Day 049 – St. Augustine, FL Part 1 – Civil Rights Exhibit

Today I was a good tourist. I bought a ticket online to the Old Florida Museum for later in the day and rode to the center of town to start checking the place out. A couple basic things – the city of St. Augustine is old, founded in 1565, by the Spanish, and is really not that big. Current population is only a bit over 13K within the city limits. The VIC, Visitor Information Center is full of information about what to see and do in town and also on the National Register of Historic Places and a lovely building.

Since it was the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act there was an exhibit at the Visitors Center called 450 Years of the African America Experience. I was feeling pressed for time to see both the Castillo de San Marcos and the Old Florida Museum, but decided to take a quick walk through the exhibit. My quick walk turned into a slow reading of most of the exhibit. I’m familiar with the Civil Rights Act and the reason for it’s passing and the history of slavery and segregation, but it has been a while since I’ve given it much thought and my trip south has been rekindling my interest.

There is a famous photo (see below) of a group of black and white people in the swimming pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine with the manger running along the edge wearing a suit and sunglasses pouring a jug full of muriatic acid into the water. It’s shocking and I can see why it was famous – the image of a man pouring acid into a pool with people in it to get them out is hateful, shameful and inexcusable. My understanding is that they weren’t in danger – muriatic acid isn’t very strong and it would be very dilute in the water. It is actually used in pool maintenance to lower the PH level of the water. I’ve seen lots of famous photos, but this one has escaped my view, or at least my memory.

There were a few other sections that caught my eye in the exhibit – the use of caricatures in advertising (pic) to dehumanize, the Convict Lease System (pic) where black citizens were thrown in prison for trumped up charges like – voting, buying land, etc. They were than leased out to area for very little money to area business that made a lot of money off their labor, basically a variation of slaver. An advertisement for the latest shipment of slaves brought into port (pic) and the diagram of how slaves were placed into a ship that took month to cross the ocean (pic).

There were also depictions of people doing their part to push back against slavery and racism. In St. Augustine the white people joining in with the black people using segregated pools, beaches, and other places as part of their protest. John Brown who was fiercely against slavery and aided fugitive slaves and Stetson Kennedy who unmasked Klansmen.

Luminaries like Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr. also came to St. Augustine to spread their messages of tolerance and equality with powerful speeches. I’m not sure if Frederick Douglas did any direction action, but MLK, Jr. was arrested in St. Augustine for peaceful protests.

I’m not a businessman, I’ve never been motivated to seek great wealth or to be in control of other people. I understand this is a blindness when trying to understand the long history of exploiting other people in search of these things. I believe today that we have a country of great wealth, technology and possibility, enough for everyone that’s already here and anyone that wants to join us to realize their full potential under America’s founding principles.

So, how do we humans, with massive brains that allow us to do extraordinary things, do a better job of living up to our to our own astounding potential to make the best society ever in the history of human existence? I’m trying my best to do two things – (1) accept and respect people as they were born – light, dark, gay, straight, big, small, male, female, etc. – (2) understand everyone has a way of looking at things based on their own history and experience and be patient while working to understand it.