Action News Jax celebrates Black History Month: The story of the 'St. Augustine Four'

The story of the St. Augustine Four

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Action News Jax celebrates Black History Month with a look at the local people and places that have helped to shape our culture and communities.

More than five decades ago, four young people took a bold stand against racism. Their lunch counter protest in the Ancient City helped to fuel the civil rights movement and solidify their rightful place in history.

Audrey Nell Edwards, JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer, Willie Carl Singleton, Samuel White are known as the "St. Augustine Four."

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Action News Jax Anchor Tenikka Hughes spoke to Tony Hill, a former state senator and current chair of Florida’s African American History Task Force about their story.

“Their thing they were saying is, ‘We’ve got to turn the heat up a little bit. We’ve got to turn the heat up,’” Hill said.

They were among a group of young people arrested after they tried to order hamburgers at the "whites only" Woolworth's lunch counter on King Street in July of 1963.

But the “St. Augustine Four" remained in jail after they refused to sign papers promising they would stop demonstrating, a decision their families supported.

“Their parents said 'No, we’re not going to agree to that,' and they paid the ultimate price,” said Hill.

Between being put in jail and then reform schools, the four would be detained nearly six months, trapped in the system and away from their families.

“For them to be thrown in that type of environment was really tough,” Hill said.

As attempts to get them free failed, protests ensued. Prominent voices, including local activist Dr. Robert Hayling, echoed the cry of injustice. News of their incarceration began to spread across the country, creating a very stark contrast to the sunny and welcoming tourist destination Florida leaders touted it to be.

“That time, remember Florida was a tourist place, and so they were spending millions at places like the World’s Fair in New York and talking about 'come to Florida for oranges' and all that -- but what people were seeing on TV was different than what the governor was saying,” Hill said.

With the pressure mounting, in January 1964, the governor and his cabinet finally ordered their release.

Hill said the courage, conviction and commitment of the “St. Augustine Four” is an example that young people can learn from today.

“I would say the young people today, get involved," Hill said. “Barriers have been knocked down, and we need to be moving forward and not backwards.”

One year after the Woolworth sit-in, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Many historians credit the fight for civil rights in St. Augustine, including the sit-in by the “St. Augustine Four,” as the catalyst for making that happen.