THE TWO SOULS OF ST. AUGUSTINE
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Our heroes were heroic, and our villains were villainous. Never had events on our streets had such widespread effect, changing America and inspiring the world.
When the excitement was over, and the media decamped, first for Mississippi and then for Selma, the Ancient City's powers-that-were tried to sweep it under the rug and return to its comfort zone of fake buildings, funny costumes and all-white history. That era lasted through the end of the century and beyond, with nationally important Civil Rights landmarks like the Monson and the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge demolished in 2003 and 2004, respectively, to great delight in City Hall.
Times change, people change, age and die, and demographics change. The county that housed 40,000 in the 1970s doubled, tripled, quadrupled and quintupled, particularly with the real estate boom that followed on the heels of 9/11. Where you used to regularly run into people whose families had been here for 13 generations, you now increasingly heard people boast, "I've been here for five years," or "I've been here for two years," or "I've been here for six months," as if that qualified them as locally savvy old-timers. The segregationists whose notions were socially acceptable (indeed, de rigueur among many whites) in the 1960s have been marginalized, and now they decline opportunities to be publicly interviewed. The city sprouted a Freedom Trail of historic sites of the Civil Rights Movement (though it was privately funded, without a dime of public support), and after seven years of (again private) fundraising, an artistic monument to the movement's foot soldiers was erected in the downtown plaza in 2011. Then the city itself began, very belatedly, to do things with "civil rights" in the name. A major intersection was renamed for the Rev. Andrew Young, Dr. King's lieutenant who got his first beating here in St. Augustine in 1964. Bronze castings of Young's footprints now lead the way into the plaza. A documentary film he made called Crossing in St. Augustine has been shown around the world. It was instructive that after a packed local premiere, many people came out in tears, saying, "I had no idea that happened here." That was how complete and effective the sweeping under the rug had been.
In 2014, the aged, surviving rabbis, arrested a half-century earlier, returned and were honored by the city. They chuckled when I read them a 1964 newspaper report saying: "A local official who is investigating the religious affiliation of about a dozen Jewish rabbis arrested here yesterday during demonstrations said it is very possible that none of these people are rabbis, and, in fact, it is possible that several are not even Jewish." Such was the temper of those times.
The city did an exhibit on black history for the first time in the Visitors Center, and some of those who ducked bricks and rocks during demonstrations and avoided being splashed with acid in the Monson pool were invited to lunch with the mayor and other city officials.
So far, so good.
But St. Augustine, of course, is a city of two souls. A new documentary by Andrew Young that aired in Jacksonville in December points out that St. Augustine is going into its hyped 450th birthday year with an all-white city commission, all-white school board, all-white county commission, all-white police department and all-white fire department. That record calls to mind the words of Henry David Thoreau: "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."
There have been popping up around town some expensive (and publicly funded) "Wayfinding" signs listing the 46 buildings you will want to see in St. Augustine.
You guessed it: Every single one of them deals only with white history. None touches on black history or the Civil Rights Movement. After this defect was pointed out, they went ahead and erected more and more of them, as if thumbing their noses in the face of any kind of inclusive history.
There is always this balance. Just because we are the Ancient City does not mean that our children grow up aspiring to earn a PhD in history. Most would settle for making money. Are we, on the one hand, a history-teacher-at-large to the world, dedicated to seeking out the facts and promoting the true and whole story? Or do we have a God-given obligation to shake loose every possible dime from our tourists, even if it takes all the imaginary ghosts, costumed pirates and closely watched parking meters in the Western Hemisphere to accomplish that goal?
Next time you visit St. Augustine, look around and decide for yourself how that balance is working out.
The author is a St. Augustine
author and historian.