. This spurred the creation of the first-legally recognized free Black community in 1738, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose.
Black inhabitants of St. Augustine formed a militia as early as 1683 to defend their freedom. However, the cession of Florida, first to Great Britain (1763-1783) and later to the United States in 1821, infringed on the rights of freedmen. Restrictive laws, unfair taxes, and the threat of slavery encouraged the evacuation of most Black St. Augustinians to Cuba. Others stayed to fight with the Seminoles.
Haitian Revolution leader Georges “Jorge” Biassou (1741-1801) and his family moved to St. Augustine in 1796. Spain sent Biassou and his Black militia to guard the city at Fort Matanzas. When Biassou died in 1801, a large funeral ceremony and procession honored the memory of the military hero. Today, Biassou rests in an unmarked grave at Tolomoto Cemetery and a reconstruction of his home stands at 42 St. George Street.
Richard A. Twine (American, 1896-1974) Annual Emancipation Day Parade – Saint Augustine, Florida, c. 1922. LV25. Collection of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/132524
On January 1, 1863, the Black St. Augustinians were granted freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation. In the decades that followed, their descendants celebrated the anniversary of emancipation with parades, speeches, music, and feasts.
Lack of identification and acknowledgement of St. Augustine’s Black community is an endemic issue throughout the city’s history. These photographs represent just a fraction of the Black faces captured on camera whose names were not documented and remain unknown. They document the presence of the Black community throughout St. Augustine’s past, while combating society’s erasure of Black history and stories.
William Henry Jackson (American, 1843-1942) Old City Gate, St. Augustine, Fla. 1880-1897. Detroit Publishing Co. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016797273/
Picturesque Spanish gateway in the city wall, St. Augustine, Florida oldest town in the United States, 1905. Underwood & Underwood. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014649881/
Man Standing in the Street Talking with Driver of a Car on St. George Street, Facing the Oldest Wooden School House (Genopoly House), Looking Southwest, n.d. St. Augustine Restoration, Inc
Governor’s House Library, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/USACH00142/00029
After the Civil War, newly freed individuals made their home in a new neighborhood to the west of the city’s colonial walls. Then known as “Little Africa,” Lincolnville continued to grow. At the same time, other Black neighborhoods emerged among former nearby plantations and groves. Centered around West King Street, the area became the city of New Augustine in 1884. Both Lincolnville and New Augustine thrived and grew in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. In the 1960s, both communities served as meeting sites and havens for peaceful demonstrators during the Civil Rights Movement.
Richard A. Twine (American, 1896-1974) Palace Market in Lincolnville – Saint Augustine, Florida, 1922. LV44. Collection of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/132541
Black residents made up most of the labor force behind St. Augustine’s burgeoning tourism industry at the end of the 1800s. They built infrastructure, staffed hotels and attractions, drove carriages, and entertained tourists. Their work not only transformed the city’s economy, but the entire state.
Beach-goers assembled for a group portrait by the bath house at Butler Beach – Anastasia Island, Florida, c. 1950. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/34846
At a time of strict segregation, Black residents created their own Florida vacation and recreation spots. Frank B. Butler (1885-1973) from Lincolnville, started purchasing land on Anastasia Island southeast of St. Augustine in 1927. After World War II, he developed Butler Beach, the only Black resort between Daytona Beach and American Beach in Fernandina. Today, the shore is open to all at Frank Butler County Park.
The commercial district of Black-owned businesses in Lincolnville was a major cultural hub between the 1920s-1960s. “If you weren’t there on Saturday night, you hadn’t lived,” reminisced former civil rights activist and St. Augustine City Commissioner Henry Twine. The neighborhood boasted a vibrant entertainment scene of jazz clubs, theaters, and cafes; in addition to church and community events, like parades and dances. Over the years, Lincolnville hosted notable visitors and residents such as Richard A. Twine, Zora Neale Hurston, and football player Willie Galimore.
Richard A. Twine (American, 1896-1974) Self-portrait of Richard A. Twine, c. 1922. LV97. Collection of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/132503
Richard A. Twine (1896-1974) was one of only two professional photographers operating in Lincolnville during the 1920s. His studio was a popular destination for young people, couples, and churchgoers already dressed in their Sunday best. Despite his successful career, Twine left St. Augustine and the photography business in 1927. In 1988, hundreds of his glass plate negatives were found in the attic of a house under demolition in St. Augustine. Today, the St. Augustine Historical Society preserves those images of Lincolnville between 1922-1927.
See some of Richard A. Twine’s work below.
Richard A. Twine (American, 1896-1974) Harriet Twine dressed for a school play, 1922. LV97. Image from the Collection of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/132585
Richard A. Twine (American, 1896-1974) Wilbur Julius with a toy poodle beside a decorated parade car, 1922. LV79. Image from the Collection of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/132569
Richard A. Twine (American, 1896-1974) Gathered together after the dance, 1922. LV42. Image from the Collection of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/132539
Willie “The Wisp” Galimore (1935-1964) graduated from Excelsior High School in Lincolnville before heading to college at Florida A&M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee. On FAMU’s football team, Galimore became the school’s all-time leading rusher. He was named Black College All-America three times by the Pittsburgh Courier. Galimore went on to play for the Chicago Bears from 1957-1963. In the summer of 1964, he returned to his hometown of St. Augustine to support the civil rights demonstrations. He made history as the first person to integrate the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge, a luxury hotel and club just outside the city.
