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Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center

By Amy Howard

Excelsior Museum and Culture Center

Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center

102 Martin Luther King Ave.
St. Augustine, FL 32084
(904) 824-1191
HOURS: Tuesday - Thursday 12 PM - 5 PM
Excelsior Cultural Center Web Site

Excelsior School was St. Augustine's first black public high school. Its historic building is now a growing cultural center showcasing the city's rich African-American history.

Excelsior Presents Lincolnville

Since its establishment after the Civil War by freed slaves, Lincolnville has lived every phase of America's racial journey. What began as a cluster of plantation squatter shacks known as 'Africa' eventually boasted the city's largest collection of Victorian homes. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Interior listed Lincolnville in the National Register of Historic Places. The following year, the tour trains added a Lincolnville leg to their route. But for all its significance, by 2005, there was still no public facility for visitors to really learn about this vital component of St. Augustine's history.

The Friends of Excelsior are changing that. In 2005, St. Augustine's first black public high school was re-invented as Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center. The historic doors open today onto displays of the city's African-American heritage: when runaway slaves from Carolina built Fort Mose, America's first free black town; when the Civil War freed American slaves; when Black Code laws allowed unjustified arrest and re-enslavement; when black entrepreneurs created a thriving black business district; when black students learned in black-only schools and went on to achieve great things; when black and white activists fought the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan; when Martin Luther King made St. Augustine the final straw in America's civil rights movement. Excelsior Museum is a place for people to see St. Augustine through the eyes of the town's foremost African-American community.

Excelsior School

The site where Excelsior now stands held segregated black schools since 1901. Up to 1921, it was St. Augustine's only black school, called "School #2" or "Colored School." By 1919, the thriving black community had outgrown the worn, wooden building and began to petition the St. Johns County School Board to build a new school for Negro children. When the school board could not find budget room for a new building, local black residents raised $750 and presented it to the school board with a request for funding to repair the old school. Their request was rejected again.

After five years of rejections, the school board finally approved funding for a new building. But not just any building. St. Augustine's leading architect, Fred Henderich, was hired to design a lasting masonry structure. A New York City native, Henderich had lived and worked in St. Augustine for twenty years. The area's natural resources inspired him to bring the Mediterranean Revival style to Florida, which he used to design the Plaza Bandstand, Flagler Hospital, Florida Normal College, Hastings High School, the Visitors Center, and in 1925, Excelsior School. Excelsior's impressive structure was completed just as construction began on the historic Bridge of Lions.

The elegant new building became Lincolnville's main educational and community center for the next fifty years. The campus evolved through variations of the name "Colored School" before it became "Excelsior" in 1928. Excelsior reared many of St. Augustine's top educators, nurses, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and athletes, including NFL star Willie Gallimore and civil rights leaders Henry and Kat Twine. Some of these people are still around to share their memories of Lincolnville's glory days.

In 1968, Excelsior retired as a school and spent some thirty years housing a variety of local government offices. The building's historical value was widely recognized when Lincolnville was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. In the past decade, residents and city officials have been working through ways to renovate the building into a cultural center.

Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center

Excelsior Museum and Cultural Center opened in 2005 thanks to the efforts of the Friend of Excelsior.

In the museum, visitors can browse the rich cultural heritage of the Lincolnville community. Sections are dedicated to historic black churches, activities of Martin Luther King, black historical and social societies, and various business entrepreneurs. On proud display is Kat Twine's Freedom Hat, the sign board saved from the demolished Monson Motor Lodge, and the delightfully dilapidated piano that Ray Charles played at the School for the Deaf and Blind.

Likewise, Lincolnville's older residents can wander through rooms of memories, both joyful and painful, thanks to donated memorabilia. They can see pictures of their teachers and classmates, and exciting media prints of those who achieved success both great and small. Local artwork dons the walls.

In addition to the museum, Excelsior school has returned to some of its original purpose in educating the community. Retired St. Augustine teacher Barbara Smith coordinates Excelsior's Learning Center. She offers free after-school tutoring and homework help. Children and adults can use the center's books, reading room, computers, and internet access. Elderly folks can come there for a basic computer class. The center also hosts a family fun day and launches a Freedom Trail black history tour.

Friends of Excelsior

The Friends of Excelsior is nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing and protecting the historic school. The group is governed by a board of directors led by Lincolnville native Mr. Otis Mason. After graduating from Excelsior, Mason went on to graduate from Florida A&M and then New York University, plus served in the Korean War. In his lifetime of service to America and the local community, Mason spent eighteen years as supervisor of St. Johns County's elementary schools.

Dalonja Duncan is the center's manager. Her grandfather appears in the Shriners exhibit there. Some Excelsior students, such as Gabriel Holiday and Fannie Willis, have returned to their childhood school to volunteer their time in sharing Lincolnville's story. As more people recognize Excelsior Museum's existence and critical value to St. Augustine, more residents will donate memorabilia to share with the public.

Excelsior's Mission Statement

"We believe that the basic purpose of Excelsior is to provide a historically significant edifice to support the preservation of a rich cultural heritage of the Lincolnville community, by housing comprehensive programs to help prepare all who seek its services for fuller participation in society. We believe that all programs and activities of Excelsior should enrich the lives of all and raise their levels of aspiration and accomplishment to promote the social, economic, cultural, moral and ethical development of the Lincolnville Community, serving as a stimulus to learning and providing services to St. Johns County at large.

"Self-reliance, open access, equal opportunity, expanded learning, cultural awareness and historical enlightenment will become the paradigm of Excelsior. These virtues, we believe, will help all individuals make a worthwhile contribution to the society in which they live. Our open door policy will enable all to avail themselves of the multi-faceted opportunities Excelsior provides. Lives will be refurbished, attitudes reshaped, skills honed, spiritualities atoned, goals measured. . . a renaissance of a proud culture awakened to its full potential."

Last modified 10-15-08.


 
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