Guide carves niche out of telling 400 years of black history

By Cal Colgan |
Photos by Cal Colgan and Gorge Gallardo

Howard Lewis is frustrated because the city of St. Augustine has started to recognize the importance of the civil rights movement in shaping the town’s history of race relations, but he said most tour guides have left out 400 years of black influence in the nation’s “Oldest City.” He said they do not even acknowledge that Augustine of Hippo, the famous philosopher and theologian who is the town’s namesake, was an African.

“If you look up St. Augustine, you’ll see that he was born in Médéa, and the Internet will tell you that that is now Thagaste, Algeria,” Lewis said.

“That’s North Africa. The city is named after an African, but nobody else is saying that.”

Guide Howard Lewis takes tourists and locals alike on tours shedding light on 400 years of black history in St. Augustine.

Lewis said that it’s because of details like that he started the St. Augustine Black History Tours in 2006. He said he also wanted to address issues like the early African presence in St. Augustine — the nation’s oldest continually occupied city — and the large influence Africans had in the first formative years of the city, helping to build, maintain, and defend the city, as well as helping it to grow well into modern times.

On Saturday, Jan. 29, Lewis kicked off Black History Month by taking a small group through downtown St. Augustine to shed light on this 400-year gap. Lasting more than three hours, Lewis started at Fort Mose, walked to the Castillo de San Marcos, and into the heart of Lincolnville, a neighborhood settled in 1866 by former slaves. Although the group consisted of locals, most of them were unaware of the influence black people had on the city prior to the civil rights movement.

To emphasize the city’s residents’ lack of knowledge about just how important the role of Africans was in the first few centuries of St. Augustine, Lewis told the story of Jorge Biassou, one of the leaders of the Hatian slave revolt of the 1790s who left his country of servitude to become a general in St. Augustine. Lewis said Biassou was the second-highest paid person at the presidio.

“They considered him very important,” Lewis said. “He was in charge of the militia at Fort Mose and Fort Matanzas, leader of the black militia, which happened to be the first line of defense from the south, first line of defense from the north.”

But although Biassou, a black Catholic, was honored with a burial in the cathedral, it was only recently, when a Haitian citizen came to St. Augustine for a visit, that the city recognized the black general’s legacy.

“In 2005, 2006, you never heard of Bissaou’s name,” Lewis said.

Passing Fort Mose and the Castillo and heading into Lincolnville, the group stopped at the grassy area between the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse and the back of the Lightner Museum. This, Lewis said, is Freedom Park, so-called because it is the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was first read in 1863. However, there is no marker here commemorating the reading of the famous document that freed Africans in the South from slavery.

“And then a hundred year’s later, what happened here precipitated President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because they were just sick of it being in the media,” Lewis said.

The group made its way onto Washington Street, which along with Martin Luther King Avenue — called Central Avenue at the time — was the main “jumping spot” for the black community at the turn of the 20th century. In the late 1800s, Washington Street was littered with shops, businesses and cultural centers like a cinema.

“Just like going uptown in New York City, you go to Lincolnville if you want to have a good time,” Lewis said.

Tour guide Howard Lewis stands by the marker of St. Mary's Baptist Church, which notes that the church is the birthplace of the "Oldest City's" civil rights movement.

Walking by the marker of St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church — which, as the red marker in front of the building notes, was the birthplace of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, housing mass meetings lead by the reverend and NAACP leader Thomas Wright — the tour group came to the corner of St. Francis Street and MLK.

“Now you’re in a black community that was called ‘Africa,'” Lewis said.

“By 1900, a couple of white people had moved in, and it wasn’t until then that there started being talk about changing the name to Lincolnville, ostensibly to honor Abraham Lincoln as the person who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, but I think part of it also had to do with, ‘Let’s give it a white name since it’s not all black anymore.'”

St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church, tour guide Howard Lewis says, was the first church for black Catholics in St. Augustine.

Lewis led the group of locals past St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church, the first church for black Catholics in the city. Then, he stopped at the former Excelsior High School. Spanning MLK, Moore Street and Palmer Street, the two-story building was built in 1925 so that black teens could go to high school in St. Augustine. Before that year, a high school education was exclusive to whites, and even when the facility was built, it had to serve as the only high school for black students in all of St. Johns County.

“So if you lived out of the city, and you had to come to high school, you had to come hoofing in here, and you had to come hoofing back,” Lewis said.

Drumming and Dancing to Learn African Culture

The uniqueness of Lewis’ attempts to educate the residents of St. Augustine about its African influences is not limited to his history tours. A performing artist and teacher, he plays the African djembe drum and leads story-telling and performance programs at schools, college lyceums and community events.

“And as a minister of the Gospel,” he said, “I’ve got a performing arts ministry, and I facilitate Christian performing arts workshops and prepare children for performing arts ministry, whether its music with the drumming and scripture, or praise dance, praise movement or drama ministry. My background is in the theater and television production.”

Howard Lewis (middle), with tourists Les Lamon (left) and David L. Valuska (right) demonstrate how to play traditional African instruments at the Castillo de San Marcos. Photo by Gorge Gallardo

Using his djembe drum to aid him in telling stories rooted in African culture, Lewis regales listeners with African folk tales, and encourages them to act out the parts of the human or animal characters.

One set of folk tales Lewis frequently tells is called the praying mantis stories, told to a German colonist by a Southwest African bushman name Xhabbo who was imprisoned for killing one of the king’s deer.

“This German guy came along and said, ‘Hey, I hear you know all these mantis stories. You tell me the stories, I’ll let you out of prison.’ Xhabbo told him all the stories,” Lewis said.

“The man got him out of prison, and the guy wrote a book,” he said. “And the book that the guy [wrote] based on the stories that Xhabo told him was the one that I was using to study to get stories for a show back in 1979.”

Ideas to Close the History Gap

Lewis said he would like to teach history programs at high schools and colleges, but most of the schools can no longer afford for him to perform. As a result, Lewis has sent a notice to several schools suggesting that their teachers should lead black history tours.

But despite his frustration with the city’s failure to acknowledge early black history, Lewis conceded that the local government is doing some positive things to commemorate St. Augustine’s civil rights struggle.

“One of the things you’ll see now is how [the city is] preparing the ground already for that civil rights monument, that foot soldiers’ monument in the plaza,” Lewis said.

Despite the small progress, however, Lewis said one of the best things that could improve local residents’ exposure to African-American history and culture is if tour guides stopped separating the city’s black and European history, and started doing inclusive tours.

“If all the tour guides had all the story, I wouldn’t have any problem,” he said. “But, here’s the other thing: This is where I was able to carve my niche. It’s what an entrepreneur does. He looks and sees what is not being done, and then starts doing that.”

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