The Stories We Tell Ourselves

A month in America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, Florida, makes clear that history is a strange thing. History is the past, but it’s also the telling of it, the renderings of it. The English language does not distinguish between the two – the past as it was – and the past as remembered and interpreted. Only the interpreted past is available to us.

Historians distinguish between the two with the word ‘history’ (the past) and ‘historiography’, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the study of historical writings or the writing of history”.

Example of ACCORD Freedom Trail plaques

Example of ACCORD Freedom Trail plaques

Most interesting during our one-month stay in St. Augustine were the different historiographies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Tourists in St. Augustine walk past homes and churches with plaques like this one that tell the story of the brave civil rights history of the ’50s and ’60s on what’s called The Freedom Trail.

The casual tourist is unlikely to notice that the Freedom Trail story is not the only one in town. There are two different sets of plaques. The groups that wrote and erected them represent different, often competing, historiographies.

The more prominent set of plaques the define The Freedom Trail were created by ACCORD.  They highlight the role of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The other is the project of a group of local citizens led by the Eubanks family, whose father, the Rev. Goldie M. Eubanks, Sr, was Vice President of the St. Augustine Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose work predated and continued after the arrival of Dr. King and the SCLC in St. Augustine.

The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in America. In the 1950s and ’60s, many civil rights leaders came to regard it as too passive, too conservative. The word ‘Colored’ in its name labelled it as out of touch with Back pride.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arose as a bolder, more activist organization, although the the SCLC and the NAACP represented by Dr. King and Roy Wilkins, respectively, worked closely together. To the left of SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), arrived on the national scene.

While in St. Augustine, we lived next door to a home on The Freedom Trail identified by ACCORD as important to the Movement in St. Augustine. Some of the men who gathered there every mid-morning until dark seem to identify with Dr. King and the SCLC. Others seem resentful that Dr. King and the SCLC got the praise for the work of Rev. Eubanks, Rev. Thomas, and Dr. Robert Hayling, a courageous local dentist, who paved the way for national media attention to the plight in St. Augustine. The historiography of the latter group is posted on the alternative plaques that focus more on the indigenous leaders who put their lives on the line every day as citizens of St. Augustine.

History and historiography are like that. The four Gospels of the New Testament look at the same time period and events with different memories and different angles on the Jesus story.  The nature of history is that it always leaves itself to interpretation. And the nature of historiography is that it raises the question of the story-teller’s angle.

In light of Dr. King’s later speeches about the intrinsic connection between capitalism, the War in Vietnam, and militarism, it seems a great paradox that it was the Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the largest Department of Defense contractors, that funded the ACCORD project centered on Dr. King. History and historiography are always strange. Always they involve some concoction of our better selves, self-interest, pride, and sometimes, a heavy dose of irony.

The Neighbors in St. Augustine

The men gather late in front of the house every morning before the resident gets up.

Mostly in their 60s and early 70s, they arrive on bicycles or on foot with paper bags scrunched close at the top. The minority, the younger ones in their 20s, don’t use bags. They don’t hide the beer can or the pint. They pull the cheap, green, plastic chairs from the yard out to the sidewalk to start the day.

The older ones survived the St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement of the early 60s and the violent reaction of the white city fathers of St. Augustine to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  They tell stories. The younger men don’t seem to care.

I walk next door most every day to say hello. The conversations become windows into humanity, disparate perspectives, and history itself.

Why did the once young men who waded in at Butler Beach in 1964, survived the fire bombing of their homes and the beatings by theKu Klux Klan end up here bleary-eyed with paper bags?

They grow louder as the day wears on. One of them stands in the middle of the street blocking traffic as if to say to passersby, “This is OUR neighborhood!” Several times a day a car pulls up to the curb, opens the window, and exchanges something with the men. They disappear, one by one, into the house for a time.

At noon one day I walk next door and find myself in the middle of what appears to be an argument between one of the older men sitting in the yard and a 20-something man sitting on the sidewalk with his back turned to the street. I come by to say hello. The older man greets me. We say good morning. “You’re a Reverend, right?”

“Well, yes. Sort of..,” I smile, “more or less reverent.” We enjoy a good laugh.

“So,” he says, pointing to the young man holding his open Pabst Blue Ribbon, “doesn’t the Bible say ‘Instead of giving a man a fish, you should teach him how to fish?'”

“Well, no. The Bible doesn’t say that, but it’s pretty close to some of what the Bible teaches.”

