Janis Versaggi Williams
St Augustine, FL
I have written the following letter to St Augustine Mayor Joseph L. Boles, Jr., concerning his derogatory assessment of the volunteer work done by local residents on the city’s 400th Anniversary in 1965. I would be happy to have as wide a distribution for the open letter as possible.
Because I could not attend the Candidate Forum in July, today I listened to the complete version on YouTube. I found the Forum interesting, but didn’t sit up straight until the very end, when I heard you say that when you became Mayor in 2006 you had no plan for the 450th, and further that you are “ashamed” of the “abysmal” job that St. Augustine put forward in 1965 for the 400th anniversary of the City’s founding.
I infer that you expect to correct that “abysmal” error if you are returned to office as Mayor during the 450th celebration.
While I certainly recognize the lack of inclusion of our African American community during the 1960s, and know firsthand of some of the indignities and injustices that our black neighbors endured, I must remind you of a few things that might provide a different viewpoint on the Quadricentennial.
The intense effort to prepare a fitting celebration for St. Augustine’s 400th birthday began with a clear focus and tremendous citizen input in the late 1950s. Buildings were restored or reconstructed by state, federal and foreign governments, local not-for-profit organizations, individuals, churches, private enterprises and foundations.
Cabinet level dignitaries and ambassadors from Washington and Spain were honored guests for dedications, openings, conferences and book signings of scholarly publications.
For instance, a sitting US Vice-President came to dedicate the first completed restoration, the Arrivas House. Monuments such as the Great Cross were fabricated and installed. The Amphitheater was built and an outdoor drama was commissioned and performed for decades. Local festivals were enlarged and new ones added. By the end of the 1960s, the historic area was much improved, with over 28 buildings restored or reconstructed.
Programs were underway to showcase the Spanish contribution to American history, a counterpart to the stories of English colonies which were far better known to our nation. I do not see this as an “abysmal” effort and I, for one, am not ashamed of it.
However, I am pleased to learn that you have taken the lead in this multi-year project, and see the 450th as your major legacy to St. Augustine. Since you say there was no plan in mind when you took office, I would like to know what plan is in place now, eight years later. We have seen the Discover First America series, two museum exhibits in the renovated Visitor Information Center, with a final exhibit now being prepared, and a concert in Francis Field.
We have heard unconfirmed reports of dignitaries who have been invited to events with no dates or details so far. With one year to go, what’s ahead? When all is said and done, considering years of staff time, untold volunteer hours, and significant sums from the public purse, national and inter-national travel for “fact finding” and cementing relationships, what can we point to as a lasting legacy of the 450th for our children and grandchildren?
If the 1960’s effort was “abysmal,” I can hardly wait to see what’s coming for the 450th.