Racism in St. Augustine: not just a thing of the past

By Zach Gray | gargoyle@flagler.edu

ZachGraySt. Augustine’s reputation as a sleepy tourist town has rarely been questioned.

Trolleys roll by with a calm and tranquility, telling stories of how Henry Flagler and his lucrative railroad industry spearheaded the community’s economic growth.
During the era of Jim Crow, things weren’t much different. A hushed little fishing town, hugging the beautiful Florida coastline, was a serene paradise.

Tourism ruled.

And African-Americans knew their place.

But Berta Odom remembers when things changed.

“Before the arrival of [Robert] Hayling, blacks didn’t want anything more than what they had,” she said. “They didn’t know there was better. They had everything they thought they needed.”

Odom is the daughter of an ex-St. Johns County deputy. A native to St. Augustine, she received firsthand stories and experience of the events stirred by Robert Hayling, an African-American dentist who pioneered the city’s NAACP youth chapter.

In the process, Hayling brought to St. Augustine what at the time was a principal characteristic of much of the 1960s American South- gumption on the part of blacks.
Eventually, the city would earn national attention and a visit from Martin Luther King in 1964.

It also earned a white backlash that is rivaled by only a handful of 1960s civil rights demonstrations.

Odom recalls that for 45 consecutive days during 1964, black protesters would protest in St. Augustine’s downtown square.

It was a racial disparity that had the mindset of Montgomery and the audacity of Selma.

“Night after night they came and marched even though they had broken bones and lacerations,” Odom said. “The Ku Klux Klan and the police would just egg the blacks on, hoping that they would have an excuse to hit them. Martin Luther King is lucky he did not get shot here.”

What began with Hayling and would end with then President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act came with consequences of seismic proportions.

But the campaign would permanently put blacks on the path of upward mobility.

Hayling opened his dental practice in 1960. During that time, white paternalism and black contentment with their place in society still pervaded the city.

Tensions began to brew when the dentist took charge of St. Augustine’s NAACP youth chapter and encouraged young participants to demonstrate peacefully by sitting at lunch counters where segregation was strictly enforced.

Despite Hayling’s grassroots efforts, the campaign needed the support of older, more established black residents. Most, however, were employed by whites and did not want to risk losing their jobs because of participation.

What it really needed was a revered figurehead. When Martin Luther King, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, joined the local movement in the spring of 1964, the endeavor that Hayling had pioneered gained the holistic support of St. Augustine’s African American population.

Over the course of that summer, indignant, racial violence would erupt in city streets, on city beaches and everywhere in between.

As a result, African Americans nationwide attained what they had for so long envisioned-federal legislation toppling the suffocation of de jure segregation, or segregation by law.

The effects of such liberation cannot be underestimated.

But here in St. Augustine, it would be ignorant to assume that racial tensions are a thing of the past, says Casey Welch, an associate professor of sociology at Flagler College.

According to Welch, de facto segregation, or segregation by practice, remains an issue and has created a stark disparity between the races.

“There is without question a high rate of economic stratification between black and white,” he said. “In St. Johns County, the rate of poverty for blacks is about 30 percent. It’s systemic, legal discrimination that keeps the power structure of city hall largely white.”

And it seems as if the persistence of de facto segregation is the result of a racial bigotry that is as real today as it was 50 years ago.

“Today a black skin is often seen as a marker of lower income or wealth and all the things that go with lower income or wealth, including educational attainments. So white families try to stay away, in schools for example, from black families,” said Thomas Graham, a professor history emeritus at Flagler College.”

Many local blacks, especially those who lived through the virulent1960s, say that in many ways, discrimination is the same today.

St. Augustine resident Chris White has lived in the city his entire life and understands the parallels between past and present.

His brother, Samuel White, was a member of The St. Augustine Four, a group of teenagers who were arrested and served over six months of confinement for their refusal to stop participating in Hayling’s movement.

White recalls Samuel spending his thirteenth birthday in a correctional institution, as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1963.

“Blatant injustice like that doesn’t happen very often anymore, and that’s one of the benefits of having legislation,” he said. “But as far as racial tension goes, here in St. Augustine it’s the old socks, just new shoes. People don’t run around yelling, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger,’ but it’s still something that goes on behind closed doors, and it’s going to take a lot of new blood coming into the city to really change things.”

St. Augustine has in fact experienced plenty of it over the past several decades.

The ’70s, ’80s and ’90s brought a huge influx of white northerners to the city, says Charles Tingley, a senior research librarian at the St. Augustine Historical Society.

But, in a seemingly brutal sense of irony, demographic change has actually left St. Augustine’s black population arguably even more marginalized.
While a wave of outsiders has helped to quell the vitriolic, racial tensions of the 1960s, Tingley believes that the demographic changes have hampered blacks’ sense of community and their economic stability.

