For the second time during my life, St. Augustine is planning an elaborate celebration of its founding and expecting generous federal and state support.
The last time, was the summer of 1964. The city was commemorating 400 years since Spanish explorers established the nation’s first enduring, continually occupied settlement at St. Augustine.
Chambers of anal-retentive pedants, researching their little hearts out, make us clarify the “too-easy-to-understand” descriptor we have used for generations — “America’s Oldest City”.
Forty-two years before the English colonized Jamestown and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles and 600 cheering voyagers set foot on the shores of Florida; naming his colonial settlement “St. Augustine ” on September 8, 1565.
The 400th anniversary in 1965, our “quadricentennial”, made sense. None of us planned to be around to celebrate the next centennial — our quincentennial; celebrating the 500th anniversary.
In March of 1963, Lincolnville resident Fannie Fullerwood sends a letter to President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson asking that they reject a $350,000 grant to the city for a segregated celebration of its 400th anniversary.
Based on assurances given to secure Johnson’s attendance, LBJ came to town for a 400th anniversary banquet. The agreement was negotiated by St. Augustine’s white power structure and Johnson’s representatives and local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who were promised an opportunity to air their grievances to the city commission.
For the first time in history, blacks enter the lavish Ponce de Leon Hotel ballroom as guests — rather than maids or bus boys. They are seated by themselves at two “Negro” tables.
St Augustine’s lunch counters, rest rooms, and other facilities remain segregated, as did the Ponce de Leon Hotel after Vice President Johnson leaves. The next day, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders show up for the promised meeting, they are shown to an empty room with a tape recorder. They are told to record their complaints because no white official will meet with them in person.
By early June, the hope that had soared at the time of LBJ’s visit is dying. Nothing has come from the tape-recorded grievances. So far as the city was concerned, the 400th anniversary celebrations are going to be held on a segregated basis.
I recall, and currently observe, quite a few differences between the two anniversary events.
First, a 450th is not a centennial. It is a “quadricentennial” plus a “semicentennial”. Does not really roll off the tongue, does it?
Another difference, our plans were focused on the singular, historically accurate event that could be enjoyed by the local residents, since they were the ones paying for it; and that might attract out-of-town tourists who might enjoy visiting for a few days.
A four-year government managed celebration trying to commemorate the Spanish Constitution, the signing of the Civil Rights Act, Juan Ponce de Leon’s claim on Florida for Spain as well as the St. Augustine “quadricentennial-plus-semicentennial” anniversary is beyond ridiculous in an economy that is starting to make 1929 look good. Wells Fargo told me yesterday that they would pay a pathetic .05% on jumbo (+$100k) savings certificates — a mere 1/20th of 1 percent.
The process this time around has become replete with fraud and abuse, volunteers and local businessmen have not embraced the plan — oh yes, I forgot, over a year into this boondoggle and we still don’t have a plan that can be articulated. Creative minds are planning fabulously expense and culturally elite events, to be paid for with taxpayer money — note to self: before 2015, learn the difference between a Picasso and a pistachio.
Since the local government has proven to be so cavalier with our tax dollars and inept on producing appreciable results, certainly the federal government will be our salvation. We all know we are not capable of pulling something like this off ourselves; we always have to find someone in government to do everything for us. That federal 450th Commemoration Commission sure “brought home the bacon” these last six months.
In addition, I suppose, I recall a few similarities between the two anniversary events.
In 1964 when the mayor and city leaders staged the “kick-off dinner and ball” for the 400th, it was announced that only whites were invited. Local black leaders protested. If the past is any predictor of the future, for the 450th, black leaders will be invited when the mayor holds his balls — they may or may not be able to afford the tickets. The affair for the 400th Anniversary only served to alert the national civil rights leadership to the situation in St. Augustine and fueled local black resentment.
In the year before the 1965 anniversary, the relationship between money, the law, and political power in Florida, at a time when blacks were virtually shut out of government, became well known to the nation and unfortunately, the “face” of that was the face of St. Augustine.
As we make the plans before the 2015 anniversary, the relationship between money, the law, and political power in Florida, at a time when political lobbyists and shyster lawyers have their fingers firmly squeezing honest, taxpaying citizens out of government, the only thing we are missing is the scrutiny of the nation. I am sure it is on the way.