February is Black History Month, the annual observance intended to share, celebrate, and understand the impact of Black heritage and culture in the US.
Read on to learn more about important sites for faith, freedom, education, and leisure that showcase St. Augustine’s Black History & Heritage.
Mission Nombre de Dios
On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and nearly 1,200 Spaniards arrived on the city’s shores and named the new settlement St. Augustine in honor of the saint on whose feast day they sighted land. Archeological and archival records show that the earliest sustained presence of Africans in what would become the US occurred in the state of Florida.
Under King Philip’s rule, Menéndez would bring 500 African slaves to Florida within three years of settlement. Evidence suggests enslaved Africans from Havana, Cuba were among St. Augustine’s first settlers. While many records from the 16th and 17th Centuries are lost, documents from the Catholic Church reveal North Florida’s role in the human trade into the 1800s.
In 2015, the Middle Passage Ceremonies & Port Markers Project installed an educational marker of the transatlantic slave trade at the Mission Nombre de Dios, Menéndez’s landing site.
In March of 1862 during the Civil War, Union soldiers occupied St. Augustine. In January 1863, military authorities received the first version of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and ordered that all slaves in the area be released to congregate in a vacant lot on St. George Street.
The Proclamation was read, freeing all slaves in the state of Florida and making St. Augustine one of the first in the South to break the bonds of slavery by executive order.
This historic event took place at what is now The Collector, Luxury Inn & Gardens. Today, visitors can find a bell and plaque in the courtyard which serves as a monument to remember this event that changed the course of American history.
St. Benedict the Moor Church
Historic Lincolnville is home to St. Benedict the Moor Church, the first African American parish of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, named for a Sicilian friar known for service to his community despite illiteracy and humble means.
In 1871, the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart vowed to serve and minister to newly freed slaves. In 1892, Josephite Bishop John Moore acquired land in St. Augustine that once was part of the Yallaha plantation orange grove and began to develop the site for a church and school.
The first building erected in 1898 is now the oldest surviving brick schoolhouse in St. Augustine and one of the first schools for Black children in Florida. Construction of the parish church began in 1909; the church was completed and consecrated in 1911. The rectory was completed in 1915.
The buildings have seen many important moments in Civil Rights history. In 1916, Sisters Mary Thomasine, Mary Scholastica, and Mary Beningus were arrested under Jim Crow laws that prohibited white teachers from teaching Black students. The three sisters were quickly acquitted when a judge ruled the law did not apply to private schools.
In 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. used the rectory to plan marches and demonstrations to support the civil rights movement that played a significant part in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The school closed soon after, partly because of desegregation legislation.
The school building, currently undergoing significant restoration, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, along with the Church and Rectory, may be seen today at 82 Martin Luther King Avenue.
Florida Normal & Industrial Institute / A.L. Lewis Archway
The Florida Normal and Industrial Institute came to St. Augustine in 1918 through the merger of two earlier institutions dedicated to serving former slaves and their descendants.
In 1941 the private historically Black school grew to become a four-year liberal arts institution, with its first class graduating in 1945. Students were active in the Civil Rights demonstrations in the city and organized a chapter of the NAACP on campus in 1961. The school’s name changed to Florida Memorial College in 1963. In 1965, with racial violence related to the city’s Civil Rights movement increasing, the college bought a tract of land in Dade County, moved to Miami in 1968, and was renamed Florida Memorial University in 2006.
The final remnant of the institution is the Abraham Lincoln Lewis Archway, named after the first Black millionaire in Florida. Lewis was a businessman and founded the Afro-American Life Insurance Company of Jacksonville, Florida in 1901. He also founded American Beach, a community listed on the National Register that became a prestigious vacation spot for Black visitors during the segregation period.
Lewis paid for the construction of the arch, now located on the corner of Holmes Boulevard and West King Street. Initially on the opposite side of the street, the arch was moved in 2009, then restoration efforts soon followed. The restored archway was dedicated in 2011 when Florida Memorial students and alumni gathered to remember the history of the school and honor A.L. Lewis’s legacy.
Born in Georgia in 1885, Frank B. Butler was a businessman, political and civic leader, founder of Butler Beach, and Florida’s first black citizen to serve on a grand jury.
He moved to St. Augustine around 1906 and in 1914 opened Palace Grocery on the corner of Washington Street and Bridge Streets. A year later, Butler entered the real estate business and his company would soon develop the College Park subdivision.
In 1927, Butler was frustrated with the injustice of “whites-only” beaches and began purchasing oceanfront property on Anastasia Island, eventually acquiring a tract from the Atlantic to the Matanzas River.
Butler Beach became the first beach between Daytona and Jacksonville where African Americans were able to freely enjoy the surf, sun, and sand. Several Civil Rights demonstrations took place on Butler Beach in the 1960s.
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