Black history in the new world began in St. Augustine. The Black stories here are plentiful, embedded in the struggle and successes of those they lived beside. The joyful songs of freedom and the cries of injustice are here to explore.
Many history books leave out the establishment of Black culture during the colonial period of Florida. The Spanish brought both free and enslaved Africans to our shores and formally recognized the first free black settlement of Fort Mose. The Civil rights movement of the 1960s was fought in the segregated establishments of the Old City and in the waves of St. Augustine Beach. Martin Luther King led peaceful protests along our cobblestone streets and was arrested for his attempt to eat at a “whites only” motel on the bayfront. Discover the rich Black history of our city by visiting the following sites in St. Augustine and St. John’s County.
Fort Mose Historic State Park is the site of the first free black settlement in America. Brave slaves escaped south from the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia along the first underground railroad. This National Historic Landmark is the first stop on the Florida Black Heritage Trail. The park hosts a visitor center with an interactive museum, open Thursday to Monday 9 am–5 pm, with a small $2 entry fee for anyone over 6. The park grounds are free and open 365 days a year from 9 am–5 pm. Every February the museum hosts ‘Flight to Freedom,’ an interactive experience in which reenactors tell the story of the brave men and women who escaped slavery to live as freemen. In June, enjoy the reenactment of the Battle of Bloody Mose where the British were forced to retreat thanks to the efforts of the first black Spanish militia.
Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center (LMCC)
The Excelsior School was St. Augustine’s first public Black high School. The building sits in the historic neighborhood of Lincolnville, established in 1866 by freedmen who had fought in the Civil War. Lincolnville boasts the largest collection of Victorian homes in our city and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum collection includes several interesting artifacts, including a piano that belonged to Ray Charles. The LMCC also sponsors educational programs, concerts, and festivals, like the beloved Lincolnville Porch Fest. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Accord Civil Rights Museum
Located in what was once Dr. Robert Hayling‘s Dental office, the Accord Civil Rights museum has a wonderful collection of local Civil Rights artifacts. Dr. Robert Hayling was one of the most well-known figures in the fight for equality in St. Augustine. As the adult adviser of the St. Augustine NAACP Youth Council and head of the St. Augustine chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, his office became the epicenter of the St. Augustine movement. Hayling suffered death threats and his dog was killed as the result of an attack on his home with his pregnant wife and two girls inside. The Accord Museum is open by appointment only. Call (904) 347-1382 at least 1 day in advance to schedule a tour.
Accord Freedom Trail
The Accord Freedom trail is a series of landmarks throughout our city commemorating the events and people who fought for Civil Rights during the 1960s. There are 31 sites listed on the Accord Freedom trail. The Civil Rights Bill was hotly contested for over a year in the Senate. The events that took place in St. Augustine were the catalyst for pressing legislators to pass the Civil Rights Act. Some sites are far enough away to require a car or a bike, but most are within walking distance of the Accord Civil Rights Museum. These sites include homes of civil rights leaders, St. Johns County’s only remaining slave cabin, churches, and the Lincolnville Public Library (now the Corner Market) where students were trained in non-violence.
Woolworth’s Lunch Counter
In July 1963, this was the location of the “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter. If a Black person wanted to order, they had to go to the side of the counter and take their food elsewhere. Emboldened by the success of nonviolent direct-action in other parts of the country, 17 young students sat at lunch counters around St. Augustine and asked to be served. When they were refused service and asked to leave, they did not. They were arrested and taken to the SJC jail. 7 of the teenagers were under 17. The local judge denied them bail and refused to release them unless they signed an affidavit not to participate in demonstrations. JoAnn Anderson Ulmer, Audrey Nell Edwards, Willie Carl Singleton, and Samuel White (The St. Augustine 4) would not sign the agreement. They were jailed and then sent to reform schools for a total of 6 months. The Black community was outraged by the unfair treatment of their children and began peacefully protesting in large numbers around the plaza. Six months later, a special action of the Florida governor and cabinet finally released them. A section of the Woolworth’s counter is on display inside the Wells Fargo bank and the door handles still state “Woolworth’s – Self-Service – air-conditioned.” A local legend says that the doors are impossible to remove from their frame, echoing the determination and faithfulness of the students who were arrested here.
Monson Motor Lodge Steps
Martin Luther King Jr. and a mixed-race group of integrationists approached the Monson Motor Lodge Restaurant and asked to be served. After a respectful discussion with the owner and a refusal to leave, MLK Jr. was arrested and placed in the SJC jail. This was his only arrest in the state of Florida.
