African-American History by the Sea on Florida’s Historic Coast
Historic Butler Beach offers a glimpse at African-American history and American race relations.
The white sand beach and sun-splashed surf gently hissing ashore on Anastasia Island in St. Augustine seems like an odd setting for a story of African-American history. But for those who ask the meaning of the small brown signs on A1A that mark the boundaries of “Historic Butler Beach,” the answer is both surprising and revealing about American race relations a mere 50 years ago.
Located only eight miles south of St. Augustine’s historic district, Butler Beach is tucked between the seaside hustle and bustle of St. Augustine Beach and the laid-back, Old Florida vibe of Crescent Beach. But when asked, most people who live at Butler Beach simply say “I live down near Crescent Beach” because they know even many locals have no clear idea of the location of Butler Beach. But that was not always true.
Historic Butler Beach
In the early 1900’s, a young black man named Frank B. Butler moved to St. Augustine. Upon arriving, he settled in the predominantly African-American area known as Lincolnville – now one of the city’s historic districts. At the time of Butler’s arrival, Lincolnville was a thriving community boasting its own commercial areas, churches and schools along with a vibrant arts and entertainment district. For an ambitious young man like Frank Butler, it was a great place to live.
In 1914, at the young age of 29, Butler opened his own Palace Market adjacent to his home at 87 Washington Street (these buildings still exist.) The financial success of the market, allowed him to get involved in real estate. In addition to his drive to succeed, Butler’s personality and business sense made him popular with many of the leaders of St. Augustine’s elite white society. As a result, he became privy to information about local foreclosures and other real estate opportunities.
In 1925, he established the College Park Realty Company whose slogan was “Own Your Own Home: Pay Rent to Yourself and Provide for the Future.” Like his market, his real estate company was a great success. Selling to black St. Augustinians, Butler was known as a generous real estate salesman and landlord. Many of his properties cost the owners only $10 per month – and his patient approach to late payments was much appreciated.
"Whites Only" Beaches
At that time, Florida’s beaches were for the use of “whites only.” In 1927, Butler became so annoyed by this injustice that he began purchasing oceanfront property on Anastasia Island. He was eventually able to acquire a tract stretching across the island from the Atlantic to the Matanzas River. He named it Butler Beach and opened it to African-Americans. It became the only stretch of beach between Daytona Beach and American Beach, north of Jacksonville, where African-Americans were allowed to enjoy the sand and the sea.
Under its namesake’s direction, Butler Beach continued to develop. Despite local opposition, Butler was eventually able to convince local government leaders to provide an access road from A1A to his beach. He built bathhouses and a motel, and installed a merry-go-round and picnic facilities. Homes began to appear, including one for his family. In 1937, he opened the Sea Breeze Kaseno and later the Butler Inn. Eventually, 11 black-owned businesses were at the beach and the area became a popular stopping place for visitors traveling along A1A.
Despite the success of Butler Beach, local white residents remained determined that African-Americans would not get access to any other nearby beaches. In 1953, the black nursemaid for a wealthy white family on vacation was arrested when she walked on to St. Augustine Beach to check on the children.
Civil Rights Hot Spot
In 1964, St. Augustine became a major focus of the Civil Rights Movement. Protests and violence in America’s oldest city became nightly news throughout the nation, as well as internationally. In 1964, St. Augustine became a major focus of the Civil Rights Movement. Protests and violence in America’s oldest city became nightly news throughout the nation, as well as internationally. For a few days that summer, much of the attention was focused on St. Augustine Beach where black protesters tried to “wade-in” to the segregated white beach. Fighting between both sides erupted. At the time, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his staff were staying at Frank Butler’s beach hotel. A few days later, one of the most iconic photos of the Civil Rights-era was taken inside a beach cottage at 5480 Atlantic View. It shows King pointing to a bullet hole in a window. He was supposed to spend the night there. The cottage is still standing and is included in the area’s ACCORD Freedom Trail audio tour.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination, but also put an end to Butler Beach’s appeal as a blacks-only destination. Within a few years, developers purchased most of the beachfront land and began building the condos and large homes now located there.
Butler Beach Today
Today, Butler’s remaining property is divided into two county parks. Beachside, Frank Butler Park East (5860 A1A South) has free parking, beach access, restrooms, showers, BBQ grills and picnic pavilion. Just a few hundred yards north on A1A, Frank Butler Park West (399 Riverside Blvd.) features similar amenities (except for showers and beach access) and a great view of the Intracoastal Waterway. It also has a boat ramp.
Between the two parks, the Mary Street Beach ramp takes drivers to the beach ($10 per car for beach access). To the right before the pay station, unpaved Gloria Avenue has free beach parking and passes through what was once the heart of Butler Beach. The few streets in this area bear the names given to them by Butler in honor of women in his family including Mary, Minnie and Gloria (his granddaughter).
Frank Butler passed away in 1973, but the legacy he built as one of Florida’s first successful businessman remains.