Recently, my husband and I visited St. Augustine, FL to attend the Journey Exhibit at the Visitor’s Center. I expected the display to be small and minimal, but was pleasantly surprised. This exhibit was a museum quality piece and we learned a great deal about the civil rights movement and the African American experience in St. Augustine. Hats off to the curators, sponsors and developers of this fine display of history.
The drive down is a short enjoyable one. It only takes about 30 minutes to get there from Jacksonville riding down I-95 South. Arriving at the Visitor’s Center we decided to park in the adjacent parking lot at a cost of $10. Before you scream of outrage, this is a flat fee no matter how long you are parked there. For those of you that are not familiar with this area of Florida, this is a very historical town and the only way to really see it is on foot. If you choose to drive around, you will have a very difficult time finding a place to park when something catches your eye. Upon entering the Visitor’s Center you can see the entrance of the display in front of you. After paying a modest fee of $5 for entry (Admission is free for residents of St. John’s County) you have the option of having a volunteer guide you through the Journey.
We chose to take our docent up on her offer and she guided us along providing interesting tidbits of information that were not as evident by just wondering through the display on our own. The display is separated into four sections: Genesis, Fortress of Freedom, Breaking the Chains and Crossroads of Change. Each section contained beautiful artwork and relevant displays of historical documents, models and visuals. I paid close attention to what we were being told and then after we finished the brief guided overview, decided to take more time to review the individual displays.
I of course was a picture taking maniac and was very happy to ask my husband move so I could get a good shot of everything! I will post those pictures along with this blog. I was excited to see what details of history were displayed from the statue of a black conquistador, to the video of civil rights activists being beaten, to the fingerprint card of Dr. King from the time he was arrested in St. Augustine. There was also a display of the Woolworth counter where activist sat to gain civil rights. There was also an interactive display that took you through history of the African American from Genesis to the Civil Rights Era.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the things learned during this trip:
The Journey begins literally at the beginning. When Ponce de Leon sailed into Florida in 1513, he was accompanied by black crew members including an African conquistador named Juan Garrido. He is famous for being the first person to introduce wheat to the new world. St. Augustine the oldest city in America, was settled by the Spanish in 1565. The oldest written record in the archives is the birth of a black child in 1606. There was also a document on display of the first marriage of a black couple. There is a statue of a black townsman in what would be considered normal clothes to wear during his daily activities.
Fortress of Freedom:
Since the Spanish viewed slaves based on religion and not color, there were free people of color in the township. As long as they were Catholic, runaway slaves were considered residents and not slaves, that is until the British Colonies started complaining. At this point, the now free people of color were provided with a slate of land to start their own township and Fort Mose was born. There is a beautiful painting of General Jorge Biassou, the country’s first black general. He hailed from Haiti and was the commander of the free black militia that protected the southern and northern entrances of St. Augustine during the War of 1812.
Breaking of Chains:
This section focused on the era of slavery and the aftermath once the Emancipation Proclamation was read. There were nice pieces on display that depicted the life of slaves in the era, but the main focus was on the time once the slaves were free. We are all aware of the abuses suffered by the freed slaves such as share copping, racism, lynching and discrimination. To my surprise, there was a heart-wrenching display showing the abuse black men in particular suffered. There was a statue of a black man who had been put in jail on trumped up charges, with an actual ball and chain secured to his ankles. (No I am not talking about his wife ) There is also a photo and information that explained that black men were often arrested for no credible reason and forced to work in hard labor camps. In addition there was a display of memorabilia from the Jim Crow Era.
Crossroads of Change:
This of course was my favorite section because it is the one I know the most about, or so I thought. We are taught about Selma and Montgomery and Atlanta when we are provided some education about the civil rights movement. What I didn’t know was there was a big movement in St. Augustine as well. The famed Woolworth counter is on display, but not just the counter, there are the likenesses of four activists as well. Did you know that Dr. King made a speech there? Well I didn’t. He was even arrested and the display shows his fingerprint card from that arrest. Andrew Young is known for leading a march there as well. There were several protests, but two in particular stand out. The first is a protest of one of the segregated beaches where activist went onto the beach and were greeted by very angry crowds of people. There were arrests and violence ensued. The second incident was at the Monson Motor Lodge, when some of the protesters, who were black, decided to take a swim in the pool. The owner of the hotel was disgusted and decided to pour muriatic acid into the pool while they were in the water. Dr. King was arrested in the restaurant of this hotel.
We excited the Journey through the gift shop and purchased some post cards to commemorate the experience. We also went into the visitor’s center and obtained different brochures for future activities. There is so much history in St. Augustine that we will need more time to explore it. After leaving the Visitor’s Center we took a walk to the Castillo de San Marcos, a historic fort that protected the city for over 300 years during the colonial period. It is waterfront, of course and because it was such a nice day, we decided to sit on one of the benches and people watch, look at the boats and just enjoy the weather. On our next journey we will use some of the information in the brochures to do a walking tour of “African Americans in St. Augustine”. There are so many things to see just in this category alone. I’ll be sure to update when we return. Enjoy the pictures and I hope you will venture to St. Augustine to check out this Journey which is open thru July 15, 2014!