“The black community in St. Augustine has been overwhelmed by a wave of white migration,” he said. “You don’t have the black businesses on Washington Street anymore, and you don’t have the black neighborhood bars. As the races have become more integrated and the black community more mainstream, it has in fact segregated blacks even more economically.”

As a result, African Americans have left the city in bunches.

Tingley says that St. Augustine’s census in 1960 rendered a population that was nearly 25 percent African American.

That figure is now down to 4 percent.

For those that remain, the persistence of a racial dichotomy is obvious.

The affluent panache of St. Augustine’s downtown district is sharply contrasted by the worn-down look of West Augustine.

It’s a rarity to see large groups of blacks meandering down Cordova Street, and a white jogger would never dare to venture down West King Street past dark.

This seems like a generalization, and it’s sad.

But it’s true.

Legislation and a change in the city’s demographic have left tensions very much unsettled.

So what needs to happen to bring about real change?

Frankly, St. Augustine’s racial bigots simply have to die off, says David Nolan, a local historian and former adjunct professor at Flagler College.
Despite the city’s recent population boom, Nolan says that St. Augustine still exemplifies many of the characteristics of a small, southern town.

And in small, southern towns, the locals are pretty set in their ways.

“People in small towns don’t want to change,” Nolan said. “That’s most evident in St. Augustine when locals want to take the tourists’ money and then tell them to get the hell out of town.”

Nolan also says that St. Augustine’s nature as a tourist town makes matters even worse.

“One of the most important things about tourist towns is the ‘us versus them’ attitude,” he said. Often for locals, the greatest day on the calendar is the day the tourists go away and stop questioning the way things are.”

Sure, those who harbor racism need to be eradicated. But it’s also essential that those who remain approach things with a change of heart.

“What you want is for people to see how unacceptable it is to be racist,” Nolan said.

Nolan is one of those people.

In 1994, he was a part of St. Augustine’s Vision Committee, a collaboration that was established to outline the possible improvements that could be made in the city.
Among his suggestions were ideas for new infrastructure in black communities and a museum dedicated to local, black history.

But most of these ideas, Nolan says, were shot down by the committee leader.

“St. Augustine sat out the 1960s war on poverty, and as a result we’re now arguing about whether or not to provide water lines out to West Augustine, something that should have been done 40 years ago,” he said.

However, Nolan believes that things have recently started moving in the right direction.

Recent memorials, including the ACCORD Freedom Trail and a monument in the city plaza commemorating the foot soldiers of the ’60s, have been established.

Additionally, Flagler College recently permitted Andrew Young, one of the figureheads of the 1960s movement, to give a lecture at the school.

Such recognition is essential in continuing to amend St. Augustine’s racial disparity, says James Wilson, an associate professor of english at Flagler College.

A few years ago, Wilson initiated discussions surrounding the possibility of the school recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day off.

Wilson’s suggestion would eventually be passed by the school’s senate, however, the professor concedes that he had his reservations about bringing up the issue.

“I was a bit scared to reach out to the board because of St. Augustine’s racial history,” he said. “There are people in the administration and on the faculty whose families were involved 50 years ago. White families.”

But Wilson had a conviction. He wanted to show St. Augustine’s black community that while other white, affluent institutions may have harbored racial prejudices, Flagler College stood for change.

“I wanted my neighbors to know that they may have been arrested at that building [Ponce Hall] 50 years ago, but that things have changed,” he said.

Largely because of Wilson’s activism and willingness to introduce a controversial issue, the college now not only recognizes the holiday, but also dedicates much of its resources to the recognition of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

Still, Wilson admits that such change needs to be more widespread in the city in order to truly improve the relationship between the black and white communities.

“I live in Lincolnville, and 12 years ago, I couldn’t get a pizza delivered to my house,” he said. “They assumed that by crossing into Lincolnville, they’d be risking their money or their life.”

Despite the strides that have been made in recent years, it’s this kind of mentality that is still very much an issue in St. Augustine today.

The economic disparity remains a glaring shortcoming.

It does not matter how much legislation is passed or how many memorials are erected. Until the hearts of those who can bring change are truly moved by the negligence, true equality will not be achieved.

Berta Odom remembers the ferocity with which blacks fought for complete integration during the local movement of the ’60s.

“Back then, the blacks wanted it so bad and they were willing to do anything it took,” she said.

Perhaps St. Augustine’s African American community has once again submitted to the idea of paternalism.

But under those conditions, the white community would be charged with “watching out” for the black community.

Or perhaps the city needs to address what it continues to ignore.

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