The Journey Toward Equality

Exhibit Chronicles St. Augustine’s African-American History

By Nancy Moreland

For generations, the St. Augustine story focused on Spaniards. With the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in 2014, attention is shifting to the integral role of African-Americans in the city’s narrative. St. Augustine has always been known as a city of “firsts.” The same holds true for African-American history. Now through July 15th, the St Augustine Visitors Information Center is helping visitors and residents gain a deeper understanding of this remarkable story.

The Center’s current exhibit, Journey: 450 Years of the African-American Experience, tells the story through interactive exhibits and artifacts. The exhibit is divided into four themes: the arrival of the first African-Americans (both slaves and freedmen); the first free Black settlement, Fort Mose (pronounced “Moh-say,”); St. Augustine’s connection to the Underground Railroad; and Civil Rights history.

Journey’s compelling displays bring the past into the present. St. Augustine’s earliest Black residents may not be here to tell their stories, but Journey can. We learn of Estebana, the first-known Black child to be born in the New World. Her 1595 birth record – fragile as an eggshell – is here. So is the 1598 marriage certificate of Simon and Marin, African-American citizens of St. Augustine. And how can we begin to imagine the slave experience? Rusty shackles and a bill of sale take us closer to the tragic truth. A century or more removed, another artifact commemorates the hard journey toward equality. The arrest record of Martin Luther King, Jr., (opposite right) documents his height, weight and fingerprints. The words “City of Palatka” are crossed out, replaced with a handwritten, “St. Augustine.” The Old City arrested so many of King’s fellow protestors, it had to borrow forms from Palatka.

Journey also sheds light on lesser-known aspects of African-American history. Did you know there were Black conquistadors and much later, Black cowboys? Or that interracial marriages existed in Colonial St. Augustine?

Like the rest of the nation, St. Augustine has been slow to come to grips with a complicated chapter of America’s history. Journey, at least, is one step closer toward understanding.

Insider Tip: Because the Journey video “ties everything together,” Docent John Mofran encourages visitors to make time to watch the well-done production.

Journey runs through July 15, 2014, at the Visitors Information Center, 10 Castillo Drive, next to the parking garage. Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tickets: Adults $4; seniors (60+) $4; children 6 and under, free; children 7-12, $3; family of 4, $15; military in uniform, free; St. Johns County residents, free.

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