As an anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) spent a great part of her life on the roads of Florida collecting folklore and telling stories. She visited St. Augustine several times. There she completed her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road: A Memoir (1942), taught at Florida Memorial College, and developed a literary friendship with author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. In 1942, during her longest stay in St. Augustine, Hurston described the city as “a quiet place to sit down and write.”
Richard A. Twine (American, 1896-1974) St. Benedict Catholic School – Lincolnville, Florida, 1922. LV 26. Image from the Collection of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/132525
St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School
St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School served Lincolnville’s Black students from 1871-1968. As one of the first sites in Florida dedicated to educating Black children, it had an annual enrollment of approximately 100 students.
St. Augustine’s only public school for Black children opened in Lincolnville in 1901. Less than 20 years later, School #2, was flourishing and needed additional space. The St. Johns County School Board initially denied the community a new building. But in 1925, the Excelsior School opened as the first public Black high school in St. Johns County. The school closed after desegregation. Excelsior alumni worked together to save the building from demolition in the 1980s and opened a museum dedicated to local Black history in 2005.
Otis Mason grew up in Lincolnville and attended the Excelsior School, where his mother, Mildred Parsons Mason Larkins, was a teacher. After graduating from Florida A&M University, Mason became an educator. He returned to St. Augustine to begin his teaching career at Excelsior High School. In 1984, Mason was elected the first Black superintendent of the St. Johns County School District. He and other Excelsior alumni helped save his childhood school and start the Lincolnville Museum. Otis A. Mason Elementary School nearby is named in his honor.
Florida Normal and Industrial Institute
The Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, a historically Black school, opened its St. Augustine campus in 1918. The campus was located in the West Augustine neighborhood. It flourished and, by the 1940s, became a four-year liberal arts college. In 1963, the college was renamed Florida Memorial College.
Florida Memorial College: What’s in it for You?, 1960-1965. Florida Memorial College. L1979-37_1513_29. Stetson Kennedy Papers, Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University Library. https://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/digital/collection/SKennedy/id/2348/rec/1
Like much of the southern United States in the 1960s, St. Augustine was the site of growing social unrest. Due to white supremacy, Black citizens had to fight against enforced segregation and discrimination within the city they called home. In 1963, St. Augustine dentist and activist Dr. Robert Hayling (1929-2015) began organizing protests. That same year, leaders and students from St. Augustine’s Black communities hosted several protests including sit-ins, kneel-ins, and wade-ins that garnered the attention of the nationwide Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, Hayling invited Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to join the local fight for desegregation. The non-violent protesters met arrests, violence, verbal assaults, and death threats from white segregationists and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Tensions peaked on June 18, 1964 when a group of SCLC activists led a “dive-in” at the white-only Monson Motor Lodge pool in St. Augustine. In response, hotel manager James Brock poured 2 gallons of hydrochloric acid into the pool to force the protesters out. Although luckily unharmed, many of the Black and white protestors were arrested. The following day, images of the protest at Monson Motor Lodge filled national headlines. The disturbing images helped finally pass the U.S. Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.
George Washington (left) and Sam Rowe operating a two-man saw during the construction of the Old Blacksmith Shop on the Judson Property, 1967. The St. Augustine Record. Governor’s House Library, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries. https://ufdc.ufl.edu/USACH00456/00001
Black labor built and saved St. Augustine. From colonial powers to the United States, St. Augustine relied on the sweat and construction skills of enslaved, free, and incarcerated Black populations over the centuries. When it came to archaeological and historic preservation projects, Black residents were often hired as general laborers throughout the twentieth century. While the physical record of their craftsmanship, labor, and expertise remains visible in St. Augustine’s streets today, their stories and names are more elusive in the collections.
Wet Screening Artifacts During Archaeological Excavations at the Rogers Edmunds Property, 1967. St. Augustine Restoration, Inc. Governor’s House Library, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries
James I. Barnes (American, 1872-1924) Progress Photograph’s, Post Office & Cu. H., St. Augustine, Florida, 1936. Governor’s House Library, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries. https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00004998/00001
St. Augustine Directory and Guide, 1880. Chapin & Co. P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00062701/00001
Black Heritage Tourism
Today, cultural heritage tourism drives St. Augustine’s economy. The city boasts an array of sites and museums dedicated to the city’s 450+ years of Black history.
Fort Mose was the first legally sanctioned African settlement in the United States. Established in 1738 and abandoned only 30 years later, the marshes swallowed the community of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose), but not its story. Historical research and archaeological excavations uncovered the fort between 1986-1988. Through local and statewide advocacy efforts, Florida preserved the site as a state park in 1994.
ACCORD Civil Rights Museum and Freedom Trail were established in 2002 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A museum and series of markers remember, recognize, and honor those who played a pivotal role in St. Augustine’s Civil Rights Movement.
Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center, opened in 2005, is an African American history museum. Housed in the 1925 Excelsior School building, the first public Black high school in St. Johns County, the museum preserves, promotes, and perpetuates over 450 years of history.
Curated by Laura Marion & Casey Wooster | Designed by Katiana Bagué & Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler
This online exhibit is based on the exhibit of the same name that was presented at the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries from July 15, 2022 – September 16, 2022 and at the University of Florida Governor’s House Library in St. Augustine, Florida.
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