Civil Rights in St. Augustine: Finally understanding the magnitude

civil rights archiveBy Cassie Colby |

“I didn’t know if they were going to kill all the blacks in Lincolnville or not.” Chilling details expressed by Civil Rights activists in interviews grabbed my attention. In the comfort of my own home, I listened to story after story about gruesome nights, bloody protests and hateful oppressors while filling out Excel spreadsheets.

“These people are my neighbors,” I thought to myself. They lead seemingly normal lives. But 50 years ago, our quiet city was their own personal hell.

I never really understood the magnitude of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew it was important, and as a multiracial woman who identifies first and foremost as an African American, I knew it affected my life in many silent ways. Without these activists across the country, I would not have been able to attend Flagler College.

I might not have been born.

None of these realizations hit me until I joined the St. Augustine Civil Rights archive project in 2012. Through my eyes, this movement was bigger than Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders. Of course, they helped organize and pass around encouragement when needed most, but the prized possessions of the movement were the people: ordinary students like myself. My neighbors peacefully fought for me to attend Flagler, they protested for me to be able to comfortably sit down with my friends of different ethnicities.

“As we turned the corner towards Grenada Street from Lincolnville, I saw that it was pitch black. I had an eerie feeling. I knew something was about to happen.” I watched the interview of Bernice Harper, an unsung Civil Rights hero, as her emotion changed.

Cataloging interviews for the website can be considered a mind-numbing task, but I uncovered realizations. I struck intellectual gold. I understood that these now smiling faces used to be bruised and bloodied in hopes of freedom in the future. My neighbors are the unsung heroes of a generation. I became involved because I have hopes for the future. Like those before me, I want race relations to be better. I carefully catalog interviews because I am an extension of the Civil Rights activists.

This project will forever haunt me. It will hang over my head. It will help me understand. It will help me be appreciative of my freedoms, which so many people did not have 50 years ago. The creation of this archive is the continuation of so many forgotten people. This archive is meant to bring communities together through stories and facts. I hope it will mend hearts of all who are involved, no matter what side of the spectrum they were on.

On Sept. 18, the archive was unveiled. Years of St. Augustine history are now available to anyone around the world. The stories, facts and voices of the Civil Rights Movement will now be heard and remembered. My neighbors will be remembered, the martyrs of an era.

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