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St Augustine: The oldest city in the USA

Published
September 11, 2021
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I KNEW I was heading all directions and spending a lot of time backtracking ridiculously: but that’s okay! I had a list of things to do and places to see and be, and if for whatever reason another one got added to that list — I just went.

That’s the fun of it all, I guess. Go where you want and do what you please. A plan, or absence of plan, which was really helped by having an Amtrak railway pass in those places where the trains ran.

There wasn’t one from Birmingham to St Augustine, or not directly at any rate. For this stretch it was about a twelve-hour drive in my rental car from Birmingham, which I felt up to doing. So, I did.

St Augustine was well worth the trip. Perched on the northern end of the peninsula of Florida, it is a refreshing sea-side town. Founded in 1565 by the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St Augustine is the oldest continually settled European town on the mainland of the United States of America (Puerto Rico was colonized from 1493 onward).

St Augustine holds an interesting history behind its paved walkways, blue oceans and intricate colonial inspired buildings. It was once a place of continuous sacking and raiding, either by the English, by Spain or by pirates. Nowadays it is a brilliant and lively seaside town, popular with tourists. So, I decided to do the touristy thing and hop on a bus tour.

St Augustine has a fair bit of history in relation to the civil rights era as well. As I rode around on the bus, I hoped to learn more about that as well. The St Augustine Movement began in 1964, with several prominent activists including Martin Luther King Jr arriving in the city to support desegregation of the black community. In June 1964 at the St. Mary Missionaries Church, Dr King spoke to the church members inside.

So many people turned up to hear him speak that they had to hold talks in different churches. Another church they met at was the Trinity United Methodist Church. They were planning a peaceful protest that was going to be held at a motel called the Monson Motor Lodge, on a site now occupied by the Bayfront Hilton Hotel. The protest was organized because, a few days before, they had been refused access to the restaurant at the Lodge.

When they got to the Lodge on 18 June to stage their protest, Dr King’s group received further opposition from the manager. Activists of all shades then jumped into a segregated pool at the Lodge, whereupon the owner, Jimmy Brock, tipped in two gallons of muriatic (hydrochloric) acid to generate chlorine fumes and force them out. In a rapid-fire sequence of exposures, Brock is caught in the act by an alert photographer. You can even see the chlorine cloud in one shot. It was all in the newspapers a day or two later.

The notorious Monson Motor Lodge incident, as it is still called today, helped ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act two weeks later. President Johnson corralled legislators in a room and, pointing to the photographs in some newspaper no doubt, insisted that they pass the Act.

Needless to say, in 1960s St Augustine it wasn’t the deranged motelier but the protesters who were arrested. Dr King himself was held in a cell for one night, a fact that added to the outrage felt by all those who were wondering what on earth was going on in St Augustine, and down South more generally.

It was great to see the churches and other places where Dr King had held and been part of discussions and actions on civil rights. It is a monumental part of American history, and I was glad I got to see it with my own eyes.

It wasn’t safe for Dr King to stay in one place for too long because somebody had placed a bounty on him. He was even asked by the courts to leave St Augustine for one month because he had, according to them, disrupted the racial harmony in the city.

So, he moved around a lot, even within St Augustine. He stayed at several homes within the city and each of them now has a specially engraved plaque in front, so they were easy to pick out as we drove around.

It was good to see how the city of Saint Augustine was proud of its civil rights history. Like other cities in the USA, they have since named a street after him: Martin Luther King Avenue. But St Augustine does have on additional claim to distinction in that it is the only city in the United States to have a street named after Dr King that he actually marched on.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Monson incident, the Bayfront Hilton held a benefit luncheon for the public in its restaurant, all ethnicities welcome it goes without saying — a most fitting tribute!

The tour then went to a fort where the bus passengers could get off and have a walk around. The Castillo de San Marcos, completed in 1695, is the oldest masonry fort in the entire United States of America, and it was quite amazing. Shaped almost like a four-pointed star with buildouts from the points of a square, it sits overlooking Matanzas Bay.

Matanzas means ‘massacres’, and it’s a place-name that pops up with disturbing regularity all over the former Spanish colonial empire.

In the case of Florida, the name refers to a Spanish colonial version of the Donner Party incident. With winter setting in (however mild) and with not enough food for the Spanish garrison plus a number of French troops lately captured from an ill-fated French settlement just up the coast in the Jacksonville area, Fort de la Caroline. The French prisoners were massacred by Menéndez’s men in order to reduce the burden on the food supply, and that’s how the Floridian Matanzas got its name.

Of course, it could be that the Spanish are more honest about the tragic side of life, frontier life included. In New Zealand, we have a bay that used to be called Murderers’ Bay or Massacre Bay, which would surely have Matanzas in its name to the present day if we spoke Spanish. But the name was changed to Golden Bay once the more respectable sorts of colonists began populating the area. Where the Spanish are tragic, we are middle-class.

I spent a bit of time wandering around the Castillo before heading back to the bus stop to rejoin the group. They had revolving tours going all the time, so you had the option to get off at some of the locations and spend a bit of time there, just like in Washington.

At any rate, there can’t be many cities in the USA that have an honest- to-goodness, fully intact Spanish Castillo right in the middle of town, as if you were in Cuba or someplace like that. In fact, there is only one: and it is St Augustine.

The next part of my journey was south, to Miami Beach and unknown to me at the time I was in for a very interesting experience.

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