By Kelly Gibbs | email@example.com
When I moved to St. Augustine from Gainesville two years ago, I never dreamed I’d one day sit on a sidewalk shooting the breeze with two older black men taking pictures of a former slave cabin and sharing neighborhood gossip.
I was excited to find my own cheap apartment down the street from campus in Lincolnville in August 2009. I was told I was moving into a “mixed neighborhood” by my landlady, but didn’t understand the phrase.
A couple weeks into my first semester, I began hearing negative things about Lincolnville from students. I heard it was a drug haven, a ghetto and an unsafe place in general. I hadn’t experienced any of these things myself and I wondered when the negativity would find me or when I’d be mugged on my bike ride home.
I went to sleep petrified every night for those first few weeks, thinking someone was going to break into my house and running through the ways I’d defend myself if I had to.
I soon grew to love the neighborhood and wondered where the myths originated. I also wanted to uncover some of the history lived by its residents, many of whom were born in the same houses they still live in today. What I found was that Lincolnville has a rich history, with positives and negatives, making it what it is today – one of the country’s oldest living histories, a place full of interesting characters that remains paralyzed by a bad reputation.
I figured I’d start at the place where I heard the most rumors. I set up an interview with Flagler’s English Department Chair Darien Andreu, whom I’d heard was a long-time Lincolnville resident, to find out about Flagler’s beef with the neighborhood. “I know they used to give a speech to incoming students about how dangerous Lincolnville was and to stay away. I don’t know if they still do,” Andreu said.
A speech seemed excessive. “Well you know there was a murder there a few years ago. A Flagler student was involved with a drug deal and was stabbed and killed,” she said.
After a little digging, I found out the student, Thomas Graber, died Oct. 26, 2006, in his apartment on Washington Street after being stabbed to death and having his apartment set on fire by two out-of-towners, apparently over a drug dispute.
After that, Andreu said, the college started giving safety talks that targeted Lincolnville as a hotbed for trouble. Andreu has lived in Lincolnville for over 20 years and said it’s gone through many changes since she bought a home there in 1988.
At one point it was so bad she feared walking down the streets at dark, with drug deals on every corner and hooded crack peddlers a staple of the neighborhood. Old trap houses littered the south part of Lincolnville and Andreu told stories that mirrored the rumors I’d heard. “There was a crack epidemic that got really bad in the early ’90s, so we started the Lincolnville Crime Watch,” Andreu said.
With a family to raise, she refused to leave the neighborhood. “A big reason was because I was so in love with the house,” she said. Even after her home was burglarized, she stayed. I wondered where this determination came from.
She referred me to Holly Mulkey, an outspoken resident who’s part of the neighborhood watch group.
I visited Mulkey at his home, a large pink Victorian with a white picket fence on Bridge Street. The inside is decorated with his paintings and musical instruments scattered throughout the house. An actor and musician by profession, Mulkey looks like an old Civil War soldier and goes by “Mutton Chops.”
Another 20-plus-year resident, Mulkey accredited his staying in Lincolnville through the bad times to his wife, who popped in sporadically to say a cheerful hello. “I stayed because of her. But I used to stand on my front stoop and call the police as the vagrants pissed in the street outside my house. As part of the crime watch, that’s how we cleaned up the neighborhood,” Mulkey said. When I mentioned that I was first told Lincolnville was a “mixed neighborhood,” Mulkey responded “that’s why we live here. We love the culture of Lincolnville. Without its people and history, it wouldn’t be so great.”
Where is the distinction between cleaning up a neighborhood and gentrification, and what will become of Lincolnville’s history as its last descendants from the civil rights era moving out? Resident Carrie Johnson’s book Fighting for White Water, addresses this. “Unspoken utterances claim to oust the initial inhabitants, especially African descendants, in subtle ways. The heirs do not have access to any resources that would enable them to give proper upkeep and care to their homes.”
What Johnson is saying is the remaining black residents have it rough these days. Flagler College Student Services Dean Daniel Stewart said the times got bad during and especially after the civil rights era in the ’60s and ’70s and that many of the poorer citizens now have trouble coping with gentrification.
I mentioned the obvious difference in houses relative to their location in the neighborhood, as some qualify as shacks or condemned that sit next to multi-million dollar homes. “Some [of the poorer people] are disabled or don’t have steady jobs and rely on social security and unemployment to pay their basic bills. Therefore, they can’t get the services they really need and there house repairs go unattended. This leads to the houses becoming decrepit and sometimes the residents turn to drinking to cope,” said Stewart.
