Audrey Nell Edwards was still a baby when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947.
In 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed that it was time to “make real the promises of democracy,” Audrey Nell was a 16-year-old, languishing in a cell in the St. Johns County Jail in St. Augustine, Florida.
Within a year, both civil rights icons would meet and be inspired by Audrey Nell, a spunky warrior for civil rights, part of a group known as the “St. Augustine Four.” They were young people with uncommon courage. They spoke up. They spoke out. They broke color lines and leaned hard against the arc of the moral universe — all at great personal cost.
Now, more than a half-century after King’s assassination, and nearly as long since Robinson’s untimely death, Audrey Nell Edwards Hamilton is the last surviving member of the St. Augustine Four. Her life is barely visible, and her sacrifices are largely forgotten.
The traditional narrative of the civil rights movement includes highlights familiar to many Americans. The Montgomery bus boycott. Birmingham: with King’s letter from jail, the fire hoses, the gnashing dogs. Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The sit-ins. The Freedom Rides. The Dream.
But St. Augustine? Isn’t that a precious tourist town with pristine beaches and cobblestone paths traversed by tour guides with horse and buggy? Isn’t it Florida on steroids: the Fountain of Youth, the wax museum, the original Ripley’s Believe It Or Not “odditorium”?
True, but the nation’s oldest city, named for a Black man from its inception in 1565 (and possibly the first place in the United States to import enslaved Africans — with all due respect to the 1619 Project and Jamestown) — also staged one of the most violent chapters of the civil rights movement. This is where local civil rights leader Robert Hayling, a Black dentist, was almost burned alive at a Ku Klux Klan rally. It is where one of the first Black families to integrate public schools — nine years after the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka ruling — had their car firebombed, while another had their house torched. It’s the place where the local sheriff, L.O. Davis, relied on cattle prods and German shepherds to break up peaceful protests.
One of the most dramatic episodes in the St. Augustine story began on July 18, 1963, when a group of teens, members of the NAACP Youth Council advised by Hayling, conducted sit-ins at downtown lunch counters. One group of seven went into Woolworth’s opposite the city’s central plaza, home to the Slave Market and (until this past summer) a towering gray memorial to Confederate soldiers. They sat on red stools and looked up at the overhead signs.
· Apple pie by the slice — 15 cents
· American Cheese Sandwich — 30 cents
· King Size Coca Cola — 10 cents
Sheriff Davis arrived and made sure that D.J. Johnson — his only Black deputy — did the honors of shoving the group into a police car. “That really was the hurting part of the whole day,” Audrey Nell said in a 2011 interview with the Civil Rights History Project, “when he came in and snatched us and told us that we were under arrest.”
Local judge Charles C. Mathis Jr. offered a stark choice. If the parents signed a form saying their kids would refrain from protests until they turned 21, the teenagers were free to go. Otherwise, they would remain in jail until they could be sent to reform school. Three of the seven agreed to those terms.
Audrey Nell, along with friends JoeAnn Anderson, 15, Samuel White, 14, and Willie Carl Singleton, 16, urged their parents not to sign away their First Amendment rights.
Thus the showdown began.
With no juvenile facility available, they remained in jail with adults for the languid last weeks of August. They missed the beginning of school, the news of four youngsters dynamited to death in a Birmingham church, the Klan rally where Hayling was beaten.
One morning, Samuel and Willie Carl were whisked away to the notorious Florida School for Boys in Marianna. (Decades later, the world learned about the brutal punishments doled out at a building called “The White House.” In 2014, the bodies of some 55 youngsters were exhumed on the grounds there.)
The girls were taken in the wee hours one morning, packed into a car by a man Audrey Nell remembered as “Deputy Haney.” In an interview with Andrew Young for the movie “Crossing in St. Augustine,” she recalled Haney’s saying to a female companion, “You know what? If we kill these two n—–s and say they tried to escape … nothing would be said.”
They were deposited at the Florida School for Girls in Ocala. There, the days were filled with grinding boredom and hard physical labor. “We seen our mothers’ pain,” Audrey Nell recalled in 2011, “when they came up to that school [for a weekend visit] and seen our bloody knees. We had to scrub floors on our knees. We had to wax floors on our knees … until you see your face in them.”
There was an occasional outcry in the press. “Can such a thing be true in this country?” asked an editorial in the Daytona Beach News Journal. The teenagers’ rights were “grossly violated,” opined the St. Petersburg Times. Samuel White’s mother said in The Miami Herald, “I die a little every day.”
Mostly, there was silence. Audrey Nell and her friends remained, if not behind bars, far from free.
So it was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, when the turkey was carved, when the sun set on the darkest day of the year. On Dec. 25, the St. Petersburg Times published “A Christmas In Custody.”
The article quoted Arthur Dozier, the superintendent of state training schools as insisting that the children would have a good holiday. “We keep careful records of all presents received by all children in the schools,” he said. “Children whose parents don’t send presents receive gifts donated by garden clubs and other groups. And the state fills the gap.'”
Finally, on Jan. 14, just shy of six months after their arrest for a nonviolent sit-in, the St. Augustine Four were sent home. It was the day before Martin Luther King’s 35th birthday.
Almost five months later, Audrey Nell was introduced to King by Hayling. He had come to oversee a program of nonviolent direct action designed to keep racial injustice on the front page as the Civil Rights Bill worked its way through a maddeningly stuck Senate. King almost got more than he bargained for. The cottage that was rented for him was shot up. He appealed to President Lyndon B. Johnson for federal troops, saying, “All semblance of law and order has broken down in St. Augustine.”
But he was delighted to meet the courageous young activists.
“When he seen us,” Audrey Nell told Andrew Young, “he grabbed and hugged us and told us that we went way, way beyond the call of duty,” she recalled.
Having not signed away her rights to protest, Audrey Nell joined King at the Monson Motor Lodge on June 11. Both were arrested and taken to the St. Johns County Jail. Her arrest card describes her as 5-foot-1, 105 pounds, charged with breach of peace, trespassing with malicious intent and conspiracy.
Four nights later, she stood on the sidewalk with the overflow crowd outside St. Paul AME Church on Central Avenue just a few doors down from her home. Suddenly a friend raced out and shouted, “Jackie Robinson … wants to meet you all!”
So impressed was Robinson that he invited Audrey Nell and JoeAnn up north later in the summer. They flew for the first time in their lives, first class, no less. In a three-week stay with the Robinsons, they toured the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the World’s Fair.
“We had the time of our lives,” she said.
The years have not been kind to the St. Augustine Four. Willie Carl Singleton, who died at 41, and Samuel White, who died at 58, never spoke about their experiences in Marianna. JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer occasionally participated in remembrances of the movement with Audrey Nell, but she moved out of St. Augustine to raise her family in Jacksonville, where she thought the racism would be less severe. She died in June at 73.
For years, Audrey Nell Edwards Hamilton felt dogged by her police record in St. Augustine.
“I always used to wonder why I used to go apply for a job and I never could get one,” she told Young. “I was hurt. I was in disbelief. I couldn’t believe that these people in St. Augustine had kept this record hanging over my head for 40 years … for just asking for a hamburger. For sitting in. For food we never did get — in America. You know, God bless America.”
Martin Dobrow is a professor of communications at Springfield College in Massachusetts.