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Ponce, Henry, Martin
Juan Ponce de Leon Henry Flagler Martin Luther King Be Yourself
St Augustine History

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

The vicinity of St. Augustine was first explored in 1513 by Spanish explorer and governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de León, who claimed the region for the Spanish crown. Prior to the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, several earlier attempts at European colonization in what is now Florida were made by both Spain and France, but all failed.

The French exploration of the area began in 1562, under the Huguenot captain Jean Ribault. Ribault explored the St. Johns River to the north of St. Augustine before sailing north, ultimately founding the short-lived Charlesfort on what is now known as Parris Island, South Carolina. In 1564, Ribault's former lieutenant René Goulaine de Laudonnière headed a new colonization effort. Laudonnière explored St. Augustine Inlet and the Matanzas River, which the French named the River of Dolphins. They made contact with the local Timucua chief, probably Seloy, a subject of the powerful Saturiwa chiefdom, before heading north to the St. Johns River. There they established Fort Caroline.

Later that year some mutineers from Fort Caroline fled the colony and turned pirate, attacking Spanish vessels in the Caribbean. The Spanish used this as a catalyst to locate and destroy Fort Caroline, fearing it would serve as a base for future piracy, and wanting to dissuade further French colonization. The Spanish quickly dispatched Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to go to Florida and establish a base from which to attack the French.

Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-American origin in the United States. Forty-two years before the English colonized Jamestown and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Spanish established at St. Augustine this nation's first enduring settlement.

The architectural legacy of the city's past is much younger, testimony to the impermanent quality of the earliest structures and to St. Augustine's troubled history. Only the venerable Castillo de San Marcos, completed in the late seventeenth century, survived destruction of the city by invading British forces in 1702.
Governor Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo

Vestiges of the First Spanish Colonial Period (1565-1764) remain today in St. Augustine.  the form of the town plan originally laid out by Governor Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo in the late sixteenth century. The narrow streets and balcony houses that are identified with the architecture introduced by settlers from Spain. Throughout the modern city, within its Historic Colonial District, there remain thirty-six buildings of colonial origin and another forty that are reconstructed models of colonial buildings. 

St. Augustine boasts that it contains the only urban nucleus in the United States whose street pattern and architectural ambiance reflect Spanish origins. Historians credit Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of the island of Puerto Rico,  then discovered of Florida in 1513. While on an exploratory trip in search of the fabled Bimini he sighted the eastern coast of Florida on Easter Sunday, which fell on March 27 that year. Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for the Spanish Crown and named it Florida after the Easter season, known in Spanish as PASCUA FLORIDA. This newly claimed territory extended north and west to encompass most of the known lands of the North American continent that had not been claimed by the Spanish in New Spain (Mexico and the Southwest).  In the following half century, the government of Spain launched no less than six expeditions attempting to settle Florida; all failed. In 1564 French Huguenots (Protestants) succeeded in establishing a fort and colony near the mouth of the St. Johns River at what is today Jacksonville. 

This settlement posed a threat to the Spanish fleets that sailed the Gulf Stream beside the east coast of Florida, carrying treasure from Central and South America to Spain. As Don Pedro Menéndez de Aviles was assembling a fleet for an expedition to Florida, the French intrusion upon lands claimed by Spain was discovered. King Philip II instructed Menéndez, Spain's most capable admiral, to remove the French menace to Spain's interests. On September 8, 1565, with much pomp and circumstance and 600 voyagers cheering, Menéndez set foot on the shores of Florida. In honor of the saint whose feast day fell on the day he first sighted land, Menéndez named the colonial settlement St. Augustine. Menéndez quickly and diligently carried out his king's instructions. With brilliant military maneuvering and good fortune, he removed the French garrison and proceeded to consolidate Spain's authority on the northeast coast of Florida. St. Augustine was to serve two purposes: as a military outpost, or PRESIDIO, for the defense of Florida, and a base for Catholic missionary settlements throughout the southeastern part of North America. Maintaining St. Augustine as a permanent military colony, however, was a mighty task. Without the courage, perseverance, and tenacity of the early settlers, it is doubtful that the community would have survived.1763 map of St. Augustine, capital of British East Florida

English pirates and corsairs pillaged and burned the town on several occasions in the next century. Clashes between the Spaniards and the British became more frequent when the English colonies were established in the Carolinas, and later, in Georgia. As a consequence, the Spanish moved to strengthen their defenses, beginning in 1672 construction of a permanent stone fortress. The Castillo de San Marcos was brought to completion late in the century, just in time to meet an attack by British forces from the Carolinas in 1702. Unable to take the fort after a two-month siege, the British troops burned the town and  retreated.

