St. Augustine was a major site of the Civil Rights Movement. From swim-ins at a downtown motel to targeted attacks toward Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Florida’s oldest city is also a monument to a national movement.
Frank B. Butler was a Black businessman and local leader who moved to St. Augustine’s Lincolnville area, a historic African-American community with a vibrant art and entertainment district, in the early 1900s. In 1914, at the age of 29, Butler opened Palace Market and later established College Park Realty Company. Both were a great success.
Despite his success and closeness to elite white society, Butler still lived under the injustice of Anti-Black racism in St. Augustine. In 1927 – long before Florida’s beaches were open and accessible to Black residents – Butler began purchasing oceanfront property on Anastasia Island. His tract stretched from the Atlantic to the Matanzas River, and thus Butler Beach was established. Butler Beach was the only beach from Daytona Beach to North Jacksonville that was open to Black beachgoers.
Butler kept building. To serve his patrons and community members, he built bathhouses, a motel, a merry-go-round, and picnic facilities. Homes sprang up. 11 black-owned businesses opened, including Butler’s Sea Breeze Kaseno and the Butler Inn.
Across the arbitrary lines between White and Black beaches, stark segregation remained. Wade-ins on segregated “whites only” beaches erupted in violence. Across the bridge from Butler’s small Black utopia, a battle waged on for equality. In 1963, Civil Rights activists participated in sit-ins and swim-ins in downtown St. Augustine. Their nonviolent actions had violent consequences, including backlash from White business-owners, residents, and the Ku Klux Klan. The national spotlight was on St. Augustine. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff ventured to St. Augustine to provide support to activists. During Dr. King’s stay in St. Augustine, the hotel he was scheduled to stay in was shot at and he was arrested.
Butler Beach is now a County Park and his market building on Washington Street still stands today. While confined by institutional racism, Butler thrived in St. Augustine and helped build a community voice that still rings loud for justice.