Putting black history on the map

SUN JOURNAL

St. Augustine: America's oldest city has long celebrated its Spanish heritage. Now some residents are trying to ensure its African-American past is remembered, too.

February 07, 2000|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- You won't find directions to the site of America's oldest community of freed slaves at the visitors center in America's oldest city. At least not in the tourist brochures.

Historian David Nolan knows how to get there, though: Drive north on U.S. 1 to the Super 8 Motel. From the parking lot, look across the salt marsh. See that small island covered with red cedars and palmettos?

That's it. That's what is left of Fort Mose.

Like many of Florida's African-American landmarks, the fort was virtually ignored as developers focused on condominiums and outlet parks and restoring anything related to the state's Spanish colonial roots.

But now, as "heritage tourism" takes hold, some in Florida are recognizing important black sites. Historians in St. Augustine only hope it isn't too late.

St. Augustine, founded in 1565, is the oldest continually inhabited city in America. Its 12,000 residents have always prized their history, from the beginning through their Victorian heyday, when railroad magnate Henry Flagler turned St. Augustine into a winter resort.

History has always been preserved -- or peddled -- here, too. You'll find America's oldest wooden schoolhouse, said to have been built before 1763. You'll see the 1672 Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest structure in the city. The Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum of oddities is the original in the museum chain.

What you won't find are markers pointing to the property owned by a black general in the Spanish militia. You won't learn much about the school where nuns were arrested for teaching blacks or about the 1880s black baseball team made up of waiters from Flagler's Ponce de Leon Hotel.

And you won't be directed to the places where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed while campaigning for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"So many of the towns that were keystones in the civil-rights demonstrations, whether it be Selma or Montgomery or Memphis, have made much out of the history of that time and presented that to the public and been favorably received," says Charles Tingley, librarian for the St. Augustine Historical Society. "St. Augustine has not."

Not in the cell where King was jailed. It has been turned into offices for the county sheriff. Not in the Monson Motor Lodge, where black protesters staged a "swim-in" and where an irate hotel manager poured acid in the water to get them out. It may be torn down for a resort.

Why not? "Probably because those other towns, with the exception of maybe Montgomery, this was their time in the national spotlight," Tingley says.

"But St. Augustine has emphasized the Spanish colonial past because that is the story we can uniquely tell. Museums have to pick and choose what stories they are going to tell, and we do talk about blacks and the civil-rights movement in our publications, but we've got 300 years of colonial times to talk about that nobody is talking about except us."

Only two places where King stayed have been marked, thanks to high school teacher Ivonne Diaz and students in her social studies class.

When the teen-agers saw how many sites were unmarked, they held a garage sale, Diaz wrote a grant application, and for $1,500 they bought landmarks.

One points to Bridge Street, where King stayed in a boarding house and in the home of a school cook and a cab driver. A second marker recognizes the last slave cabin in St. Augustine, now a garage.

A third sits in Diaz's car. When she finds a charitable welder, it will acknowledge the house where Idella Parker lived, maid to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of "The Yearling."

Diaz doesn't understand why, in a tourist town where $17 million recently renovated the 1888 Casa Monica Hotel, somebody hasn't seen potential in black heritage.

"They don't have to love black history to see that this is a fantastic opportunity," she says. "Somebody just has to come in and capitalize on it. By somebody doing that, they could gain the profits while the whole community, the whole nation, gets the education."

At least, Diaz says, interest is growing. A former county commissioner has acquired the Woolworth's lunch counter where sit-ins were held, and he plans a black-history museum. A black neighborhood called Lincolnville was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and some homes have been redone. Vanderbilt University historian Jane Landers has written a book, "Black Society in Spanish Florida," which was recently published.

"Eventually St. Augustine comes to terms with those things in its past," says historian Nolan. "But my great fear is we'll lose the landmarks."

Two miles north, little is left of Fort Mose (pronounced mo-zay).

The first Africans did not come to America as slaves in Jamestown in 1619. Many were already living in Florida. Some came with French settlers, and some came aboard ships with Spanish conquistadors, Florida scholars say.

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