British attacks continued, however. Plantation and slave owners in the English colonies resented the sanctuary that Spanish Florida afforded escaped slaves who successfully made their way to St. Augustine, which became a focal point for the first underground railroad. There, escaped slaves were given their freedom by the Spanish Governor if they declared allegiance to the King of Spain and embraced the Catholic religion. In 1738, the first legally sanctioned free community of former slaves, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, was established as part of the presidio’s northern defenses. In 1740, an even stronger attack on St. Augustine was mounted by the Governor of the British colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe. 
1763 Map of St. Augustine
He also failed to take the fort. The Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending the French and Indian War, gave Florida and St. Augustine to the British, accomplishing by the stroke of a pen what pitched battles had failed to do. St. Augustine came under British rule for the first time and served as a Loyalist (pro-British) colony during the American Revolutionary War. A second Treaty of Paris (1783), which gave America's colonies north of Florida their independence, returned Florida to Spain, a reward for Spanish assistance to the Americans in their war against England. Upon their return, the Spanish in 1784 found that St. Augustine had changed. Settlers from a failed colony in New Smyrna (south of St. Augustine) had moved to St. Augustine in 1777. This group, known collectively as MINORCANS, included settlers from the western Mediterranean island of Minorca. Their presence in St. Augustine forever changed the ethnic composition of the town.  During what is called by historians the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821), Spain suffered the Napoleonic invasions at home and struggled to retain its colonies in the western hemisphere. Florida no longer held its past importance to Spain. The expanding United States, however, regarded the Florida peninsula as vital to its interests. It was a matter of time before the Americans devised a way to acquire Florida. The Adams-Onîs Treaty, negotiated in 1819 and concluded in 1821, peaceably turned over the Spanish colonies of East and West Florida and, with them, St. Augustine, to the United States.

For the next twenty-four years, East Florida and with it St. Augustine remained a territorial possession of the United States. Not until 1845 was Florida accepted into the union as a state. The Territorial Period (1821-1845) was marked by an intense war with native Indians, the so-called Second Seminole War (1835-1842). The United States Army took over the Castillo de San Marcos and renamed it Fort Marion.

1860 St. Augustine waterfrontIn 1861, the Civil War began. Florida joined the Confederacy, but Union troops loyal to the United States Government quickly occupied St. Augustine and remained in control of the city throughout the four-year long war. St. Augustine was thus one of the few places in the United States where Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862, actually freed any slaves. After the war, land was leased to freed slaves on what was then the west bank of Maria Sanchez Creek. Initially called Africa, the settlement later became Lincolnville and is today listed in the National Register of Historic Places, along with three other historic districts in the city. 

Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, St. Augustine entered its most glittering era. Following a visit to the crumbling old Spanish town, Henry Flagler, a former partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, decided to create in St. Augustine a winter resort for wealthy Americans. He owned a railroad company that in 1886 linked St. Augustine by rail with the populous cities of the east coast. In 1887, his company began construction of two large and ornate hotels and a year later added a third that had been planned and begun by another developer. Flagler's architects changed the appearance of St. Augustine, fashioning building styles that in time came to characterize the look of cities throughout Florida. For a time, St. Augustine was the winter tourist mecca of the United States. 

St. George Street St. Augustine, FL

In the early twentieth century, however, the very rich found other parts of Florida to which they could escape. With them fled Flagler's dream of turning St. Augustine into the "Newport of the South." St. Augustine nevertheless remained a tourist town. As Americans took to the highways in search of a vacation land, St. Augustine became a destination for automobile-borne visitors. The tourism industry came   to dominate the local economy.

The city celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1965 and undertook in cooperation with the State of Florida a program to restore parts of the colonial city. The continuation of an effort actually begun in 1935, what became known as the "Restoration" resulted in preserving the thirty-six remaining buildings from the colonial era and the reconstruction of some forty additional colonial buildings that had previously disappeared, transforming the appearance of the historic central part of St. Augustine. It was in great part a tribute to such efforts that King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia made this small city a part of their 2001 visit to the United States.

