Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

St. Augustine Tour Highlights Civil Rights Struggles Past And Present

The federal Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to fight housing discrimination and promote equal opportunity.

Last month, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid workers commemorated its passage with a visit to St. Johns County.

It was an April morning. On the trolley tour itinerary: two Civil Rights tours, one of St. Augustine’s past and another of its present, both with an eye toward the future.

Historian David Nolan was the group’s guide through Lincolnville, one of St. Augustine’s historically African American communities.

“Welcome aboard,” he said. “We’re going to see part of the hidden history of St. Augustine today.”

Noland points out a peach-colored building. He says, “That was the Florida state headquarters for Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1964 and 1965.”

The tour was hosted by Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, or JALA. JALA is the Fair Housing Act enforcement agency for six Florida counties, and it’s organized this day-long event in St. Augustine titled, “Tale of Three Cities: Ancient, Civil Rights and Modern.”

Nolan says the Nation’s Oldest City makes an interesting case study for how a turbulent history shapes the present.

“This is the history of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘I never knew that happened here.’”

Nolan says the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public places, came directly from the pressure and violence on the streets of St. Augustine.

“This was St. Augustine’s great encounter with modern history, and it was the one time in all of our centuries that the St. Augustine tale really wagged the national dog, when events here had a ripple effect all across the country and beyond,” he said.

While the Civil Rights movement brought many positives, tour organizers are quick to point out social inequalities still afflict St. Johns County. Their hope is to instigate a change.

David Cronin is JALA’s Housing and Urban Development Project Director. He says predominantly black West Augustine has infrastructure needs that have yet to be addressed. West Augustine is unincorporated and it’s sometimes fallen between the cracks of city and county responsibilities, he says.

“Primarily the sewer and the water. When it rains very heavily out there—it’s gotten better, but a lot of the septic tanks fail. So they need a lot more sewer and it’s going at a very slow rate,” he said.

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid says it’s advocating for infrastructure improvements, but ultimately it will take action from the city, county and West Augustine community leaders.

At the offices of the West Augustine Community Redevelopment Agency, Greg White works to revitalize the area. Efforts began in the late ‘90s, after North Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown compared West Augustine to a third world country.

“From that came a lot of publicity,” White said.

Since then, White says, the area has seen some major improvements. The $6 million dollar Solomon Calhoun Community Center was built in 2009, and the Wildflower Clinic now provides health care to the uninsured.

White said, “The first day, Anna, we opened for dental—we didn’t realize the need was so great—it was almost 800 people in line. We had one gentleman there the night before [that] had tried to pull his tooth with a pair of pliers.”

White says he hopes to attract businesses next, which would provide much needed goods, services and employment to the area. He expects a dollar store to open early this summer.

“It’ll be the first national store ever in West Augustine,” he said.

Anna Hamilton is a freelance radio producer and oral historian in St. Augustine, Florida. Her first radio story, produced at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, covered a competitive burrito eating contest. Since then, her award-winning documentary work has focused on issues of civil rights, the environment and foodways. Hamilton produces Watershed, a podcast exploring Floridian culture and our changing environments.