Miami Black History: Florida Memorial University in the civil rights movement

St. Augustine was a hotbed of civil rights upheaval in Florida, and the steadfast activism of students at Florida Memorial University fueled the state’s struggle toward justice. Today, FMU is South Florida’s only historically black university. Learn how the civil rights movement shaped the school and its students, and eventually caused the storied institution’s relocation to Miami.

Before college students at Florida Memorial like Maude Burroughs Jackson prepared to go out to protest for civil rights on the streets of St. Augustine, Florida in 1964, they would attend a mass meeting at a church. There, they would hear of the daily Jim Crow era indignities — who had tried to eat in a cafe and was turned away, who applied to work somewhere and was turned down, if anyone had been assaulted by Klansmen.

And they would sing.

In archival video news footage from Miami TV station WCKT that summer, SCLC field secretary Andrew Young led protesters at a mass meeting singing the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” with zeal Burroughs Jackson likens to a high school pep rally.

In the summer of 1964, demonstrations in the small northeast Florida town became regular and segregationists violently opposed the protesters’ demands of equality. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. threw his support to the well-publicized campaign in St. Augustine. It was the only place King was arrested in Florida. The battle for civil rights there gained the country’s attention. Violent scenes from St. Augustine in the media became a catalyst in passing the civil rights act of 1964.

Students and administrators at Florida Memorial University were an integral part of the civil rights fight half a century ago in St. Augustine. But instead of thanking those protesters for their efforts, racists ran the institution out of town.

Four years later, FMU moved to Miami. History professor Tameka Hobbs said the history of the Historically Black College that made the move from St. Augustine to Miami in 1968 because of racial violence is unique.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find an HBCU at 136 years old that had to relocate not once but twice due to racial violence,” said Hobbs. “We were run out of Live Oak, Florida in 1892 because local whites were upset that we were training ‘uppity Negroes’ as the term would have been back then.” That spawned a move to Jacksonville and the creation of the Florida Baptist Academy. In 1918, the institution relocated to St. Augustine where it remained until 1968.

“After the civil rights protests in the 1960s… the relationship with the white power structure in St. Augustine were such that, we were again forced to leave that city to the safety of South Florida,” said Hobbs. “It’s a powerful story of perseverance.”

College-aged people in particular had a huge role to play in these fights for integration in localities throughout the nation, particularly in South. Before MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference came into St. Augustine, a local dentist, Robert Hayling and other leaders of the NAACP had been very active. They recruited from the campus. As St. Augustine prepares to celebrate its 450th anniversary in 2015, and marked the 50th anniversary of the protests, Hobbs is documenting the stories behind those efforts as the University historian.

At the mass meetings, Burroughs Jackson said the singing would give them the strength to face the violence that awaited them as they marched silently. “I remember one particular night right down in here that I could have been badly hurt,” said Burroughs Jackson. “My partner for that night was Jimmy Jackson. As a brick or a bottle was coming at me, he pushed me out of the way and I didn’t get hurt that night. But there were nights that people got beat up, bloody. It was sad.”

These awful and brave memories flood back to Burroughs Jackson as she sits in the center of St. Augustine at la Plaza de la Constitucion on a bench, near a roofed pavilion, where today, a vendor sells jewelry.

“This was the slave market, you know the whole history that slaves were sold here,” said Burroughs Jackson. “History is history. Good bad or ugly, you can’t wash it away. This is one of the places we always came for our marches and everything when we left Lincolnville. This is the place that was designated for the footsoldiers. There are hundreds and hundreds of people.”

It was also the gathering place for the Klan who came from around Florida, Georgia and beyond. Burroughs Jackson and the other protesters challenged St. Augustine’s power structure when it excluded the Black residents in so many ways as the town embarked on its 400th anniversary.

The 2015 MLK Day Sunday Service at the Church of the Incarnation on NW 54th Street in Miami featured FMU president Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis. The congregation joined the choir in singing the Black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” which a FMU faculty member helped compose while employed at Florida Baptist Academy.

The mood at the event was celebratory but pragmatic. The present day challenges are not lost on the crowd — the Trayvon Martin Foundation is housed at FMU.

Cynthia Mitchell Clark
Cynthia Mitchell Clark

One woman in attendance, Cynthia Mitchell Clark was a high school student in St. Augustine who joined the 1964 protests. She remembers the humiliation of having to study in the closet because a light on in their house on a main road attracted attacks from the Klan. She also remembers the energy of the Florida Memorial students and the national leaders who came to prepare them for battle.

“I remember C.T. Vivian [a minister and close friend of King] would start singing ‘I love everybody,’ said Mitchell Clark. “And that was something that we sang constantly because he didn’t want us to start hating people because of what they were doing.” When Mitchell Clark goes back to visit her mother she is struck by positive changes in the city.

Retired teacher and actor Gerald Eubanks had a special role during the early 1960s in St. Augustine. A native of the city with a large extended family, he first encountered the civil rights movement as a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1960. He returned to his hometown and transferred to Florida Memorial. Seeing the conditions for Blacks there got to him, and he became the president of the NAACP youth council. He tells the history of St. Augustine civil rights struggle by reading the poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul,” Eubanks intoned in his acting and dance studio where he displayed an exhibit he created on the civil rights movement in St. Augustine. “If you read the core, it is a kind of internal spirit that must have been inside of anybody who participated in the movement that is going against the status quo and daring to do it. You did it when it was critical.”

Gerald Eubanks
Gerald Eubanks

In 1964 Eubanks assigned children to picket. For years the city did not want to acknowledge the efforts of the demonstrators. Eubanks and others set up markers that show where the important events took place and where King stayed. Eubanks organized the 40th and recently marked the 50th anniversary celebration of the passing of the Civil Rights Act. He recalled Florida Memorial as a place that gave Black students hope — a place where they could dream.

But in the mid-1960s the climate for Florida Memorial grew ugly. The Klan burned crosses on the campus to intimidate the student body. The male students were deputized to bear arms to protect the campus at night. Hobbs said the leadership decided to move to Miami for safety. Hobbs sees the move as a challenge and a hurdle that forced the leadership to build again. Today the University offers 41 undergraduate degree programs and 4 master’s programs.

During the University’s homecoming weekend this month, Hobbs recorded oral histories of some of the oldest alumni. Those stories will become a part of an official history of the institution’s dramatic story.

Dina Weinstein is a South Florida-based writer whose work appears in Moment, Jewish Book World, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Miami Herald.