Over the fifteen-years I and my family have published Historic City News, I’ve had several occasions to meet and talk with Civil Rights leader, Robert Hayling. It’s not every day you can speak with authentic figures in American history. I feel fortunate for those encounters and Dr. Hayling’s willingness to speak frankly with me about his experiences.
I was born in St Augustine and was a typical local boy during the height of the Civil Rights movement. I was attending Fullerwood Elementary School when it was finally integrated and remember meeting the first black students who were reluctantly ordered to be present. Because of my age, and, of course, because I am Caucasian, my memories of those years is loosely parallel to Dr. Hayling.
I first met Hayling professionally in April 2011 during a presentation of the original fingerprint card of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the fledgling Civil Rights museum located inside the former Excelsior High School in Lincolnville. We shared a table and we discussed the controversy over where Dr. King was arrested in St Augustine.
Former Deputy Sheriff Everett Haney, now wheelchair bound, told us that he arrested Dr. King on the steps in front of the public market on Charlotte Street. Hayling agreed, but historian David Nolan contended that the arrest occurred at the Monson Motor Lodge. It was an educational experience for me.
I remember the most emotional conversation with Dr. Hayling was in October 2012 after the death of his wife of 58 years, the former Athea Lucille Wake. We talked about the five years, from 1960-1965, that the couple lived in St Augustine, the first two of which Hayling said gave his young family some wonderful memories. It was not always that way. He told me that by the time they moved to south Florida, he refused to return to St Augustine unless it was unannounced.
On July 2, 2013, Hayling became the nineteenth recipient of the highest and most prestigious award presented by the City of St Augustine, the Order of La Florida. Two years earlier, the city commission made Hayling a recipient of the de Avilés Award; making him the only recipient of both the de Avilés Award and the Order of La Florida.
I spoke with Dr Hayling after the presentation about the increased attention he was receiving recently. Although gracious in his acceptance, he did share a bit of wonder over the timing. He said he was appreciative — not for himself but for the contribution he was able to make.
The reality is that almost all of Dr Hayling’s recognition came in his later years. Our last conversation was in April of last year following a trip to his hometown of Tallahassee. Hayling had been inducted into the state’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame, alongside the late James Weldon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph.
Hayling said that, had he been willing to accept the way things were, he could have enjoyed a comfortable life. He was a local dentist with a military background in a military town. Hayling could have passed through many doors closed to other black residents. He told me that it would be impossible for him to live that way.
Choosing to stand and fight against segregation, Hayling encountered some resistance from blacks in St. Augustine, who thought it best to not push too hard, too quickly. Most came from whites, many in the city’s power structure, who were outraged that activists challenged the status quo.
It took almost fifty years, but Hayling told me that those many decades ago were a different time that could never be repeated.