“See,” says the young man, “I told you the Bible doesn’t say that!”

The Civil Rights Movement survivors recall how some of their classmates got out of town and left them behind. One of them owns upscale hotels in Atlanta and Miami. He comes home in his big Mercedes every five years or so. According to the men next door, he and others who got out look down their noses at the shrimp boat workers who lived hand-to-mouth existences in the old neighborhood where they grew up together.

The Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine is still a matter of debate both among its veterans and among the young men who have no living memory of it.  For young and old alike, the men who gather daily next door are a community to each other. They have taken their “place” in the post Civil Rights Movement era of St. Augustine.

They are part of America’s left behind. They’re going nowhere their feet or bicycles can’t take them. They care about each other. They are without pretense. They have each other, old friends and younger ones who are going nowhere. They are a local chapter of the community of the stuck. Their numbers are growing all across America.

 

The Road to Civil Rights in America’s Oldest City

INTRODUCTION: Views from the Edges earlier post from 40th ACCORD referred the KKK kidnapping of four civil rights activists in St. Augustine, FL. Yesterday Francis (“Tate”) Floyd said otherwise.

“No,” said Tate,  who was visiting next door, “they weren’t kidnapped. They got caught at a KKK rally downtown and got their asses kicked.”

Below is more complete information posted by The St. Augustine Record on May 17 , 2014 by Matt Soerge. “Views from the Edge” has added the bolded print and photographs to the text.

Civil rights: 50 years later, the memory is still clear

Purcell Maurice Conway

Purcell Maurice Conway

In 1964 St. Augustine, Purcell Conway, a black 15-year-old, held hands with a white nun during a civil-rights demonstration that drew the angry attention of a white mob from the Ancient City and beyond.

The mob surged forward. Conway was attacked, and so was the nun. They tore off her headdress. They dragged her to the ground by her hair. They kicked her.

Fifty years later, the memory is still clear: How can people be so cruel, so petty? he asks, How silly, he says, that there is so much hate over the color of one’s skin.

Conway traveled Wednesday to Tallahassee, where he reunited with other activists from what he calls the “teenage rebellion” — the civil rights demonstrations that rocked St. Augustine from 1963 until the summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act became law.

They went to the Capitol building to see Robert B. Hayling inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. His portrait will go up there along with those of the other inductees, the late James Weldon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph, both of whom grew up in Jacksonville.

Hayling, 84, still sharp and witty, was a dentist who inspired and led the youthful demonstrators in St. Augustine.

Now in their late 60s and early 70s, most of them grew up together in the largely black neighborhoods of Lincolnville and West Augustine.

Asked to describe the St. Augustine of his youth, Shed Dawson, who was arrested nine times, gave a long pause before speaking.

“Scary. Very challenging. Dangerous. Sad.”

Dr. Robert B. Hayling and Mr. James Jackson

Dr. Robert B. Hayling and Mr. James Jackson

You had to be careful, said James Jackson, who was captured and beaten by the Ku Klux Klan.

“You didn’t want to go and get caught out alone at night, especially outside of your comfort zone, outside of Lincolnville.”

Jackson knew many of the Klansmen by sight. He’d see them going about their business during the day, on the streets downtown.

And as the Civil Rights Act moved through Congress, the Klan rallied, openly, on St. Augustine’s quaint downtown streets, in robes that exposed their faces for all to see.

Houses were firebombed. Grenades were thrown at juke joints. Shots were fired.

One white man, with a loaded shotgun on his lap, was shot and killed as the car he was in cruised through a black neighborhood one night. In his death convulsion, he fired shots of his own through the floor of the car.

Young blacks from St. Augustine picketed outside stores, sat at lunch counters where they could not be served. And they marched through the city’s streets, past churches that would not admit them.

One sign asked: “Are you proud of your 400 yrs history of slavery & segregation.”

Demonstrators were threatened and beaten. They were arrested and jailed for attempting to integrate the beaches, lunch counters, hotels.

Many of the black demonstrators were trained in nonviolent ways of protesting and pledged to never strike back.

Others made it clear that they were armed and would defend themselves, their families and their community if called to do so.

Conway says two things united the young black demonstrators: They were fed up with the status quo, where they were permanent second-class citizens. And they were inspired by the civil-rights struggles elsewhere.

Why not St. Augustine too?

“It gets to a point in your life that you’ve been stepped on, mistreated, seen your family members mistreated,” he said. “Forget about the fear — you will die to see this changed.”