At the request of MLK Jr., 16 Rabbis came to assist in the demonstrations. The Rabbis and 50 other protestors arrived in front of the motor lodge to Pray. The owner asked them to leave the premises. When the demonstrators refused to move, he started pushing them. As he pushed one Rabbi, another would take his place. Distracted by the group, 6 young Black students hopped out of a car and integrated the pool with 2 white men (members of the movement and guests of the hotel). The owner was so angered that he poured two gallons of muriatic acid into the pool. Knowing that the acid would be too diluted to harm them, the group remained in the water. An off duty police officer dove in and forced them out. The 16 rabbis, the 8 swimmers, and 11 demonstrators were arrested. This was the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in United States History and one of the most dramatic events of the St. Augustine Civil Rights movement. The event made headline news and encouraged the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
While the Monson Motor Lodge has been torn down, the steps on which Martin Luther King was taken into custody have been preserved. You can access this area by using the stairs next to the driveway. An obelisk painted to represent this incident and the larger struggle for equality is visible from the road.
Gault Street Steps
Schools in St. Augustine remained segregated in the 60s despite the 1954 Brown V Board of education Supreme Court verdict. Businesses who integrated were picketed or threatened with violence. Florida even had a law making it illegal to store the textbooks for white and black schools in the same warehouse. The Roberson family lived near the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind with many other black families who worked there. In 1963, during the height of the civil rights conflict, local schools desegregated (Fullerwood and Ketterlinus) with Robertson’s children in attendance. In retaliation, their house was firebombed by violent opposers. The brick steps from their home are all that remains.
Plaza de la Constitución
The plaza is the heart of st. Augustine, where slaves were sold in the courtyard of the government house and the location of the famous 1960s civil rights marches with Martin Luther King jr. The Andrew Young Crossing Monument, the St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument, and the infamous slave market are all at this location.
Bronze footprints near the intersection of King Street and St. George denote the place where Andrew Young was attacked as he led a peaceful demonstration into the plaza. An angry mob of men knocked him unconscious, but with help, he stood and completed the walk. The protests in St. Augustine and the commitment to non-violence were key in pressuring senators to pass the Civil Rights Bill.
This is also the site of two highly contested Confederate War Memorials. In the center of the plaza is a Confederate War obelisk, built in 1872. Plaques were added in 2018 to add historical context as a result of community protests. At the Government House, a 1920s monument stands over the ashes of Confederate General William Loring, complete with a Confederate flag.
Dr. Robert B. Hayling Freedom Park
Dr. Robert Hayling, the beloved dentist, and leader of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine was honored with this beautiful passive park on the peninsula between the San Sebastian and Matanzas Rivers. A permanent art installation by Compassionate St. Augustine pays tribute to the Black community and the future of our city. A six-foot pentatonic chime, named “Let Freedom Ring,” stands within a marble wall called “Toward.” The wall was named in reference to the MLK quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Also at the entrance of this park are one of the Obelisks from the St. Augustine Obelisk Art 450. This obelisk was created to celebrate the emancipation proclamation.
St. Benedict School
In 1916, three white Catholic nuns were arrested at this all-Black school for violating a 1913 law prohibiting white teachers from instructing black students. The nuns were released when a judge ruled that the law did not apply to private schools. The nuns returned to their classrooms and the institution continued until the mid-1960s. The school, built in 1898, is currently under renovation.
General Biassou House
General Jorge Biassou was the first Black General in America. He was born a slave in Haiti (then St. Dominique) but became a powerful leader with a legendary reputation for violence. He gained his position, notoriety, and power through vicious warfare and service to Spain. He was Florida’s second-highest-paid official and had an entourage of 26 Haitian revolutionaries that he called his family. Biassou was known for his decadence, hospitality, and eccentricity. His home is now the Whetstone Chocolates Shop on St. George Street. The Spanish Bakery is in the location where his kitchen once stood.
Segui-Kirby Smith House
Alexander H. Darnes was born into slavery to Edmund Kirby Smith, who would become the last full Confederate general to surrender to the Union. After the Civil War, Darnes earned a medical degree. He was the first black physician to practice in Florida. A statue, Sons of St. Augustine, is on display in the courtyard of the Historical Society of St. Augustine’s Research Library. This memorial was sculpted by Edmond Kirby Smith’s great-granddaughter and was the first piece of public art in the city to honor a Black man.
St. Augustine Municipal Marina and City of St. Augustine Mini-Golf Course
In 1963 (the year before the 1964 Public Accommodation Act), this mini-golf course became the first desegregated public facility in the city of St. Augustine, due to the efforts of civil rights leaders. Built in 1949, this mini-golf course is the oldest in Northeast Florida and is on the national register of historic places for its social history and architecture. You can play a round of mini-golf for half price as a resident ($3.50 for adults and $2.50 for kids).
