Panel backs Black history museum in St. Johns County


St. Johns County’s bid to host the new Florida Museum of Black History received a significant victory Tuesday, May 21, when a state panel voted to recommend it over the two other leading contenders.

The recommendation by the Florida Museum of Black History Task Force, while advancing the county’s cause, is not the last word. By July 1, the task force will submit a report to the governor, Senate president, speaker of the House and minority leaders of the Senate and House. A feasibility study will also be undertaken.

Following that, the Legislature will consider legislation to commission, construct, operate and administer the museum.

Tuesday’s vote ranking St. Augustine as the top site was 5-4. The two other sites were Eatonville in Orange County and Opa-Locka in Miami-Dade County.

If St. Johns County receives final approval, the museum will be built at the site of the former Florida Memorial College, which was moved to the Nation’s Oldest City from Jacksonville in 1918. The college later relocated to Miami in 1965 out of concern for student safety amid racial tensions following passage of the Civil Rights Act.

As set forth in legislation signed May 11, 2023, by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the museum will be a multipurpose facility capable of generating self-sustaining revenues with research and storage facilities, meeting rooms, banquet facilities and a performing arts theater.

In anticipation that the museum may be awarded to St. Johns County, the Board of County Commissioners has approved a motion to approve the draft and negotiation of a purchase-and-sale agreement with Florida Memorial University, which still owns the property located at the intersection of North Holmes Boulevard and West King Street.

St. Johns County has a rich Black history. Fort Mose was the first free Black settlement in what is now the United States. In fact, the 1738 fort is currently being reconstructed.

St. Augustine is the only place in Florida where The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested. That happened June 12, 1964, at the Monson Motor Lodge where King asked to be served at the Whites-only restaurant. That incident and demonstrations by local African-American activists and others have been credited with helping to win passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

St. Johns County, which experienced West African influences by the Gulluh Geechee people, was the site of the first Black Catholic school in Florida and was home to prominent Black leaders, including author Zora Neale Hurston; musician and singer Ray Charles, who attended Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind; Dr. Otis A. Mason, the first African-American to be elected school superintendent in Florida; Capt. Francisco Menendez, former slave and founder of Fort Mose; and Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Bailey, the first African-American to command the 1st Marine Division.

Baseball great Jackie Robinson spoke here on June 16, 1964, at King’s urging. James Weldon Johnson, author of the Black National Anthem, was a frequent visitor from Jacksonville; author Langston Hughes spoke here in 1954; and abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke in St. Augustine in 1889.

Other local sites affiliated with Black history include Butler Beach, the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum and the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center.