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Flagler-sponsored radio interviews paint new picture of Civil Rights Movement

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Feb. 24, 2014

The pause is obvious. In the interview, WJCT Radio’s “First Coast Connect” host Melissa Ross has just finished asking Charles Smith—the first black EMT in St. Augustine and a brother of one of the women who jumped into the Monson Hotel pool during that now-infamous protest—what has changed since the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine in the early 1960s. He hesitates. “Well,” he says quietly. “We haven’t moved too much forward…but the city’s not going to change itself…people have to change it.”

That sentiment, revealed as part of a 30-month interview series produced by WJCT in partnership with Flagler College, is shared by many of the people, both recognized community leaders and previously unheard voices, who were invited to participate.

The project, entitled “Black Heritage, Civil Rights, and Contemporary Race Issues in St. Augustine,” concluded last month and is now archived on WJCT’s website, www.wjct.org.

The radio series was co-produced by Flagler College Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Casey Welch.

The interviews began in July 2011 with a conversation between Ross and Christopher and Walter Eugene White, sons of the late Hattie White, a local Civil Rights icon. The two are also brothers of Samuel White, one of the original “St. Augustine Four” who were arrested for trying to eat at the whites-only lunch counter at the local Woolworth’s.

Each subsequent interview focused on issues of importance to Black heritage and Civil Rights in St. Augustine, with many participants remembering the parts they played in the protests.

Janet White and her twin sister Janice, for example, were among the first children to integrate St. Augustine schools in 1963, when they were only thirteen years old.

“I could not understand why we were chosen to do this,” she said to Melissa Ross during one of the interviews. “And I could not understand how there could be so much hatred. But after all these years I can look back and say we honestly made a difference. With God’s help, we made it through.”

Additional interviews in the series included Ambassador Andrew Young; State Senator Tony Hill; St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles; Dr. David Colburn, University of Florida Historian of Race and Politics in Florida; Hank Thompson, St. Augustine Freedom Rider; and Dr. Robert Hayling, widely considered the father of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine, among many others.

Welch became interested in producing the series after realizing that the history of Civil Rights protests was largely silenced in St. Augustine until the past several years.  Beginning with St. Augustine High School teacher Ivonne Diaz and her students raising funds for three historic markers in the late 1990s and the opening of the Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center, St. Augustine’s first African-American history museum, there has been a build up of Civil Rights history. But there is still work to be done, said Welch.

“Many people are still unaware of the Civil Rights History and Black heritage in St. Augustine, especially when examined in conjunction with current racial conditions,” he said. “For example, our county school system is one of the best in the state. So why is our rate of graduation for Black youth less than in Duval County? I wanted to help get these kinds of questions out there. A little bit every month.”

While almost every interview subject acknowledged that work remains, some of the program’s participants focused on the strides that have been made over the past fifty years.

In the 1960s, said Taylor Branch, Pulitzer prize-winning author of “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years,” who was interviewed in March of 2013, “everything in St. Augustine was segregated…it’s something that is easy to forget because it’s uncomfortable, but segregation really had a psychological hold over the city at that time…my guess is that the atmosphere is entirely different, certainly around the issue of race. That’s why I think that it’s important to remember this history, because it didn’t come automatically. It came by a lot of struggle.”

To hear more of the interviews on First Coast Connect, visit www.wjct.org.


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