‘A mean lady’

At 12, Conway had a white friend, a fellow paperboy, and when they each ordered milk shakes at the lunch counter at the McCrory’s store, he couldn’t understand why the woman there let his friend eat inside, but insisted he go outside.

His friend joined him on the sidewalk. “She’s a mean lady,” he said.

At 14, Conway was mowing the lawn of a white woman who offered him a sandwich and a drink. She left it for him on her garage floor, next to the dog’s bowl.

As a child, he’d been naive. But now his eyes were open — and he chafed as he saw how his parents had to call white people “Mister” or “Miss,” while they were simply called by their first names, George and Julia.

So he was ready, at 14, to join the Movement. That’s what he and his friends called it.

Conway recalled that black teenagers would go the swimming pool at Florida Memorial College, a black Baptist school that moved to Miami a few years later.

College students would tell the teenagers about the Movement. They’d talk about what was happening around the South, about why action was needed in St. Augustine.

By 1964, the Movement drew Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent black leaders to the city.

It drew the support of many white college students from elsewhere, who were beaten and threatened alongside the young black demonstrators.

It drew the support of rabbis and priests and nuns and 72-year-old Mary Elizabeth Peabody, mother of the governor of Massachusetts, who was jailed after supporting the demonstrators.

And it drew national and international coverage to a tourist city preparing for its 400th anniversary.

Tourists stayed away. In 1965, a state legislative report on the unpleasantness in St. Augustine would note that the city lost $5 million in tourism, which meant the state lost taxes, too.

“Which means that all citizens of Florida indirectly paid for Martin Luther King’s visitation to America’s oldest city,” the report said, before fretting about the “devastating barrage of unfavorable publicity” from “purported” news accounts.

“Despite massive propaganda to the contrary,” the state report said, “Negroes and whites have lived together amicably in St. Augustine for centuries.”

‘I was afraid’

Maude Burrows Jackso

Maude Burrows Jackso

Maude Burroughs Jackson knew unfairness as she grew up in the small black community of Hill Top in Middleburg. Still, she was relatively sheltered, there in the country.

She came to St. Augustine in 1960 to go to Florida Memorial College. The city, she said, felt hostile. Discrimination was open.

“It seemed like a mean place,” she said. “Things have really changed over the years. But I was afraid many times.”

She got involved in the Movement after going to Hayling’s dental office with a toothache.

She went to wade-ins at segregated beaches, and between classes she sat at lunch counters or picketed. She was jailed three times.

One night, in Hayling’s office, she made dinner for King — steak and toast and salad. “He’d come in late that night, and with the situation being the way it was, you couldn’t just go outside and eat.”

‘All right, that’s enough’

KKK rally, St. Augustine, FL

KKK rally, St. Augustine, FL

James Jackson said he tries to find the humor in every situation. So he laughs, still, about the night the Ku Klux Klan caught him, Hayling and two other black men, James Hauser and Clyde Jenkins.

He said he stayed calm through talk about getting killed, about getting set on fire. But when the Klan got to talking about castration? “I said, ‘I got to get out of here.’”

Jackson and his companions had gone to eavesdrop on a Klan rally that drew hundreds to St. Augustine, and figured they could spy safely from a back road. That was almost a fatal error. They were beaten, severely.

Jackson shows off a scar on his forehead, courtesy of a lug wrench. And the Klansmen paid particular attention, he said, to the hands of Hayling, a dentist: How could he practice his profession with broken hands?

“We were lucky as hell to get out of their with out lives,” Jackson said.

The story he heard later was that a preacher in the crowd sneaked away to alert police. Sometime later, an officer walked up to the rally. “He said, ‘All right, that’s enough,’” Jackson recounted.

He took them to the hospital, and then to the sheriff’s office. There, bloodied and bruised, they were charged with assault.

After the Civil Rights Act was signed, Jackson remembers coming out of a hardware store and running into Halstead “Hoss” Manucy, one of the prominent white segregationists in town. Manucy had hurled many insults at Jackson, but apparently didn’t recognize him when they bumped into each other.

“Now I’m not a tall man, but he was shorter than me, and he looked up at me and said, ‘Excuse me sir.’”

Jackson laughed. “Excuse me sir! The biggest smile came over my face.”

‘Shell shock’

Shed Dawson, St. Augustine Movement

Shed Dawson, St. Augustine Movement

 Dawson graduated from R.J. Murray High School just a few weeks before the Civil Rights Act was passed. But he was already a civil-rights veteran; he was arrested nine times and spent at least 90 days in jail.

