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150 Years of Lincolnville
By Chad Light
Current Photos by Mark Cubbedge
Archival photos courtesy of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library
Lincolnville — most people living in St. Augustine, for even a short period of time, are familiar with Lincolnville yet may not understand its true historical significance. The markers and plaques giving accounts of the significance of buildings throughout the neighborhood may have gone unnoticed…buildings in which generations of St. Augustine’s youth were educated; where Martin Luther King slept, spoke, held meetings, and more; where thriving businesses helped build a successful community which became an integral part of St. Augustine’s growth.
When you have the fortune to live in Lincolnville, that realization gets taken to an entirely new level. I was one of those fortunate souls and I can say that the several years I spent as a resident of this special community gave me a deeper appreciation for just how important this unique place is.
Before we go any further, I have to say that, for this type of article, I could go down a vast litany of important dates, events, and names along the Lincolville timeline; regale you with stories of this figure or that even; but that wouldn’t come close to giving you a true sense of what this special place really is; who the fascinating people living here were; or what this place means to the people who live here now. You really need to experience it first hand to really understand it.
In that spirit, I invite you take a walk with me; to see it from my eyes and to get a better understanding of one of the most fascinating and beloved neighborhoods in the Old City. After we’re done, I’m certain you’ll be glad you did.
Let’s start at the “center,” as many call it, located on Martin Luther King Avenue (formerly Central Avenue), between St Francis and Lincoln Streets. As you stand in the street between the two churches that flank you — Benedict the Moor and St. Paul AME — you realize the heart has many veins… and a LOT of history. If we walk a few blocks east to Washington Street, we can see where the community was first established just after the American Civil War in 1866, when 7 locals — Peter Sanks, Matilda Papy, Harriet Weedman, Miles Hancock, Israel McKenzie, Aaron DuPont and Tom Solana — leased lots for $1.00 a year each, on what was then the west bank of Maria Sanchez Creek (across from the developed part of St. Augustine at that time).
A short few blocks from there we would have found that the rest of the peninsula consisted of orange grove plantations: the Dumas plantation “Yalaha” (a Native American word for “orange”) at the northern end, and the “Buena Esperanza” (Spanish for “Good Hope”) plantation at the southern end, where we now find the athletic fields and boatyards today.
The freedmen living on lots along what is today Washington Street originally called their settlement Africa, or Little Africa. In that same decade, the northwest corner of modern Lincolnville in the area of the corners of Bridge and Riberia Street was a 5-acre orange grove owned by Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay (who later served as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt). This important fact resulted in the entire community coming to be known as Lincolnville by 1878.
Over the decades, the settlement was expanded from this northeast area, around present-day Washington, Oneida, Dumas, St. Francis, St. Benedict and DeHaven Streets, and developed the entire peninsula. It was characterized by narrow streets, small lots, and houses built close to the street line, similar to the colonial St. Augustine-style and land-use pattern. This pattern can be seen as we walk the streets south from Bridge Street all the way to Cerro Street on the boarder of the Willie Galimore Recreation Center.
As he did in every corner of the Old City, Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler had an impact on Lincolnville. When Flagler came to St. Augustine in the 1880s, he invested heavily to redevelop the city to serve as a winter resort for wealthy northerners. He filled in the northern reaches of Maria Sanchez Creek to create high ground for development for his second Hotel, the Alacazar (which is now the current home to City Hall, several business suites and retail shops).
With the northern end of Maria Sanchez Creek filled in, one of Flagler’s Standard Oil partner William Warden dredged the southern part of the creek to create what is now Maria Sanchez Lake. If we stand on South Street near the tidal dam, it’s easy to see where the man-made part of this water feature ends and the natural part of the creek continues out into the Matanzas river. If we walk north along Cordova to St Francis Street we can still see what are considered one of the historic district’s major buildings — the old Ponce De Leon Barracks. This historic structure was used for housing for servants and other workers at Flagler’s hotels.
