St. Johns County is One of Three Finalists for Florida Museum of Black History

St. Johns County is One of Three Finalists for Florida Museum of Black History

St. Johns County was notified on April 15 by the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources that its proposal to be the home of the first Florida Museum of Black History scored within the top four prospective locations with St. Johns County being the number one ranked location by the Florida Museum of Black History Task Force. The task force then invited St. Johns County as well as the three other locations – Eatonville/Orange County, Sarasota and Opa-locka – to a special meeting in Tallahassee on April 19 to answer questions about the proposals submitted and determine the final scores. After the final scores were reviewed, St. Johns County continued to be the top-ranked proposal followed by Eatonville/Orange County and Opa-locka. The top-three sites will now go to the state for final consideration. 

At the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on April 16, 2024, a motion was approved to draft and negotiate a Purchase and Sale Agreement with Florida Memorial University, which is subject to the State of Florida’s selection and provision for funding of a Florida Museum of Black History in St. Augustine. The site would be used to develop a campus-style museum of African American history, performing arts, cultural exhibits and more. County Commission Chair Sarah Arnold said, “Let’s go get this and make it happen!”

Florida Memorial University, one of the oldest academic centers in the state, began its third incarnation in St. Augustine in 1918. The advent of the Civil Rights Movement brought about a whirlwind of challenges and changes to St. Augustine. Students joined the movement, and their events significantly influenced federal legislation resulting in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their activism unfortunately created tense and uncertain situations within the community, and the school was relocated to Dade County in 1965, with Florida Memorial University maintaining ownership of the land located in West Augustine.

Greg White, a community leader in the West Augustine community and a member of its Community Redevelopment Agency, said, “The county has done a phenomenal job of pushing this project. St. Augustine is one of the originators of black history in the state.”

Tera Meeks, Tourism and Cultural Development Director, cited a Cultural Marketing Review completed in 2020 that indicated St. Johns County is a world-class African American heritage destination. It read in part that “St. Johns County has the assets and product to compete as a world-class African American Heritage destination” and “It is difficult to name a destination in the United States with a more varied and rich history of the African American experience than St. Johns County.”

The County’s project partners include Florida Memorial University, West Augustine Community Redevelopment Area, ACCORD Civil Rights Museum, Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, St. Johns Cultural Council, and the City of St. Augustine as well as the City of St. Augustine Beach.

Meeks’ presentation to the BOCC also referred to a 2019 feasibility study that provided a recommendation for a financially self-sustaining performing arts facility that included a 500-seat main theater with a 200-seat black box theater along with supporting facilities and amenities. This would be a part of the County’s plan to build the museum on the campus-style location.

There is already an abundance of African American historic and cultural sites in St. Johns County. These include the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum, ACCORD Freedom Trail with 30 plus African American Heritage locations, Al Lewis Archway: Florida Normal & Industrial Institute, Butler Beach, Fort Mose Historic State Park, Excelsior School Building, Lincolnville, Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center, Plaza de la Constitución, Coquina Slave Cabin, St. Augustine Beach Hotel, St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and the Zora Neale Hurston Boarding House.

St. Johns County also has significant community investments in African American historical sites. This includes the renovation of the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center, the stabilization and restoration of the former St. Augustine Beach Hotel, the reconstruction of the original fort structure at Fort Mose Historic State Park, and repairs to the historic Zion Missionary Baptist Church. These four local Black History Sites received approximately $3 million in state grants in 2022.

Joy Andrews, County Administrator, emphasized the critical importance of location, stating, “There is not another locale within the state better poised for this museum. St. Johns County embodies Florida’s history at first sight. We possess the power to cultivate and uphold a Black History Museum here. Our community network is robust, our partnerships strong. It’s our duty to champion culture, to pay homage to history, ensuring this endeavor thrives now and for generations to come.”