So within a day or two of the act’s passage, he and three other black teens went to a barbecue place on U.S. 1 to “test” the bill.

They squeezed their car into a tight space at the front door. As they approached the door, a group of 25 to 30 men and women came from behind the building, almost as if they were waiting for them.

They had bricks and beer bottles and baseball bats — “their own little personal weapons,” Dawson said.

The four friends split up and ran. Dawson made it to some nearby woods. “Because I was 18 and they were half-drunk, they couldn’t catch me.”

Frustrated, the mob returned to their truck. Perhaps 15 minutes later, Dawson came out of the woods and saw the truck approaching, with people crowded into the back of it — still looking for him.

He ran back in the woods, hiding there for more than two hours. Finally, he crept out and saw a highway patrol car parked in front of another restaurant. Now, he thought, he would be safe.

Dawson went into the restaurant, where the manager stopped him brusquely: “What do you want?”

Dawson’s shirt and tie were filthy, his best pants were muddy and his good shoes were caked with mud. He said he needed to talk to the trooper, who sat, just a few feet away, ignoring him.

“He’s eating lunch,” the manager said.

Dawson insisted. Eventually the trooper got up, locked Dawson in his car, and resumed his meal.

As he ate, a crowd of whites assembled around the car, rocking it back and forth, pounding on the windshield, calling Dawson names.

The trooper, frustrated, came out, started the engine, and got on the radio. “I found the n—– y’all are looking for,” he said.

At the station, they took Dawson’s mug shot, took his fingerprints, but eventually didn’t charge him. The trooper then took him to the headquarters of the Movement, where Dawson’s disappearance was big news.

“He (the trooper) was a hero,” Dawson said. “Everybody was cheering — yeah yeah yeah — and shaking his hands. He was soaking it up.”

King spoke that night at a church, and invited Dawson to sit with him at the pulpit. So he did, still in his filthy clothes.

Dawson ended up traveling the world as a civil servant for the Navy, working on aircraft carriers — a life that would have seemed impossible to him as a teenager. Before things changed, he might have been a cook or a yard man. If lucky, he could perhaps have been a brick mason or a plumber’s helper.

The struggle was worth it, he said, although when he returns to his hometown, the past sometimes feels far too close.

“I’ve been all around the world and I’m OK,” he said. “But when I got back to St. Augustine, to a restaurant, I feel fear, like flashbacks, like the soldiers had. Shell shock. I guess it will never go away.”

Views from the Edge Note: Click HERE for hour-long Library of Congress interview with Purcell Conway.

MLK Day 2015 – the house next door

94 South Street, St. Augustine, FL

94 South Street, St. Augustine, FL

On Martin Luther King Day 2015 the historic house next door to us on The Freedom Trail here in St. Augustine is a faint shadow of its former self. A weathered sign by the rear entry reads:

“NO TRESPASSING by order of the City of St. Augustine. Violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Some of the louvered glass windows on the back porch are broken out. Sheets and blankets cover the windows.

The White family paid the price for their courage. James and Hattie were leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, as was their son Samuel. But, as Isaac Watts (1674–1748) reminds us in his poem and hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Time has a way of placing brackets around even the best historic moments. James, Hattie, and Samuel, their 14 year-old son, who was sent to reform school for sitting in at the downtown St. Augustine Woolworth’s, have been borne away by time. The three of them are deceased; their story and the dream is still alive.

When young Samuel and his three friends later known as “the St. Augustine Four” were arrested at Woolworth’s, the authorities agreed to release them to their parents’ custody on one condition: that they sign a statement that their children would not violate the law again. The four young men pleaded with their parents not to sign the pledge, assuring their parents that they, the sons, could make no such pledge. Mr. and Mrs. White refused to sign. Fourteen year-old Samuel was sent to reform school for a year. He served six months of the sentence before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson and other civil rights movement leaders came to St. Augustine to shine the national spotlight on St. Augustine. Samuel and the other incarcerated member of The St. Augustine Four were released by order of the Governor of Florida. The Civil Rights Act followed.

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

– William Walsham How  (1823 – 1897) 

MLK, Dr. Hayling, and Mr. James Jackson

Be where you are. If you stay there, really LIVE there, dig into the place, listen to the voices, watch the faces and people movements, you’re likely to discover the deeper streams of courage and frailty that make a place what it is.