Some of the African-American waiters from the hotels formed America’s first professional black baseball team, known as the Ponce de Leon Giants. One member of the team, Frank Grant, was later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jacksonville native and nationally known writer James Weldon Johnson wrote about the baseball team in his 1933 autobiography “Along This Way.”
In the 1940s, the Flagler estate converted the Ponce de Leon Barracks to the “Lakeside Apartments” and restricted tenants to whites only under state segregation laws. In the 21st century, the building was renovated and redeveloped into condominiums. Few people know about this building’s important historic past.
Walking on De Haven Street back towards the heart of Linconville, west of MLK, you can’t help notice an ruined old brick building, with faded paint, weather worn bricks and no roof. Its presence makes you ask “What is this and what purpose did this stately structure serve?”
The answer: St. Benedict the Moor School — an all-African American Catholic school built in 1898 during the era of Flagler redevelopment. The money for construction of the school was donated by Katherine Drexel (1858–1955), a nun of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrement — an order founded “to serve Indians and Colored People.” Drexel was made a Catholic saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
The school carried the distinction of being one of the first schools for black students in Florida. Students were instructed by nuns who emigrated from France solely for the purpose educating freed black slaves. The Sisters of St. Joseph Convent lies just a few short blocks from the school on St. George Street.
There were between 90-100 students enrolled each year at the school between 1898 and 1968. The ruins of the school is seen at the southern end of the parcel of property, which also includes the parish house in the center and the church of St. Benedict the Moor at the northern end (the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and St Francis Street). Even with its dilapidated state, you can almost hear the laughter of the children who were educated by these selfless women. An ongoing effort to renovated the school is underway: hopefully, one day we can stand here and take in its original beauty.
All along our stroll, we can see the historic markers I referred to earlier, in front of homes, churches and businesses signifying locations related to the Civil Rights Movement. They trace a self-guided walking tour that can also utilize a mobil device for additional information and directions.
Many indicate a residence as a location used by activists during the mid-20th century Civil Rights era. Lincolnville was the base of activists who struggled for the end of racial segregation in schools and public facilities in St. Augustine. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and activists from other parts of the country came to join local activists in non-violent protests. Dr. King spoke several times in churches throughout Lincolnville, never spending the night in the same place, and often using decoys to keep his movements secret. Their are many locations in Lincolville that can factually state “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke/stayed/ate/slept” here.
At the time, 1964-65, St Augustine was already receiving national attention because of the 400th Anniversary of the founding of the city. The national press coverage of the brutality and violence directed against the protests eventually brought international attention to the activists’ issues and aided President Johnson’s administration to pressure for Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If we stand in front of St Mary’s Baptist Church, we can see the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a well-known candid photo taken near the churn and the intersections of Washington and Bridge Streets.
As we’ve walked around this historic, picturesque, quirky, and fun neighborhood, we have seen one thing that is always certain, here and everywhere else — change. After the end of legal segregation, some African Americans began to move to other areas of newer, suburban housing, joining the major postwar trend in the United States. Related changes reduced employment and population in Lincolnville; but in 1991, the city leaders wanted to recognize the rich history and architectural resources and the Lincolnville Historic District was documented and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Bounded by Cedar, Riberia, Cerro and Washington Streets and DeSoto Place, containing 548 historic buildings, it is a testament to the resiliance of a people who were determined not to let their past define them and to carve out a world where they could be free and live their lives without fear.
As we come to the end of our walk and I stand here where I lived on the corner of Washington and Lincoln, the rich and diverse history of this unique enclave in our Old City is hard to overstate. The sense of neighborliness and community pride is felt by those who live, or have ever lived, in Lincolnville. During the few years I lived here we saw storms, fire and flood. Every time, day or night, we checked on each other to make sure everyone was all right. As long as that spirit remains, regardless of the work that lies ahead, you can rest assured that Linconville will continue to be the vibrant community it has grown into; to survive and to thrive and serve as a reminder that we are one people working together towards a brighter and better future.
To learn more about Lincolnville, or any one of the other very fascinating neighborhoods in the Old City, you can visit the St Augustine Historical Society Library on Avilés Street. If it happened here, they have it there. Viva St Augustine!