Excelsior’s transition for the future

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By Cassie Colby | gargoyle@flagler.edu

In the heart of Lincolnville stands a two-story Spanish-style building; large trees with Spanish moss draped in layers over its branches shades one of St. Augustine’s unnoticed gems.

The gem is Excelsior school, now known as the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center, which housed the bright minds of so many African American youth from 1901 until its retirement in 1968.

As St. Augustine’s only African American high school throughout the era of strict segregation until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated all public schools.

Excelsior has encountered a fair share of obstacles throughout its existence. However, it struggles to have its place in popular history and to keep its doors open and lights on.

Written on a piece of teal colored paper handed out to tourists, explains Excelsior’s importance in the history of Lincolnville:
“In 2005, St. Augustine’s first black public high school was re-invented as Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center. The historic doors open today onto displays of the city’s African-American heritage: when runaway slaves from Carolina built Fort Mose, America’s first free black town; when the Civil War freed American slaves; when Black Code laws allowed unjustified arrests and re-enslavement; when black entrepreneurs created a thriving black business district; when black students learned in black-only schools and went on to achieve great things; when black and white activists fought the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan; when Martin Luther King made St. Augustine the final straw in America’s civil rights movement. Excelsior Museum is a place for people to see St. Augustine through the eyes of the town’s foremost African-American community.”

Like many other buildings and houses in Lincolnville, Excelsior is closely tied with the memory of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and early 1960s. Breaking free from the already assigned title of being a staple of the Civil Rights movement is hard to shake. The head board member, Otis Mason, hopes that Excelsior can escape being only associated with the Civil Rights movement.

“I want Excelsior to measure up to the mind of others in the community. I want it to be successful and first class in nature. I want it to show positive images to the community and continue to contribute to the success of the community. Most importantly, we want to invent programs to help people understand the role Excelsior played in the development of the community. We had very successful people graduate from Excelsior, and that makes me proud,” said Mason.

One person who is actively seeking to help Excelsior succeed is Dr. Kelly Enright of Flagler College and professor of public history.

“Public history is history that is for and by the public. It’s history that is publicly engaged and written towards a general audience to gauge their identity and heritage. Like Excelsior, I wanted to engage the memory of it and fit it into the larger historical narrative but use the stories of locals,” says Enright.

In the spring semester of 2014, Dr. Enright is offering a practicum class to students who want to help her in working closely with Mason and Excelsior.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetLike the trees that shade Excelsior, Spanish and Flagler era history overshadow the deep roots of Lincolnville’s history.
“It’s challenging, not frustrating because I’m aware of the history here. We have to be strong and confident that we will be successful. I’m not discouraged at all; we continuously try to meet that challenge on a daily basis. We can’t let it bother us,” says a smiling Mason.

The threat of Excelsior falling to the wayside is on the minds of board members and Dr. Enright. As 2013 comes to a close, Excelsior is planning on revamping its mission to show the culture and importance of Lincolnville in 2014.

“Excelsior is so important to Otis Mason and his generation because it symbolizes their community in Lincolnville. The building itself is located centrally in Lincolnville it could be used as a community center for the arts and expression,” says Enright.

In an excerpt, Excelsior’s mission statement upholds Mason’s hopes for it’s future: “We believe the basic purpose of Excelsior is to provide a historically significant edifice to support the preservation of a rich cultural heritage of the Lincolnville community, by housing comprehensive programs to help prepare all who seek its services for fuller participation in society.”

Flagler students and Enright hold the potential to help show Excelsior’s role in the community and to outsiders. At the November board meeting, Mason excitedly accepted Enright’s proposal for new minds to help Excelsior’s needed makeover.

“The board members want to expand the history of the African American community, not just limit it to Civil Rights,” says Enright, “They’re actually quite against only focusing on the Civil Rights movement. They want to focus on other aspects of their lives.”

As the New Year arrives, Mason and Dr. Enright hope to create a relationship between Excelsior and Flagler College.

“From the other Civil Rights projects happening, I see Excelsior trying to do something completely different,” says Enright.

Chiming in, Mason says, “There’s still a lot of work to do. We’re looking towards the future, and what we can do better.”

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