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The Forgotten History of Lincolnville
If you have ever visited St. Augustine, you might have noticed a large concentration of Victorian era homes just southwest of recognizable landmarks like the Bridge of Lions and the Cathedral Basilica. This is Lincolnville, a historically black neighborhood in America’s oldest city. Formed by St. Augustine’s freed slave population after the Civil War, Lincolnville was home to a thriving middle-class black community during the period of legalized segregation in early twentieth century Florida.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and freed all enslaved peoples living in Union-occupied areas, which included St. Augustine–one of the few places in Florida to enforce emancipation during the Civil War. According Mary Anne Murray, an eye-witness who was interviewed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) some seventy years after emancipation: “All the slaveholders were ordered to release their slaves and allow them to gather in a large vacant lot west of St. Joseph’s Academy, where they were officially freed.” An estimated 672 slaves living in St. Augustine became freedmen at once, and the parcel became known as “liberation lot.” These liberated men and women would become the founders of Lincolnville. In the decades that followed, their descendants celebrated the anniversary of emancipation in jubilant fashion.
The freedmen of St. Augustine wasted no time in settling a neighborhood of their own, leasing numerous city lots along the marshy banks of the Maria Sanchez Creek in the mid to late 1860s. Initially referred to as “Africa,” the rapidly developing corridor was soon renamed “Lincolnville,” after the slain Civil War president. By the 1880s, many Lincolnville residents were property owners who built their own homes, businesses, and churches. Several blacks from Lincolnville served in public office up until the turn of the century when restrictive voting laws like poll taxes and literacy tests effectively disenfranchised African-Americans. The definitive end to black political participation in Lincolnville came in 1902, when resident John Papino was shot after winning election to the city council. No black officials would be elected to city government again until 1973. Barred from the ballot box and routinely shut out from many of the economic opportunities available to whites, African-Americans living in Lincolnville focused on investing in their community’s development.
Though intended to limit opportunity for African-Americans, the exclusionary conditions of segregation actually encouraged the growth of black enterprise initiatives. By the 1920s a lively commercial district of black-owned businesses had sprouted up around Washington St., making it the center of socialization in Lincolnville. “If you weren’t there on Saturday night, you hadn’t lived,” reminisced former civil rights activist and St. Augustine City Commissioner Henry Twine.
One Lincolnville entrepreneur, Frank Butler, who owned the Palace Market grocery store on 54 Washington St. where he often sold his customers goods on credit, became a well-known real-estate investor during a time when property deeds typically barred land sales to blacks. Having built up a rapport with city officials, Butler often received tips on tax sales and real-estate sales, advantages otherwise not extended to African-Americans. Longtime Lincolnville resident, Rosalie Gordon Mills, recalled that Butler “had a calling—a mission in life to succeed as a black man…. He knew how to deal with the race problem and took advantage of every opportunity.” Butler leased properties all over town to black-run businesses, allowed prospective homeowners to buy on credit, and even established “Butler Beach” (see our blog “Butler Beach and Jim Crow”), the only beach between Jacksonville and Daytona open to African-Americans during segregation.
In addition to the numerous business ventures undertaken by Butler, the Washington St. district also boasted the Ice Berg, a legendary pharmacy and soda shop managed by Arthur C. Forward. “Everything was good,” recalled former Lincolnville resident Debbie McDade who insisted the Ice Berg sold the best ice creams sodas “in the world.” Three barber shops, six grocery stores in addition to Butler’s Palace Market, four cafes, and four dry cleaning shops filled out the rest of the commercial hub. Black professionals like dentist Rudolph Gordon; medical doctors Leon Reid, T.G. Freeland, S.J.E. Farmer; and pharmacists Otis J. Mills and Robert E. Smith provided trusted healthcare in a neighborhood historian Diana Edwards described as a place where “extended families looked out after everybody.”
Additionally, photographer Richard A. Twine’s studio on 62 Washington St. attracted regular customers interested in professional portraits. When he was not working in his studio, Twine often took his camera to the streets of 1920s Lincolnville, documenting scenes of daily life at the height of the predominately black middle-class suburb’s business boom. Damaged by fire, Twine’s studio was slated for demolition in 1988 before the work crew discovered a collection of 103 glass negatives in the attic. Preserved by the St. Augustine Historical Society, and temporarily loaned to the State Archives of Florida for duplication, these rare slides illuminate the character of Lincolnville’s history.
As federal courts began striking down segregation laws as unconstitutional in the 1950s and 60s, Lincolnville became the site of civil rights organization in St. Augustine. But, after integration came a decline in the number of black owned homes and businesses in Lincolnville. Although Lincolnville had never been entirely segregated– whites had always owned some shops and houses in the area– by the 1980s black residents of Lincolnville started selling and renting their properties in search of better opportunities elsewhere. The community became more commercialized and scattered, with much of the flavor and family-like atmosphere of 1920s Lincolnville living on only in Richard Twine’s photographs. However, longtime St. Augustine locals recognized the historic value of Lincolnville– in 1991, the Lincolnville Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places.