Lift Every Voice and Sing

 Inauguration Day in the Ancient City

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 Faces of Change in the New South


Once more, tears welled in my eyes as I stood on the steps of the old slave market in St. Augustine Florida and listened to the largely white crowd, led by local Afro-American vocalist Sylvia Howard, sing “God Bless America” as Barack Hussein Obama took his oath of office and became the 44th President of the United States of America; the first African American elected by the American people to hold that exalted office.  It was literally a once in a lifetime moment, for this was an event of such uniqueness that it could not happen again.

Almost all Afro-Americans who grew up under American apartheid and witnessed the triumph of the great struggle for civil rights wanted to be somewhere memorable when Barack Obama recited the oath of the presidency and occupied the Oval Office.  Most chose to brave the cold and the crowds and make their way to the Great Mall in Washington DC, so that they could bear witness to this singular event in American history within the shadow of the majestic Capitol dome.  I started to go to Washington too.  I have many good friends there and several fine homes where I could lay my head.  But after giving the matter some thought I decided to come home to St. Augustine Florida, the first European settlement in North America, which is world famous as “America’s Oldest City.” 

 St. Augustine is also home to the oldest free black community in this nation; which began as a warrior community garrisoned at Fort Mose, founded by runaway slaves who escaped to Spanish Florida from the English colonies of Georgia.  These militant former slaves were armed and trained by the Spanish military and entered into a treaty to serve as the advanced guard in the defense of the Spanish community at St. Augustine.  Fort Mose was named after the Spanish governor at the time of its founding and was located outside of the city walls; thus it was the black warriors at Fort Mose who first engaged the Anglo-Saxon invaders from the north and weakened them for the Spanish forces to counter-attack. 

 Restoring the True history of St. Augustine

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Black Soldiers at Fort Mose!


When I was growing up here we knew nothing of this heroic chapter in the history of African Americans in this city, rather the history books emphasized the docility of the African slaves from whom we descended.  We were told by our Euro-American tutors whose racist myths masqueraded as history that our enslaved ancestors cried and begged their masters to stay on the plantation when the “evil” Yankee blue coats “invaded” the south and forced an unwanted freedom on them – adding insult to injury.   But today this proud history is celebrated with an impressive historical exhibit within the massive Castilio de San Marcos, a huge Coquino rock fortress with twenty mounted cannon, protected by the Matanzas Bay on one side and surrounded on other sides by a moat. 

 The Castillio de San Marcos

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This fort was never taken!

The Castilio, whose massive walls dominate the landscape of this ancient city, is one of the largest forts built by the Spaniards anywhere in the America’s, which is a measure of the importance of this beautiful seaside village nestled on the Atlantic Ocean, the northern most boundary of a Spanish empire that stretched all the way down to Chile at the tip of South America.  Comparing the size of the Castilio with that of Fort Mose, I am reminded of the heroism of my ancestors who founded this first free African community in North America in the 18th century, a freedom they paid for with blood and guts.

Although the historical record reveals that there was a time in the history of this City when Europeans, Africans and Native Americans lived among each other with no formal laws segregating them.  But when I was growing up here the southern system of segregation was in full effect, and the affairs of this city was monopolized by evil racist red neck crackers!  Some of them are still around but today they are forced to keep their mouths shut and operate underground.  I left this town, and lost quite a bit of family property over the years because of these rednecks.

One day during the summer of 1960, after me and my buddies returned home from college and began to challenge the racial order by sitting in at local stores the way we had done at college earlier in the year as the black student movement exploded across the south, my grandfather, George Benjamin, called me aside and said “Boy, it’s time for you to go on up North, because the way you are heading either you going to kill one of these Peckerwoods, or one of them is gonna kill you!   And either way you gonna get this whole family in a war because whatever they do to you they do to me!” 

So I split the scene in St. Augustine.  But my neighbors, the Eubanks family stayed here and they did get in a shootout with the Klan as the movement developed, and they won.  But the crackers who ran the city at the time – Especially the Mayor, Dr. Shelly, a physician whom my aunt Rosalie, a surgical nurse who worked with him at Flagler hospital, compared to the Nazi Dr. Mengele – put Goldie Eubanks and his nephew Richard on trial for their lives when they proved the better marksman and killed one of the marauding Klansman.  They were rescued from Florida’s electric chair, popularly known as “Old Sparky,” only because the Center for Constitutional Rights dispatched the great New York lawyer William Kuntzler to lead the defense team.  Bill put such a whipping on the backward redneck lawyers down here that they were forced to drop the charges and the Eubanks walked.

I am presently working on a book about this stunningly beautiful little town that now seems like a haven of racial harmony.  But as I interrogate the documents from the civil rights struggle of forty years ago, I am constantly reminded of the extraordinary heroism of the common black folk of Lincolnville and West Augustine, where the African American population was concentrated.  And I am presently recording their voices for a radio documentary that will be aired on WBAI FM in New York City then placed on the internet so that it will be easily accessible to anyone in the world.    As I listen to these heroic people, many of them now in their late eighties, I want to prostrate myself before them and say thanks for a job well done.  Standing on the steps of the old slave market while Barack Hussein Obama took his oath of office, I thought of the cynics who would disparage this glorious moment, and I say let us rejoice in this victory: lift every voice and sing!


Hallelujah!   The day of Jubilee

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 Oh Happy Day! 


Odd man out!

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Arrested Development!





Photo and Text by: Playthell G. Benjamin

St. Augustine Florida

January 2009

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