When Historic City News editor Michael Gold arrived, just over an hour ahead of yesterday’s unveiling of a monument recognizing St. Augustine’s “foot soldiers”, heavy rain threatened to prevent the ceremonies from continuing — but, as if on cue, at 4:30 p.m., the rain broke.
While Paul Williamson was out-of-town, Wanda Bray in the city’s public affairs department and Richard Delaney who works for the city’s solid waste department, dodged raindrops as they went about setting up wooden folding chairs, a battery powered podium and debating whether or not to bring out all of the flags and regalia for the afternoon program.
During the invocation, a word of thanks to God for the much needed rain; and, an observation that, compared to the forces that rallied to dissuade men and women protesting civil rights abuses in the 1960’s, rain had little chance of discouraging those who huddled in the Plaza market to commemorate the contribution of St. Augustine’s foot soldiers in that movement.
Many in attendance lived in St. Augustine during the demonstrations; some still do — others traveled to be part of the unveiling of the striking new monument, while others have made St. Augustine their home in recent years — and only know about civil rights activities here from stories and news accounts that have been re-told.
Keynote speaker Hank Thomas, and his wife, Yvonne, traveled from Atlanta; however, there is much that he can tell you about his experience in St. Augustine during the 1960’s– since he grew up here and graduated from one of the then racially segregated schools. Thomas attended Excelsior in Lincolnville and Murray High School in West Augustine. Thomas’ mother, Tiny Heggs, and sister, Altamese Burns, still make their homes in St. Augustine.
Thomas told Historic City News that he brought his “possee”, and he wasn’t kidding. Over a dozen relatives were in attendance; including children and grandchildren who, Thomas hopes, will never experience the life he knew in Florida fifty years ago.
In his late teens and early twenties, Thomas joined others in objecting to trains and buses whose segregationist polices established separate passenger seats, bathrooms, water fountains and other facilities — one for “whites” and one for “colored”. Thomas traveled around the south with other students and protestors who were known as “Freedom Riders”.
Dr. Robert Hayling returned to St. Augustine for Saturday’s event. He was a target of racial intimidation for his role in civil rights demonstrations. At one time, his dog was shot and killed when Klansmen fired through the windows into his Lincolnville home.
George Gardner, former City Commissioner and Mayor and advisor to St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Remembrance Project, Inc., explained that six years of community effort went into fundraising, design, and fabrication of the monument that sits in the southeast corner of the Plaza, adjacent to the public market building.
Four anonymous figures are depicted on the bronze monument; an older black man and woman, a white college student and a black teenage girl, representative of those who numbered over 100 and advanced the cause of civil rights — many at great personal cost.
Project President, Barbara Vickers, said, “Those who struggled in 1963 and 1964 in our city included young teens that stayed in jail when they could have left — if they promised not to march again.” She told Historic City News that it was not just one group of men, women or children who were the driving force in St. Augustine’s Civil Rights movement which led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“There were many more, too. There were those who waded in at the beaches, kneeled in at the churches, sat in at the lunch counters, and, did a lot more. They called themselves ‘foot soldiers’ and their story is triumphant and haunting,” says Vickers. “None should be forgotten.”
More than $70,000 was raised by the community-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization to pay Deltona sculptor Brian R. Owens and Bronzart Foundry in Sarasota to construct the monument. The sculpture’s backdrop is a bas relief depicting marchers in the Plaza flanked by the public market.
ST.AUGUSTINE FOOT SOLDIERS REMEMRANCE PROJECT,INC.
Box 164, St. Augustine, FL 32085
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
President Barbara H. Vickers
Vice President Barbara H. Kalanik
secretary Cynthia C. McAuliffe
Treasurer Salley V. Gardner
George Gardner, former Mayor & former City Commissioner
David Nolan, Historian
Enzo Torcoletti, Sculptor
Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer