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Pillars of the Community

Dr. Roberts' baptismal font is one of St. Augustine's historic treasures

Dr. Roberts' baptismal font is one of St. Augustine's historic treasures.

One of major financiers of this "New St. Paul" was a local hero named Dr. Daniel Roberts (1867-1919). Dr. Roberts founded and operated St. Augustine's only black hospital, Roberts Sanitarium. He was the first black doctor allowed to operate at Flagler Hospital, and he served as president of the State Medical Association. In 1918, Dr. Roberts threw all his energy into combating the deadly flu epidemic that struck America during World War I; he succumbed to the flu the following year at the age of 52.

The loss of Dr. Roberts had an immediate emotional impact on St. Augustine. The newspaper reported his as "the largest colored funeral ever held in this city." Fans of Dr. Roberts raised money for sculptor George Leapheart to carve a marble baptismal font, which was presented to the church in the 1920s. Its inscription tells generations of St. Paul's visitors that Dr. Daniel W. Roberts was "known for his kindness and abounding charity." It is now one of St. Augustine's lasting decorative treasures. There are also stained glass windows at St. Paul and at Trinity United Methodist Church in memory of Dr. Roberts.

One of the committee members who raised funds for the baptismal font was 34-year-old Frank Butler (1885-1973). Butler became St. Augustine's most prominent black businessman. He served on St. Paul's trustee board for fifty years. During that time, he developed the black business district that thrived in Lincolnville before racial integration. His largest enterprise was the Palace Market department store on Washington Street. He even coined a set of brass tokens which customers could spend at his store. The Palace Market no longer exists, but Mr. Butler is immortalized for the strip of oceanfront property he provided as a public black beach south of the white-only St. Augustine Beach. Butler Beach is now a Florida state park.

St. Paul and the Civil Rights Movement

The AMEC's political bent made St. Paul a logical hub for St. Augustine's civil rights activities in 1963 and '64. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at multiple local churches, but several times at St. Paul. In fact, St. Paul A.M.E. is the only church in Florida where Dr. King actually preached at the pulpit and then led a demonstration. A few living locals remember that night well.

Baseball legend Jackie Robinson also spoke at St. Paul. It was a meeting place for local activists, associates of Dr. King, and Dr. Andrew Young, who hosted a traveling "Freedom School." Demonstrators began and ended their courageous nightly marches at the church. During the movement, activists encountered much vandalism and physical assaults, but amazingly, no local deaths occurred.

The demonstrations in St. Augustine were the final catalyst to get the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Four years later, however, Dr. King gave his life for that improvement to America. In the 1980s, St. Paul somberly saw their address change from Central Avenue to Martin Luther King Avenue when the street was renamed in his honor.

Now, St. Paul teams up with ACCORD to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day each January. They organize commemorative silent marches from the church to the Plaza, and host a memorial service for Dr. King. These events are especially profound for those St. Augustine residents who were at St. Paul's back when Dr. King was there, who can see the change he effected in their daily lives.

ACCORD is a volunteer group dedicated to honoring Dr. King and St. Augustine's civil rights activists for their bravery. In 2007, they erected a set of plaques at local key points of interest from the civil rights movement. It is called The Freedom Trail. A red train tour of the Freedom Trail starts and ends at St. Paul's, where members offer drinks and desserts for tourists.

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