He described the turmoil Lincolnville houses were in when city officials decided to bulldoze a number of the houses, all having historical significance, in the 70’s after the fight on civil rights was lost by whites in St. Augustine. “It became a policy of the administration at the time to go after revenge against those black leaders in the fight for civil rights. Many of them were run out of town,” Stewart said, referring to people like Dr. Robert Hayling, a dentist and civil rights leader living in Lincolnville who was eventually forced to leave after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
Hayling’s old house was made a historic landmark by the 40th Accord Freedom Trail Organization in St. Augustine, run by President Gwendolyn Duncan and historian David Nolan, among others. Duncan expressed her wish to see more done in St. Augustine to preserve its historical significance, saying she wants to see a civil rights museum memorializing the fight that has been so soon forgotten.
Nolan met me at a diner to discuss a little history, which flowed from him effortlessly, not excluding a single detail. He was literally a walking textbook on Lincolnville history. “We began erecting markers around town to highlight where these people lived and all the history the houses keep.”
Along with Duncan, Nolan sees the lack of preservation of Lincolnville and the descendants of the civil rights era living in dilapidated homes as a major problem. One of those descendants is Chris White, a face I’ve seen nearly every day since I moved to Lincolnville.
Though I wave back at him every day, I never really talked to White about his life or family history. I’d never really talked to him period, mainly because I was afraid and uncomfortable. An older black man who lived at the end of my street and hung out with his daily group group sharing drinks and discussion, all I really knew about him was that there was a freedom trail marker in front of his house.
When I mentioned White, Nolan nodded, saying he knows White and his family well, stating they were part of the “St. Augustine Four,” a group of teenagers who spent six months in jail and reform school after a July 1963 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. “It wasn’t just Chris’s brother [Samuel], Chris played a part in the history of civil rights too. He was one of the first to attend an all-white school after the Civil Rights Act was passed. The first week of school, a white man walked into the school off the street and beat the living hell out of Chris. He was just a kid.”
A couple weeks later I mustered the courage to walk over to White’s house and ask him about doing an interview, as he sat surrounded by his friends, who looked me up and down, just as curious. I met with him the day after and he showed me around his property, which houses one of the last standing slave cabins in the U.S. “I don’t know why I can’t get the funding I need to make this place into a historical landmark. The city’s putting in new sidewalks around the corner and I can’t get someone to help patch the walls up in my house,” White said.
I sat on an old restaurant bench on his front porch, where miscellaneous hats and shoes scattered the floor and a plywood board connected the ground to the front step so his wheelchair-bound mother could get into the house. He gave me a quick tour of the inside and I realized why he spent most of his time outside near the street. The living conditions inside were extremely lacking and a stale odor permeated the house, which was darkened by numerous curtains and blinds that blacked out any light trying to come in. His diabetic mother sat at the table in the kitchen as he scurried around fetching me a drink, answering the phone and hollering “hey, how are ya?” to anyone that walked or rode by.
I found out that White has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was in the Air Force. He described being arrested numerous times throughout the Civil Rights Movement and talking to Martin Luther King Jr. personally on more than one occasion. I asked him about his brother who was one of the Four and his demeanor grew solemn. “Samuel was sent away to a reform school as a teenager after refusing to apologize for being part of a sit-in. I don’t know what they did to him there but he was never the same when he came back,” White said. Samuel White died in 2007 at the age of 58.
After spending a few hours sitting by the road, chatting with him and his friends, I laughed at myself for being afraid to walk up and speak with them. I also came to find they were a reference on every person in the neighborhood. Before I spoke with them I had no idea one of my neighbors is a midwife, in one house lives a pair of gypsy sisters and that overall, the people who say Lincolnville is a scary, dangerous place don’t live in Lincolnville.
However, though things are better in Lincolnville than they’ve been in decades, the neighborhood still has an unlucky streak with unlawful behavior.
White and his friends used to frequent the M&M Market, which was shut down in November for selling narcotics and tax evasion. The building stands deserted, a symbol of Lincolnville’s paralysis between the past and the future.
Resident Tom Schuette lives across the street from the building. “I know it used to be a meeting place for people who didn’t really have a means of traveling outside the neighborhood. I’d like to see it turned into a market again, but I doubt that will happen,” Schuette said. City Commissioner Erroll Jones also has a wish for the former market. “I’d like it to become a historical landmark or something to signify all the positive things the neighborhood has to offer. I ride through there often and am reminded of the vibrant times when it used to be its own little city.”