The Liberty Lot
According to an oral account, this was the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud in 1863, publicly freeing slaves. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The slaves were freed in a vacant lot, later named the ‘Liberty Lot’ by freedmen. On the first anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Freedman’s Society in St. Augustine gathered together to celebrate. This annual event continued for many years. The Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude, Church and Hospital was built on this spot in 1572. It was dismantled and the stones were used to build the Cathedral Basilica. There are many Spanish, Black, British, and Native Americans buried under the parking lot there today. This lot is to the east of the Lightner parking area.
St. Augustine Beach
In 1964, St. Augustine Beach was still treated as a “whites only” beach, despite a Florida ruling two years earlier which desegregated all Florida beaches. Wade-ins were organized near the st. Augustine pier to integrate the beach. Local authorities had no choice but to allow the Black activists to use the beach, but they did not aid them in reaching the water. These wade-ins became increasingly violent as white mobs attacked the Black youth, leading to terrible injuries. Many of the Black students did not know how to swim and were protected by friends who kept them from being knocked under the water. State troopers arrived after several weeks of organized wade-ins and were able to maintain control of the heated situation, successfully upholding the rights of the Black swimmers.
Florida Memorial College A.L. Lewis Archway
Florida Memorial College, the well known Historic Black College in Miami Gardens, was once located in St. Augustine. From 1918 to 1968, Florida Normal Industrial and Memorial College trained students for careers in education, industry, the domestic arts, agriculture, mechanics, and religion. Students at the school led the fight for human equality during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The archway that stood at the front of the school now stands on the opposite side of the road from its original location, in Collier-Blocker-Puryear Park. Zora Neal Hurston, the famous author, and anthropologist, was an instructor at the school, renting a room nearby at 791 West King Street (a site on the Accord Freedom Trail). Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the first black millionaire in the state of Florida, paid for the construction of the arch.
The Black community of Armstrong was established around 1886 by West African descendants known as the Gullah Geechee. Armstrong is part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The free people arrived in this rural location after the Civil War from plantations in Georgia and the Carolinas. Most of the people who live in this town are relatives and there is very little difference between family and community. Unlike other areas in the region, these residents owned their homes. The area saw growth when Henry Flagler built the East Coast Railroad through the community. You can see the historic remains of 4 landmarks with sign markers along the state bike trail: the train depot, the post office, a church, and a railroad camp.
The Isaac Barrett Memorial
In 1897, Isaac Barret was lynched by an angry, hooded mob and hung from a tree in the community of Orangedale. He had been accused of the brutal beating of the Hewson family, who were his white employers. On his way to jail, a group of men stole him from police custody, preventing him from defending himself in court. Barrett is one of more than 300 people who died by racial terror lynchings in Florida from 1877 to 1950.
The plaque describing this terrible history was stolen the day before the dedication ceremony on Shands Pier road in 2019. A bench and a pole remain at the spot.
Butler beach was the only Black beach between American beach and Daytona. Frank B. Butler was a successful businessman, real estate developer, and entrepreneur. In 1927 he started acquiring land between the Matanzas River and the Atlantic Ocean to create a beach for the Black community. He built a merry-go-round, a hotel, a motel, bathhouses, a casino, and a picnic area. The streets bear the names of his family members: Minnie (wife and daughter), Mary (mother), Mae (daughter), Rudolph (his grandson), and Gloria (granddaughter).
Martin Luther King stayed at Butler’s beach hotel during some of his time in St. Augustine. A beach house at 5480 Atlantic View in Crescent Beach where King was supposed to stay, was sprayed with gunfire. Martin Luther King brought a cameraman with him as he inspected the damage, producing the iconic photo of MLK pointing to a bullet hole in the window. This home is on the Accord Freedom Trail, located near Butler Beach.
Beluthahatchee is the historic home of Stetson Kennedy the author, folklorist, environmentalist, and human rights activist. Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK and wrote an exposé called ‘I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan.’ He exposed their secret handshakes, passwords, and names, while also establishing the KKK as a hate organization using, among many things, Superman. He wrote many other books dealing with racial segregation and human rights. According to Zora Neale Hurston (the Harlem Renaissance author and friend of Kennedy who lived in St. Augustine), the name “Beluthahatchee” describes a mythical “Florida Shangri-la, where all unpleasantness is forgiven and forgotten.”
Want to Learn More?
- Black Heritage Tour with Tour St. Augustine
- Timeline of Events in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement of St. Augustine, Fl
- Pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. in St. Augustine
- Florida Memory: State Library and Archives of Florida
- St. Augustine’s Civil Rights Movement
- Voices of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine
- Accord Freedom Trail Sites
- Black History Brochure
- Self Guided Tour with Florida Stories App
- Civil Rights Library of St. Augustine
- The Historical Marker Database
- A Tribute to African Americans in Golf
- The Gullah Geechee Corridor and East Coast Greenway
- Florida Black Heritage Trail
- Florida African American Heritage Preservation Museums
- Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture
Did we miss something on this list? Let us know!