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Multicultural St. Augustine, Florida

Thursday, Mar 14, 2024

From Ponce de León to Dr. Martin Luther King to Andrew Young, there are more than 600+ years of multicultural history to explore in St. Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest city.

Century by century at recreated villages, historic homes, forts, restaurants and marinas, my boyfriend John and I heard about the Timucuan Native Americans, Spanish, Celtics, British, African Americans, Menorcans and pirates who made this area their home from museum guides, trolley tour guides, reenactors, park rangers and the city’s current history makers of today.

But our visit in February 2024, Black History Month, began in a thoroughly modern way even before we left home when I downloaded the Visit St. Augustine Black History: People and Places app. Launched this year, the app is an excellent tool for planning a visit to the key sites within the walkable Historic District, nearby Lincolnville and beyond (available for free on Apple Apps and Google Apps).

“How many days will you be staying with us” historical reenactor, director and scriptwriter James Bullock asked me during our group tour of the 1888 Ximenez-Fatio house. But he was speaking to me in character and was referring to this boarding house during a special Black History Month “I Lived Here as Well” tour chronicling the lives of the enslaved and freed people who worked in the house.

James Bullock, reenactor, at the Ximenez- Fatio house St. Augustine

Doing triple duty, he played the roles of an enslaved butler and servants, joining fellow historical interpreter castmates in bringing their unknown stories to life.

Later at the end of the tour, he was able to break character and tell us about this unique program and convey his enthusiasm for shedding light on these hidden stories of St. Augustine’s history. (Visit https://www.ximenezfatiohouse.org/tours-experiences for information about upcoming tours including American Sign Language and Tactile guided tours.) After that it didn’t come as a surprise when we saw James interviewed in the introductory film shown at Fort Mose Historic State Park, the country’s first free Black community in the United States.

James Bullock was just one of several of the city’s contemporary newsmakers that we met during our visit who gave us a new perspective on the city’s historical figures from the conquistadors to civil rights activists.

Aviles Street, the oldest street in America

From the Ximenez-Fatio house, located at 20 Aviles Street, the oldest street in America, you are within 15 minutes walking distance to the Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center. Lincolnville, a historically Black neighborhood, has the highest number of Victorian homes in St. Augustine.

We had ridden through this neighborhood the first day of our visit on the Old Town Trolley tour. We like to start any new-to-us city visit with an overview sightseeing tour so we stayed on the trolley for the full 90 minute route without getting off at any of the current 22 stops. The Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center has now been added to the route since we visited.

St. Augustine Old Town Trolley

Located at 102 Martin Luther King Ave., in the building that was once the Black public high school, Excelsior High School, the museum highlights the contributions of African Americans in the area from the Black crew members with Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez to civil rights activists. On display is Ray Charles’s piano (he attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine) and an original section of a Woolworth’s lunch counter where in July 1963 four Black teenagers were arrested for asking for a hamburger and a Coke at the whites-only counter.

The site of that long-ago Woolworth, at 31 King Street, is now under construction as an expanded location for the Ancient City Brunch Bar, but the door handles displaying the Woolworth name are untouched. Gabby, the manager of Ancient City Brunch Bar, gave us a quick update while we enjoyed their charcuterie board style breakfast of French toast sticks, Applewood smoked bacon, fruit, scones and empanadas at their St. George Street restaurant.

Ancient City Brunch Bar charcuterie style breakfast board

Another stand out restaurant, and down the street from the Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center is the Blue Hen Café where, later, at lunch, we couldn’t resist an order of our Southern favorite, fried green tomatoes. Other memorable meals in St. Augustine were at The Floridian, St. Augustine Fish Camp, Catch 27 and Aunt Kate’s where our lunch included Menorcan clam chowder (the owners are Menorcan descendants) and, yet again, the fried green tomatoes. At Chez L’Amour at 45 San Marco Ave  we met Chef Ellie Schultz,  another of the city’s movers and shakers, and heard about her own forthcoming restaurant plans.

