As it heads into its 450th anniversary, The Ancient City needs to own up to the dark side of its history


Whenever I travel and tell people I am from St. Augustine, the almost universal response is "I love St. Augustine!"

Pleasant as it is to have one's hometown gushed over, I must admit that the praise puts my mind into overtime, wondering exactly which St. Augustine they love. Is it the beautiful historic city, or the place where "preservation by bulldozer" was long the dominant approach? Is it the place where Spaniards, Africans and Greeks settled centuries ago (as Johnny-Come-Latelys to those who had already been here thousands of years), or the place that became notorious in the 1960s for some of the most violent confrontations in the Civil Rights Movement?

St. Augustine is definitely a place of two souls, and to herald only one is to miss half its significance, for better or for worse.

In the 1950s, amid postwar prosperity, the nation was swept with a dreadful program called "Urban Renewal" that resulted in the wholesale demolition of historic buildings from coast to coast. Its legacy is universally reviled by preservationists today. St. Augustine did not escape this plague, but there was a twist: Here it was called "restoration." It involved bulldozing more than a hundred years' worth of old buildings. What replaced these structures were not high-rise housing projects, but rather small buildings in Spanish colonial garb that clustered together around St. George Street in what became the heart of the modern-day tourist ghetto.

There were a handful of authentic buildings restored, dating back to the 1700s, but most of what the visitors would wind up seeing was about as authentic as Main Street Disneyworld.

Over the years, some of the first generation of small fake buildings have also met the bulldozer and been replaced with larger — and more profitable — fakes.

The original game plan was to populate those buildings with artisans and craftisans in "period dress" demonstrating past ways of doing things. That proved to be not riveting enough for a tourist audience and, one by one, the buildings were repurposed as T-shirt shops, rubber alligator emporiums, ice cream vendors and the like. It was a local joke, but it pumped money into the economy.

It should have been an eerie warning when the 1959 enabling legislation establishing the "restoration" program described St. Augustine as "the oldest community of the white race," because things were happening simultaneously that would make that kind of language stick out like a sore thumb.

A black dentist, Dr. Robert Hayling (beaten by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, home shot up in 1964, inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2014), led a movement to overcome the noxious effects of racial segregation in the Ancient City.

I imagine the organizers of St. Augustine's 400th birthday celebration, scheduled for 1965, thought a major question was whether enough cash registers could be crammed into town to hold all the money that visitors were going to be spending here. That proved not to be a problem. National attention, instead of highlighting the costumed birthday, was grabbed instead by a series of dramatic episodes in a great moral drama acted out on the city's streets for an audience that learned what was wrong with the old way of doing things, racially speaking.

The 1963 arrest of the St. Augustine Four, young black teenagers who spent six months in jail and reform school for seeking a hamburger and Coke at the Woolworth's lunch counter, resulted in protests by Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of disapproving editorials from Miami to New York and beyond. The arrest of Mrs. Peabody, the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts, for attempting to be served in an interracial group at the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge was front-page news around the country on April Fools' Day, 1964. The largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history took place at the Monson Motor Lodge on the bayfront in June, just a week after Dr. King's only arrest in Florida took place at the same site.

The day the U.S. Senate went to vote on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, a Washington newspaper ran a front-page picture of the manager of the Monson (and president of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association) redefining "Southern hospitality" by pouring acid into his pool while a racially integrated group was swimming in it. It has become the most famous photograph ever taken in the Ancient City, and surely must have solidified any possible wavering votes in the Senate. President Lyndon Johnson said the whole foreign policy of the United States was going to hell over a motel swimming pool in St. Augustine, Florida.

Page 1 / 2
1 comment on this story | Add your comment
Please log in or register to add your comment

David Nolan is to be commended for exposing the continuing bigotry and unfairness of the St. Augustine City Commission as well as the downtown businesses who control the city. He is one of the few honest historians who knows where the bodies are buried. Tell us more David, please.

And where are our black policemen and shop owners on St. George Street?

J.D. Pleasant Sunday, February 15, 2015|Report this