Martin Luther King Jr. being denied entry to the whites-only Monson Motor Lodge restaurant by owner Jimmy Brock. Current site of Hilton Hotel.In 1964, St. Augustine played a role in America’s civil rights struggle when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a local campaign to dramatize national efforts designed to secure Congressional approval of what became the landmark Civil Rights Act of that year. The city now contains a series of historical markers noting sites associated with the civil rights movement here. The first of Henry Flagler's three great hotels, the Ponce de Leon, was adapted for use as an institution of higher learning in 1971. As Flagler College, it expanded to embrace a student body of some 1,700 by the end of the century, offering a traditional four-year arts and science degree program. The second of his hotels, the Alcazar has since 1948 contained the Lightner Museum, (and in 1973 the City of St. Augustine municipal offices). The third Flagler hotel, originally called the Casa Monica, stood vacant for thirty-five years before St. Johns County converted it for use a county courthouse in 1965. In 1999, under private ownership, the building was restored to its original function, and is now the only one of Flagler's three great hotels still serving that purpose. Some 2 million visitors annually make their way to St. Augustine, lured by the sense of discovering a unique historic part of America. While the venerable Castillo de San Marcos remains the traditional magnet for visitors, there are many other appealing historical sites and vistas. The City of St. Augustine maintains architectural control over the colonial city, insuring that the inevitable change which occurs in a living urban area respects the past.

St. George Street St. Augustine, FlL

The city is a popular travel destination for its Spanish colonial-era buildings as well as elite 19th-century architecture. The city's historic center is anchored by St. George Street, which is lined with historic houses from various periods. Most of these houses are reconstructions of buildings that had been burn ed or demolished over the years, though a few of them are original. The city has a privately funded Freedom Trail of historic sites of the civil rights movement, and a museum at the Fort Mose site, the location of the 1738 free black community. Historic Excelsior School, built in 1925 as the first public high school for blacks in St. Augustine, has been adopted as the city's first museum of African-American history. In 2011, the St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument, a commemoration of participants in the civil rights movement, was dedicated in the downtown plaza a few feet from the former Slave Market. Robert Hayling, the leader of the St. Augustine movement, and Hank Thomas, who grew up in St. Augustine and was one of the original Freedom Riders, spoke at the dedication ceremony. Another corner of the plaza was designated "Andrew Young Crossing" in honor of the civil rights leader, who received his first beating in the movement in St. Augustine in 1964. Bronze replicas of Young's footsteps have been incorporated into the sidewalk that runs diagonally through the plaza, along with quotes expressing the importance of St. Augustine to the civil rights movement. That project was publicly funded. Some important landmarks of the civil rights movement, including the Monson Motel and the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge, had been demolished in 2003 and 2004.

A half-century later, memories linger of St. Augustine's 'summer of fear' civil rights rebellion. An unidentified woman falls after being attacked by three white female segregationists in St. Augustine Beach on June 23, 1964.

The woman was attempting a wade-in with several African American and white desegregationist demonstrators.

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 & rsquo;s skin. #CivilRights, #Diversity #StAugustine #GayStAugustine #50years

An unidentified woman falls after being attacked by three white female segregationists in St. Augustine Beach on June 23, 1964. The woman was attempting a wade-in with several African American and white desegregationist demonstrators.

Read more at Jacksonville.
Journey: 450 Years of the African American Experience in St Augustine
The Rabbis Return
The Freedom Riders 2

Joint Letter From the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine

Part II – The Freedom Riders

“I was in the second wave (of freedom riders). The buses that went down and were stopped along the way, and the riders were pulled out and beaten, and the buses were set on fire. That was ’61, that was the first year. I was the second wave in ’62. We went in cars. Don’t want to give them a chance to stop the bus.  So this was the second wave. And I was jailed twice. The first time was in Albany, Georgia. The second time was two years later in Saint Augustine Florida. On both cases, it was a response to Martin Luther King asking clergy to come south.  We were addressed by King, and Ralph Abernathy, and Andy Young, as to what to expect in a non-violent demonstration. And expect to be arrested. The next day we formed a large circle, on the steps of City Hall of Albany, Georgia. 70 or 80 people black and white.

We formed a demonstration, and we were all arrested. It was a prayer service is what we did. We were in a circle and we did a circle and a prayer service. We were arrested and thrown in jail in Albany Georgia.  Well, we accomplished something. We integrated the jail. But they decided that integrating the jail was not proper. So the white guys were taken to a nearby county, Baker County, and thrown in a jail there. The jail was two cells, meant for 8 people, and we were about thirty of us in the cells. It was two cells side by side and a little area in front of the cells no running water and toilets that didn't work, and we were there for a week.”


“There again we were met by King at a local church, again given instructions, this was 1964 where you were prohibited from segregation in any place that had interstate commerce. It was (President) Johnson’s civil rights act. We were going to demonstrate the next day in three different locations, all of which had interstate commerce. That night we were going to march from the black area through the white area to the slave market, and return. And what King told us was be on the lookout, because the night before someone had been shot and killed along the route. Someone had crawled up a tree, and as the group passed below, had shot and killed them.