Menorcan clam chowder at Aunt Kate’s
Chez L’Amour small plates

If you organize your trip in chronological order, century by century, you’ll start your visit at the Ponce de Léon Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park and drink from the same artesian well that he might have in 1513. The grounds are beautiful, starting with the live oak trees hanging over the entry street, Magnolia Avenue. We watched the show and film at the Navigator’s Planetarium and Discovery Globe, strolled the Riverwalk down the pier for a view of the Matanzas Inlet and noted the areas that were dedicated to the acknowledgement of  the original inhabitants, the Timucuan people, with a recreated village and  burial ground. Having gotten used to engaging with reenactors after meeting James Bullock at the Ximenez-Fatio house, we tried to interact with the historic firearms presenter here. But when he invited questions following his demonstration, he didn’t take the bait when we asked him “Did you ever meet Ponce de Leon?” The beautiful peacocks roaming the grounds obliged us with their spread wings making for a delightful visit.

Representing the next century is the 1672 Castillo de San Marcos National Monument which we saw from three different perspectives.

There was our in-person visit of the coquina-stone fortress with entry by drawbridge, walking around the courtyard and bastions, quarters and seawall overlooking the Matanzas Bay. The National Park Service provides a self-guided tour map. You know you will be getting up close when you see their reminder, “Please do not sit or climb on the cannons.”

From the balcony of our king room at the St. George Inn overlooking the Castillo we enjoyed daily sunsets and sunrise porch views by rocking chair.

Sunrise over the Castillo from the St. George Inn St. Augustine, Florida

Then by sea during our St. Augustine Eco Tour boat excursion led by Captain Zach McKenna, a marine naturalist, dolphin expert and “ambassador to the river” who shared his perspective of the history of St. Augustine and the Castillo. While he pointed out the ospreys, turtles, snowy egrets, herons and red mangrove tree, he spoke about the Spanish fort, the site of the Native American village and the original name of the Matanzas River; River of Dolphins, renamed with the Spanish word for the slaughter, or massacre, that took place here. A company dedicated to both the tour experience and the environment, St. Augustine Eco Tours also offers kayak tours and catamaran eco sails. This New York City slicker, who originally complained about the wet seat cushions upon boarding, almost teared up when the boat excursion came to an end in 90 minutes.  “It’s not wet. It’s damp. You’re on a boat,” Captain Zach gently admonished and shortly thereafter offered me a jellyfish to hold that he had scooped out of the water just for a few minutes. I declined that experience. Seeing a bird dive down from the sky to catch a fish was exciting enough for me.

The Castillo de San Marcos from the St. Augustine Eco Tours excursion boat
Captain Zach McKenna of St. Augustine Eco Tours

Captain Zach McKenna of St. Augustine Eco Tours holds a jellyfish

At the 1738 Fort Mose Historic State Park, Billy McNaught, park service specialist, spoke to us before the introductory film and gave us an update on a grant that will allow them to build a full-sized replica of the fort. The ruins of the original wooden structure are long gone.

In 1888, industrialist Henry Flagler built the luxury Hotel Ponce de Leon with interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. This historic landmark building is now Flagler College and we took a reserved student-led tour, the only way to see the Tiffany stained glass windows in the Dining Hall and chandeliers in the Grand Parlor, now Flagler Room.

The 1960s brought the civil rights movement with the activities of Andrew Young, Dr. Robert Hayling, the first Black dentist in Florida as well as the arrests of Dr. King and the teenagers now known as the St. Augustine Four at the Woolworth’s counter.

Day by day, during our short visit, we squeezed in a lot. We also spent an hour at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum where I made John fill in the treasure map to find the hidden artifacts in drawers and cabinets throughout the museum, winning us a “gold” doubloon coin. Then he made me join him at the City Gate Spirits Distillery, conveniently located below our hotel balcony room, for a tasting tour of ten thimble sized shots of bourbon, rum and moonshine.  We’ll want to return to the Villa Zorayda Museum and Lightner Museum as we had to race through on the day of our departure.

St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum
“Fire” a canon at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum
St. George Inn rooms 64 and 65 balcony above the distillery
City Gate Spirits Distillery tasting

For more info on St. Augustine visit https://www.floridashistoriccoast.com/ and in Spanish at https://www.floridashistoriccoast.com/viaja-staugustine/ Instagram @FlHistoricCoast and on Facebook.com/St. Augustine, Florida and Facebook.com/ViajaSanAgustin.   #StAugustine #PonteVedra #FloridasHistoricCoast.