The relocation of what was then Florida Memorial College to South Florida in the fall of 1968 marked the unfortunate end of a 50 year-relationship with the City of St. Augustine that started very differently. In 1918, city leaders in St. Augustine had originally welcomed the school to the area, facilitating the purchase of the 400-acre “Old Hansen Plantation,” which, ironically, had been the largest sugar plantation in the state during the antebellum period. Leaving its previous home in Jacksonville, the Florida Baptist Academy began the session at its new home in St. Augustine on Sept. 24 as the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute (FNII). Influenced by the educational model instituted most famously by Booker T. Washington at his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, students were encourage to be industrious and self-sufficient, constructing many of the campus buildings themselves, as well as growing and preparing their own food. Over the decades, the institution continued to grow. In 1942 the Baptist Convention that funded FNII instituted a merger of its two schools, closing down Florida Memorial College at Live Oak and combining it with what would now be known as the Florida Normal Industrial and Memorial College in St. Augustine. Acclaimed writer Zora Neale Hurston briefly taught at the school during these years.
The advent of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s brought about a whirlwind of challenges and change to the nation and St. Augustine was not immune. A local African American dentist, Robert B. Hayling, head of the youth chapter of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), organized demonstrations against segregation in the city. The conflict reached a new level of intensity when Hayling appealed to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for their assistance in the fight.
As the movement grew, students from Florida Memorial joined the struggle, participating in sit-ins, wade-ins, and swim-ins. Activism by FMC students threatened to upset the delicate relationship between the city of St. Augustine and the school. Since moving to the city, the institution had received special considerations from the St. Augustine municipal government and local businesses that employed students and graduates. Given this vulnerable financial situation, Royal W. Puryear (1912–1984), president of the college, initially prohibited students from participating in the demonstrations. Ignoring Puryear’s warnings, students from Florida Memorial continued their activism. In 1964, for example, men wearing brass knuckles attacked FMC student John Phillips after he ordered coffee and a hamburger at a local segregated restaurant. Another student, Maude Burroughs, was arrested three times during the protests. Faced with these realities, President Puryear relented; the campus even hosted planning meetings including King. The campus and its students were a part of the resistance in St. Augustine’s civil rights struggle.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson pressured the U.S. Congress to pass civil rights legislation to protect the nation’s Black citizens. Images of the protests, counter-protests, and arrests in St. Augustine became national news. The events in St. Augustine greatly influenced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Johnson on July 2nd. The legislation was a watershed moment in America’s history.
While Blacks in St. Augustine won the battle over integration in the city and nation, Florida Memorial College found itself engaged in a war for its survival. In 1963, the board of trustees voted to relocate the institution to South Florida due to declining enrollment and to St. Augustine’s lack of amenities. Faced with strained relationships with its host community after the civil rights protests, the decision to move was timely. Both during and after the movement, FMC was subject to attacks that necessitated armed self-defense. After local law enforcement declined to provide protection, male students were deputized and armed to patrol the campus. After the assassination of Rev. King on April 4, 1968, nightriders burned crosses on the front lawn of the school. President Puryear closed the campus for two weeks as a precautionary measure. This direct threat of violence accelerated plans for the school’s exodus from St. Augustine. As a result, Florida Memorial College opened its fall 1968 term at its Opa-locka campus, even though there were only three buildings completed and no housing on campus for female students.
In retrospect, but for the violence and racial antipathy in the city during the Civil Rights Movement, Florida Memorial might have remained in St. Augustine. Instead, the hasty exodus of the institution was a terrible and dramatic end to a relationship that spanned five decades. There has been some attempt on the part of the current government in St. Augustine to address the breach with Florida Memorial. At a banquet hosted by FMU in 2014, Jim Boles, the mayor of St. Augustine, apologized to Florida Memorial on behalf of the city for its failure to protect, defend and retain the college. It was a remarkable pronouncement, long overdue but a significant step toward reconciling the relationship between the city and the university. Likewise, initiatives like the Lion Legacy Spring Break Service Project works to keep current FMU students engaged with the history of FMU during its time in St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Nevertheless, since 1968, FMU has thrived in its adopted home in South Florida as the only historically Black university in the region. Florida Memorial University will mark its 50th anniversary in Miami-Dade County in the fall of 2018.
Tameka Bradley Hobbs is an Assistant Professor of History, University Historian, and Interim Chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Florida Memorial University. She is the author of the award-winning book Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida, published with the University Press of Florida.