Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center Shares Untold History of the Nation’s Oldest City

Alongside Spanish Explorers, Africans Settled St. Augustine

The African American experience on Florida’s Historic Coast is steeped in more than 450 years of inclusion and is a part of the fabric of the foundation of the formative years of North America. From Conquistadors to early settlers to civil rights leaders, people of color have a long and storied history in St. Augustine.

The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center in St. Augustine celebrates that history and strives to bring a diverse mix of visitors to Florida’s Historic Coast. Many tourists are simply unaware that Africans were prominently present in St. Augustine in the 1500s, long before the settling of Jamestown in what is now Virginia.

Gayle Phillips, executive director of the Lincolnville Museum, has through research and collections established that St. Augustine was the site of the first Africans to arrive in North America and many of them were free. They were among the crews of Conquistadors and explorers who traveled with the Spanish and helped settle Florida’s Historic Coast.

The museum’s exhibits detail the course of free Africans who resided in St. Augustine for hundreds of years before the Civil War. There was slavery in St. Augustine and depending on the time period and government control of the area – be it Spanish, British or American -- people of color often were seen as an integral part of the fabric of the community.

But there were also periods of plantation ownership that was mixed with slaves and free workers. In fact, the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center at 102 Martin Luther King Ave. in St. Augustine, is on the site of a former citrus plantation.

After the Civil War, that plantation land was divided up among freed slaves. Even African American troops returning from service in the Civil War would eventually lease land on the former plantation after they completed the fight for freedom. The Lincolnville area of southern St. Augustine - originally called Little Africa - is also named after President Abraham Lincoln because it has had a traditional African American population.

The association between people of color and St. Augustine is a complicated one and it’s not always comfortable or easy to explain or accept. Not only does the Lincolnville Museum have displays about African American life in the early foundations of the area, it also highlights relations between the indigenous Native Americans and black residents. The two cultures were often allied in their pursuit of freedom and escape from oppression.

That alliance is best represented in what eventually became Fort Mose (pronounced Moe-zay) located just outside St. Augustine’s city limit, which today is a Florida state park. There are no visible remains of the fort that was established by Africans and Native Americans. But the Lincolnville Museum retraces the Fort Mose story to show how the outpost was basically designed and why it was necessary for a diverse group of people who sought self-determination and autonomy.

Scholars and historians are just in recent decades beginning to acknowledge much of the overlooked history for people of color on Florida’s Historic Coast. Much of that history has been bypassed because it was not an English-speaking era in North America and most of the history for North America has been written in the English language.

From a tourism standpoint, the Lincolnville Museum serves as a beacon for much of the untold history of minorities and the role they played in developing the Nation’s Oldest City. Volunteers at the Lincolnville Museum often greet visitors who simply had no idea the critical support and development African Americans had in the early formation of settlements here.

The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center is really the only visitor’s attraction that tells in a comprehensive way the rich story of African American involvement in the destination’s base of history.

The museum also holds concerts, art exhibits, student programs, lectures and community events. Group tours can be arranged. The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center is open 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday or by appointment and is located at 102 Martin Luther King Avenue, St. Augustine. Group tours can be arranged. Call 904-824-1191 or 205-826-0608 or visit LincolnvilleMuseum.org