Take yesterday, for example. Kay and I attend the “Hands Up!” educational event at St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, around the corner from where we’re living this January. Mr. James Jackson, who seems to know a great deal about the law, citizens’ rights, and how to deal with law enforcement, sits behind us. There’s something different about him, a weathered face and voice that come with experience.

Dr. Robert B. Hayling and Mr. James Jackson

Dr. Robert B. Hayling and Mr. James Jackson

When the opportunity presents itself, we step outside for conversation. James Jackson was  a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Field Officer in St. Augustine with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I listen to what he tells me about the tumultuous time in St. Augustine that led to the passage of U.S. Civil Rights Act. “The bill was sitting on Johnson’s desk,” he says, “but he didn’t want to move forward with it. What happened here in St. Augustine [referring to the acts of civil disobedience to de-segregate the public beaches] drew national attention and put pressure on Washington.”

After the “Hands Up!” workshop a google search for James Jackson leads to more information about him, Dr.  Robert B. Hayling, a dentist, and another who were kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan. Gwendolyn Duncan tells the story.

Dr. Robert HaylingFor [Dr. Hayling’s] continued fight to right the injustices perpetrated upon him and his fellow Black Citizens, his home was shot into, barely missing his wife and killing his dog which was within the home. His wife and children escaped without injury. On another occasion, Dr. Hayling, along with Mr. Clyde Jenkins, Mr. James Hauser, Mr. James Jackson were kidnapped by the Klu Klux Klan.

All of the men, except Mr. James Jackson were beaten unmercifully and left semi-conscious. If not for the compassion of a white minister, Reverend Irvin Cheney, who slipped from the rally and called the State Highway Patrol in Tallahassee, Dr. Hayling and his fellow activists, who were stacked like firewood, would have been burned alive with gasoline. Dr. Hayling received the most serious injuries, suffering hospitalization for fourteen days, losing eleven teeth, and several broken ribs. Scars he is known to have said, “I’ll take to my grave.” He and the others were charged with assault but charges were dropped because the Klan never showed up to court. The Klan was never prosecuted in this case.

— Copyright © 2004, Gwendolyn Duncan, “Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement – Dr. Robert B. Hayling”

Dr. Hayling’s house is three blocks from where Kay and I are staying. Before meeting Mr. Jackson yesterday, we read the Freedom Trail plaque walking by the house around the corner here in Lincolnville.

Be where yo are. If you stay there, really LIVE there, dig into the place, listen to the voices, watch the faces and the people movements, you’re likely to discover the deeper streams of courage and frailty that make a place what it is.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Jan. 18, 2015

 

Martin Luther King Day in St. Augustine

The car dealer here in St. Augustine will be open on Martin Luther King Day. No holiday for its workers.

I learn this while waiting for my car to be serviced. I read the local paper, The St. Augustine Record, Wednesday, January 14, 2015. Tucked away page A6 under “News and Notes” is a small headline:

“Commemorative Breakfast Planned”

Commemorative of what? Martin Luther King, Jr., Monday, January 19 at First Coastal Technical College.

I put down the paper and walk through the show room to look at the new models. A white sales manager sees me get into one of the cars and points angrily to a 20-something African-American salesman to get with the program. The young man greets me through the passenger window. I tell him I’m just killing time during a routine oil change and that I’m from Minnesota. We exchange pleasantries.

I get a cup of coffee and go out to look at the used cars – it’s my thing, checking out used cars – and run into the young salesman again. I ask whether Martin Luther King Day is a big deal here in St. Augustine. He smiles. I tell him I’ve just read the newspaper and the small announcement. “Is the dealership closed for Martin Luther King Day?” I ask. “No, Sir. We’re open,” he says. “I’ll be working.”

“Do you know about The St. Augustine Four?” I ask. He doesn’t. I tell him we’re staying next door to the home of James and Hattie White whose 14 year-old son Samuel was sent to reform school in 1963 for sitting in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and that the case of the four teenagers was responsible for Dr. King and Jackie Robinson joining the cause in St. Augustine.

Before I leave the dealership, he finds me in the waiting area. “I asked the boss,” he says. “He said I can have the day off if I want it.”

I tell him there’s a “Hands Up!” workshop Saturday morning at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) where MLK and Jackie Robinson joined the local the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine. It’s just around the corner from where we’re staying in Lincolnville. “Come if you can!” “Thanks,” he says, “Maybe I’ll see you there.”