Dr. Robert B. Hayling (1929-2015)

Dr. Robert B. Hayling, an African-American dentist who played an instrumental role in the fight for civil rights in St. Augustine, died Sunday, December 20, 2015. He was 86.

Dr. Robert B. Hayling (standing) speaking at a meeting between civil rights leaders and Governor Haydon Burns. Seated in the front row (L to R) are B.J. Johnson representing Dr. Martin Luther King, Loucille Plummer of St. Augustine, and attorney John Due representing the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (photo 1965).

Dr. Robert B. Hayling (standing) speaking at a meeting between civil rights leaders and Governor Haydon Burns. Seated in the front row (L to R) are B.J. Johnson representing Dr. Martin Luther King, Loucille Plummer of St. Augustine, and attorney John Due representing the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (photo 1965).

Dr. Hayling grew up in Tallahassee, where his father taught at Florida A & M University. Hayling himself attended that institution, then joined the United States Air Force in 1951. After serving his tour of duty, Hayling enrolled in Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee to study dentistry. The Nashville student sit-in movement was in full swing during his time at Meharry, and the backlash against it struck close to Hayling when the windows of his dormitory were shattered by a dynamite blast directed at the home of one of his teachers across the street.

In 1960, Hayling moved to St. Augustine to begin his practice. He immediately became involved in local civil rights activism, serving as adviser to the area’s NAACP Youth Council and a local leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. St. Augustine was at that time preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary, and African-Americans were all but excluded from many of the formal proceedings. Dr. Hayling successfully urged federal officials to insist on an integrated celebration. When Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived in St. Augustine to dedicate a restored building as part of the festivities, two tables at the banquet at the Ponce de Leon Hotel were reserved for African-American guests.

The reaction from segregationists was intense. Hayling and three of his companions were beaten at a Ku Klux Klan rally in September 1963, and the dentist’s home was fired into in February 1964, killing his dog and narrowly missing his pregnant wife.

As summer vacation approached in 1964, Dr. Hayling began inviting young African-American students from around the country to visit St. Augustine and participate in the effort to break the grip of Jim Crow over local stores, restaurants, and beaches. Many students took up Hayling’s invitation and helped put St. Augustine on the front pages of newspapers all over the United States through their activism. Hayling himself was arrested on June 29, 1964 for “contributing to the delinquency” of minors – students involved in the protests.

Confrontation between segregationists and integrationists at a whites-only beach in St. Augustine (1964).

Confrontation between segregationists and integrationists at a whites-only beach in St. Augustine (1964).

Excerpt from a police blotter recording Dr. Hayling's arrest on June 29, 1964 Located in Box 130, folder 8, Farris Bryant Correspondence (S 756), State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from a police blotter recording Dr. Hayling’s arrest on June 29, 1964. Located in Box 130, folder 8, Farris Bryant Correspondence (S 756), State Archives of Florida.

Publicity for the events in St. Augustine that summer helped bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Dr. Hayling wasn’t finished. His involvement with civil rights activism had badly damaged his dental practice, but he moved to Cocoa Beach to continue his own career and help other civil rights activists find work. He moved to Fort Lauderdale in the 1970s, where he practiced dentistry until his retirement.

Dr. Robert B. Hayling was inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2014 along with James Weldon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph. A bronze plaque testifying to Dr. Hayling’s contributions hangs in the lobby of the Capitol.

The “Shocking” Ponce de Leon Hotel

Some things never change, including the American taste for gadgetry and new technology. Today, we fiddle with tablets and powerful cell phones. Barely more than 100 years ago, electricity itself was the bauble of the day. As in our own era, businessmen of yesteryear used the latest technology to attract new customers, especially in the tourist industry. Henry Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine provides perhaps one of the most humorous examples of how people approach new innovations with a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty.

Ponce de Leon Hotel as seen from the nearby Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine (circa 1910s).

Ponce de Leon Hotel as seen from the nearby Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine (circa 1910s).

Flagler built the Ponce de Leon as part of a chain of hotels along his ever-growing Florida East Coast Railway, which was working its way down Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He hoped to induce the wealthy upper crust of northeastern tourists to come down and spend their winters in the mild splendor of the Sunshine State. To do this, the railway would have to be fast and efficient, and the hotels would have to be exquisite. Flagler commissioned New York architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings to design a veritable palace for his guests to enjoy. The architects sketched out a grand building in the Spanish Renaissance style, and construction began on the morning of December 1, 1885.

Dining room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1891).

Dining room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1891).

The site of the hotel was in itself an innovation. The area had been a marshy waste before Flagler’s engineers began preparing the ground for the foundation. Some observers feared the great Henry Flagler was bound to make a fool of himself by choosing such difficult terrain. Historian Sidney Walter Martin has written that someone once asked Flagler point-blank why he chose the relatively low-lying St. Augustine as the site for his grand palatial hotel. Flagler reputedly replied with a story. There had once been a good, loyal church member, Flagler said, who lived a very sober, pious life, until one day he decided to go off on a drunken spree, and he behaved very badly. When the man’s pastor questioned him about his behavior, he replied, ‘I’ve been giving all my days to the Lord hitherto, and now I’m taking one for myself.’ Flagler explained that in building the Ponce de Leon Hotel in such an unusually difficult location, he was doing much the same.

Parlor room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel (1891).

Parlor room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel (1891).

And once it was finished, who could blame him? The Ponce de Leon was truly a Spanish palace, with courts, nooks for reading and repose, tropical gardens, fountains, towers – everything necessary to impress even the most expensive and luxurious tastes. The hotel opened on January 10, 1888, with a total of 450 sleeping apartments of varying sizes and designs.

View of a fountain through an arch at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1930).

View of a fountain through an arch at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1930).

Two innovations in the new hotel were of particular curiosity to Flagler’s first customers. Each room was equipped with steam heat, which to many seemed an odd fit for a Florida hotel. The system would not see a great deal of use, of course, but imagine the satisfaction of the guests on the days when it was needed! The other novelty was the presence of electrical lights in every room. Many of Flagler’s guests were not yet acquainted with the concept of having electrical lights in their personal space, let alone being the ones to operate the switches. At first the hotel was forced to hire extra staff to turn the lights off and on for its guests, because they were afraid of being shocked!

Interior view of the Ponce de Leon Hotel at St. Augustine (1959).

Interior view of the Ponce de Leon Hotel at St. Augustine (1959).

Over time, the mystique of electric-lit bedrooms faded, but the hotel itself continued to impress. The Ponce de Leon was one of the few great hotels of its kind to survive the Great Depression. During World War II, the grand building was used as a training center for the Coast Guard. In 1968, it became the center of the newly established Flagler College. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and it became a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2006.

What is your favorite place to visit on Florida’s Atlantic Coast? Fernandina? Miami Beach? Cape Canaveral? We’d like to know. Leave us a comment below or share your Atlantic Coast favorites on our Facebook page.

Postcard depicting Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel (circa 1960s).

Postcard depicting Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel (circa 1960s).

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

Every Sunday, worshipers belonging to the oldest Catholic parish in the United States file into the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica, where mass has been celebrated in some form or fashion for nearly 450 years. As timeless as this sturdy building may appear to the visitor, however, its history bears witness to many instances of warfare, disaster, and change that have shaped the city of St. Augustine.

This is an engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589, depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

This engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589 depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.


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