Saturday, June 28, 2014

Florida's Quadricentennial in St. Augustine: Crosses to Bear

In 1513 Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León landed somewhere on our states’s coast and christened it “La Florida.” To help commemorate the 500th anniversary of this event, last year the state celebrated with a program called Viva Florida 500.  Consisting of mostly cultural and historical programming, the promotion was considered successful enough be continued into 2014 as Viva Florida.

Florida’s Quadricentennial Celebration took place fifty years ago from 1959 to 1965. The Florida Legislature established a state Quadricentennial Commission that oversaw a six-year celebration marking the 400th anniversaries of both Pensacola (1959) and St. Augustine in 1965. Warm Mineral Springs participated with a celebration in 1960.

In Pensacola, 1959 marked the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Tristan de Luna's 1559 expedition that established the city as the first European settlement within the current United States. DeLuna's settlement was abandoned in 1562, and while another attempt was made to settle the site a few years later, it was not until 1696 that a colony was permanently established.

1559 Landing of Tristan de Luna at Pensacola

Herbert Rudeen, 1959 from the Pensacola Historical Society

The statewide celebration of the Quadricentennial seems to have been driven by the leaders of St. Augustine, who saw it is an opportunity to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the landing of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. St. Augustine, the nation's oldest continuously occupied city, is preparing to embark on the commemoration of the 450 anniversary of Menéndez's landing next year.

The Kennedy administration established a National Quadricentennial Commission in 1963 and the US postal service marked the occasion of St. Augustine’s anniversary with a special postage stamp. The amount of federal money dedicated to the Quadricentennial was relatively small compared to the amount raised locally, said to be over $6 million dollars. The main federal contribution was the Park Service's reconstruction of the defense line or Cubo constructed of earthworks and logs extending from the fort to the city gates.

Reinventing the City

A number of building and restoration projects were undertaken in anticipation of the Quadricentennial are some of St. Augustine's most notable landmarks. According to a 2013 article in the St. Augustine Record, many buildings in the historic colonial center of the city were restored or reconstructed. Over 70 structures were preserved or reconstructed.

At the spot where Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was said to have placed a small wooden cross in Florida’s soil marking the beginnings of Christianity in the new world, a 208 foot tall stainless steel cross was erected.  The Great Cross at the Mission of Nombre de Dios would not be completed until 1966, but the top portion was dedicated during an interfaith prayer service in 1965. The mid-century modern Prince of Peace Votive Church and nearby bridge were also completed at this time.

Prince of Peace Votive Church
The 208-ft. tall Great Cross
Perhaps the most significant structure built for the Quadricentennial was the St. Augustine Ampitheatre completed in 1965. The 2,000 seats in the ampitheatre came from the Polo Grounds in New York when the New York Giants football team left the stadium.

State Archives of Florida
State Archives of Florida

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Dr. Paul Green created a play dubbed “Cross and Sword” to be performed in the amphitheatre for the celebration. Proclaimed the official state play of Florida by the state legislature, the plot was about the Spanish colonization of the St. Augustine by Menéndez and drew visitors for years before finally closing in 1996. According to Wikipedia, it was written as a "symphonic drama" blending music, dance, pantomime, and poetic dialogue into a larger-than-life historical play. 

The Movement begins
The St. Augustine Civil Rights movement began in 1963 when civil rights leaders sent letters to then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, (who was to speak in St. Augustine), and other members of the Kennedy administration protested the fact that there was no African American representation in the Quadricentennial activities. Jim Crow segregation laws were prevalent in 1963 St. Augustine, and the city's Slave Market still stood as a visible symbol of the slavery era in the South. Civil rights leaders asked that President Kennedy withhold any federal funding appropriated for the Quadricentennial  because they said this money would be used "to celebrate 400 years of slavery and segregation in America's oldest city."

The Slave Market, Library of Congress

After a number of newspapers and magazines reprinted the letters to the administration, President Johnson, who was invited to St. Augustine, responded that he would not attend any Quadricentennial events that were not integrated. When Johnson arrived in St. Augustine to swear in the members of the all-white Quadricentennial Commission, a dozen African Americans were allowed to sit in an out-of-the-way alcove at the event held in the grand Hotel Ponce de Leon. It was said that this was the first time that African Americans were allowed onto the property as guests and not working staff.

Despite negotiations between the local NAACP, reluctant city leaders, and the Kennedy administration, St. Augustine's remained thoroughly segregated. In 1963 protests were organized at the Woolworth's on King Street across from the slave market. Thorough timelines of the events of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine can be found here and here.

Photo submitted to Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Guest Book
Later Martin Luther King, Jr. came to St. Augustine and was arrested for trying to eat lunch at the Monson Motor Lodge restaurant. Police were involved in clashes between protesters and segregationists during attempts to integrate St. Augustine's beaches and the swimming pool at the Monson Motor Lodge.  Dramatic images were captured on film when the hotel owner poured acid into the demonstrator-filled pool. Still photos and film footage of confrontations between protesters and segregationists provoked national outrage.

Protest at the Monson Motor Lodge
State Archives of Florida

Motel manager pours acid in the pool of the Monson Motor Lodge
State Archives of Florida

Segregationists respond to an attempt to integrate St. Augustine Beach
State Archives of Florida

Protest in front of the Slave Market, AP Photo by Harold Valentine
Martin Luther King, Jr. in a St. Augustine Police car, AP Photo

Working on getting it right
The St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement of 1963–1964 that was sparked by planned events for the city’s 400th anniversary focused national attention to the effects of segregation in Florida and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

This year in an effort to honor the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the City of St. Augustine opened an exhibition called Journey: 450 Years of the African-American Experience highlighting the region’s important African-American sites like Fort Mose and historic events like the city’s civil rights movement. There is also a self-guided historical trail called the ACCORD Freedom Trail. And a St. Augustine Civil Rights Museum will be opening in the near future. 

I was born after the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Growing up just an hour and half from St. Augustine we visited the city often. But I grew up in complete ignorance of what transpired in the nation's oldest city in 1963 and '64. In 2009 when I learned of the civil rights movement that occurred there, I was shocked. My memories of the city were exploring the fort with my brother, eating chocolate fudge on St. George Street, or in more recent years walking around the streets of the colonial quarter soaking up the historic architecture. I only learned of the connection to the Quadricentennial when researching a paper intended to be about the cyclorama at Warm Mineral Springs. The effect of the commemoration of  the anniversary of Menendez's landing in St. Augustine not only permanently changed the physical landscape of the city, it changed the social fabric of the entire nation. I'm glad to see that a place that normally focuses on history that is centuries old is now turning its attention to the important events that occurred there a mere fifty years ago.