We kept marching. And it’s dark where we’re marching, and I’m in the lead. And I’m holding this Black girl’s hand as we’re marching. I got to tell you…the scariest two, three, four hours of my life. We’re passing under the same trees where the night before someone had been shot…and with the full knowledge the National Guard that had been called out wasn't very sympathetic to start with. So…I was scared…I can rehearse the feeling that I had all over again as I tell the story. Well, we marched…from the black section, through the white section…to the slave market…did a prayer service there of some sort and turned around and walked back – that was our evening.

The next day we did a prayer service, we were to divide into three groups…one group was to go to the local Woolworth’s lunch counter …be like going to a Target nowadays to a lunch counter, or to a lunch counter at a Wal-Mart.  One group went to the Woolworth’s, another group went to a lunch counter at an interstate motel. And the third group was to go to the parking lot of this same motel and gather in the parking lot, and that’s the group I was assigned to. There were about fifty of us, in a circle in the parking lot, doing a prayer service, whites, and blacks crossing arms. And again singing and doing prayers. And at that moment I was witness to the most courageous act I had ever seen in my life – in my life! We’re in the circle, and at a given moment, two young black kids – teenagers – broke away from the group, and as they broke away they peeled off their clothing, and they had bathing suits on, underneath their clothing, and they ran from us to the swimming pool, of this motel. And the swimming pool was probably no more than thirty yards away – and they jumped into the pool, and of course, the patrons of the pool, white people, immediately exited. Oh my god, swimming in the same pool with a black! And the manager was called. And the manager panicked. And he didn't know what to do and he ran, and he grabbed a gallon jug of acid…and he took the acid, and he poured it into the pool…with the two black kids still in the pool – they didn't budge! Now, he had no way of knowing that the acid diluted itself with water, but you could see on the bottle…’acid’ – and the kids just stayed there in the pool till the guy was done with the acid, and they didn't move. Those two kids…that’s indelible…that scene…is absolutely indelible…that hasn't changed over the years, the vision of that scene. Then we were arrested…and they put five of us in each of the cop cars…then they took us to a huge parking lot outside the jail…then each cop had his picture taken with his five charges…I guess so he could put it in his scrapbook for the future.  And there I saw one of the most horrific acts in my life, one of the cops had a cattle prod, and here in Montana we know what cattle prods are, and there was a young white girl, I’d say early 20’s, who had been arrested with us, and the cop took that prod, and shoved it right up her behind, and turned on the juice, and the scream from that girl, the absolute scream from that girl, and the agony…and she was not counter-demonstrating at all. She had come, she had been arrested, and she was going peacefully.

They separated white from black and Jew from gentile…

I think…I think it’s important to tell the story, because again….something I had said to you earlier, there’s a story wherein I had a fairly unique experience, and it’s important to tell the story so the story is told and it’s not lost it doesn't go down the drain so that others realize what had gone on then…so that it’s not just about going on Facebook and seeing that your friend had ice cream for dinner. It’s about realizing a piece of history, and about how those things affected history as time went by. And so I tell these stories as often as I can…”


I returned home to Massapequa, Long Island, an hero. ‘Oh my God, our rabbi was one of the freedom riders!  Because we got copy galore Clay! New York Times, New York Post, Long Island newspapers, Time Magazine – interviews all over the place! ‘Boy, our rabbi’s a hero!’ So for the first service I did, the place was packed. ‘You, look at our rabbi!’ The place was packed ‘This going to be terrific!’  About two weeks later, Saturday night, there was a youth group at my house, and the Long Island Fair Housing Council called to say that in the next town, a black couple had been refused a house. ‘Would I come to a demonstration?’ Of course, I’ll come!”

Allen started to organize some of the kids in his congregation to go to the demonstration. But immediately he got a call from the president of the congregation, ordering him not to go. He went anyway. The next week, he addressed the congregation.

“Why did you hire me? Because I know all the latest dances? Or did you hire me to be an inspiration to you and to your children?” I said “If the hiring is just for the former, then you got the wrong guy. But if you hired me to literally teach them Judaism…then we’re going to do fine…”

But it was clear to him, he says, that the congregation was telling him: ‘It is fine if you go way down there, and that doesn't affect us at all…but not in my backyard…uh uh. ‘

“What they wanted from me,” he says, “was Boy Scout sermons. They wanted me to find biblical passages that demonstrated that a Jew was trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, etc. After what I had witnessed in the South, I realized there was a deeper meaning to Judaism, and if I couldn't teach it in that synagogue, then I probably belonged elsewhere.”