The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hatred these Black women can’t forget as they near 100 years old

Three veterans of the civil rights movement fought segregation in St. Augustine, Fla., enduring violence and racism in America’s oldest city

Cora Tyson, 99, stands in front of her home in St. Augustine, Fla., on July 15. The plaque commemorates the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stay at her home while he pushed for the racial desegregation of dining and lodging amid Ku Klux Klan violence. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/For The Washington Post)
12 min

Even now, after all this time, the memories are raw.

Cora Tyson, 99, still hears the wailing. She sees the teenagers sprinting back from late-night demonstrations at the old slave market, blood streaming down their faces. She pictures the startling serenity of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on her porch at 81 Bridge Street as he sips her sweet tea and watches the dark limousines with black skeleton flags, followed by a march of White men in white robes.

Half a mile away, Janie Young Price, 96, has no trouble summoning the outrage she felt when she emerged from her hospital shift and found her Buick Electra turned upside down. She can still hear the hate at the Howard Johnson restaurant when a nearby White woman held her nose and said, “Ew, it stinks in here! Somebody must have left the sewer open.”

Not two miles west, Barbara Vickers, 99, remembers crouching in this small house on Scott Street as pickup trucks tore past, belligerent young men peppering the porch with buckshot. She vividly recalls the time night riders shot into the house of her neighbor, the leader of the local civil rights movement, killing his dog and terrifying his two young daughters.

St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest continuously inhabited city in the continental United States, is built on history. The year 1565, when Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés settled here, is splashed across virtually every hat and T-shirt hawked in the bustling outdoor market. Trolley drivers crow about the oldest street, the oldest school and Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth.

Elusive as it might have been for Florida’s European discoverer, the fountain flows freely through the veins of Vickers and Tyson, who celebrated their 99th birthdays a few days apart this spring, and Price, who turned 96 a few days earlier. These three Black women are St. Augustine’s grandes dames of civil rights. Among them, they have decades of razor-sharp long-term memory, a double-edged gift.

Long widowed, the women have lost some of their mobility and hearing but still live in the homes where they resided in 1964, when the city was convulsed by racial hatred.

The upheaval in St. Augustine that spring and early summer is one of the great under-told stories of American civil rights. It was a showdown of King and the Klan, as the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act played out in Congress. King was targeted with death threats, his rented home strafed with bullets. On a nightly basis, the prospect of extreme racial violence hovered like the Florida humidity, making it hard to breathe.

Most of America has forgotten about that bloody period, when St. Augustine was at the center of the civil rights struggle. These three women, who all played a key role, have no choice but to remember.

“The movement did something to me that I don’t tell to the average person,” Tyson reflected earlier this month. “Because I trusted everybody. They broke a trust. It did something to me physically, mentally, and spiritually. … It hurt very deep. Even now, when I talk about it, I get all emotional. I’m 99; I guess I’ll just die with it.”

‘I wanted to get away from here’

Price and Vickers are St. Augustine natives who can conjure the city as it was almost a century ago. Price remembers her grandfather riding in a horse-drawn buggy, lighting the gas lamps that lined the narrow streets before electricity was common.

The landmarks of their childhood in the central plaza spoke to St. Augustine’s difficult history: the open-air pavilion where slaves had been sold (still widely known as the Slave Market), the towering Confederate memorial. Black elders talked in hushed tones about the lynching of Isaac Barrett in 1897.

Price remembers hand-me-down textbooks from the White schools, the pages occasionally torn out. Vickers recalls, at age 8, being shouldered off a downtown sidewalk by White teenagers.

“Segregation was so bad,” she said. “I wanted to get away from here.”

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The World War II economy gave her that opportunity. After graduating from Excelsior High School in 1942, she talked her way into a job as a tack welder in the New York shipyards. Her evening art classes at Excelsior helped her land additional employment in the garment district, making pocketbooks and jewelry. Later, moving as far from Florida as the continental United States would allow, she worked in Seattle for Boeing. Against her better instincts, she was lured back to St. Augustine by Eddie Vickers, who had proposed to her.

Price likewise seized her chance to get away. In 1944, she was accepted into Grady nursing school in Atlanta on a government-sponsored scholarship amid the wartime nursing shortage. On Saturday nights, Grady students hosted well-dressed young men from Morehouse College at jukebox parties. One of the occasional guests was a precocious teenager named Martin Luther King Jr., who was dating one of Price’s classmates. Price returned to St. Augustine in 1947 for a nursing job at Flagler Hospital, where the rooms, bathrooms and even maternity wards were racially segregated.

Not long after, Cora Tyson moved to town from Georgia to cook in a Black restaurant in Lincolnville, a predominantly Black neighborhood that had been settled by freed slaves in 1866 and named for the Great Emancipator.

‘All sense of law and order has broken down in St. Augustine’

The civil rights movement began in earnest in the 1950s. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for school integration. The next year, King emerged as the reluctant leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. The lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till — and the horrific photos of his body in Jet magazine — alerted many White Americans to the brutality of racism.

Things were mostly quiet in St. Augustine, the tourist economy chugging along, White and Black St. Augustinians living by codes of paternalism and second-class citizenship. Tyson, who managed the cafeteria at the all-Black Webster Elementary School, said the “way of life” made for relative peace. “I figured we were living here and we were okay,” she said.

She added, “Came to find out it wasn’t what I thought it was.”

The 1960s reshaped the city. The turning point was the arrival in December 1960 of Robert Hayling, a soft-spoken Black dentist who became the de facto leader of the local civil rights movement, a transformative presence in the lives of all three women, and a viciously persecuted man.

Hayling opened an integrated dental office at 79 Bridge Street, next door to Tyson’s home in Lincolnville. His family rented a one-story house in West Augustine across the street from Vickers, who operated a small hair salon in her home. Later, under a cloud of violence, Hayling moved to Central Avenue in Lincolnville, next door to Price.

Things started to heat up in the summer of 1963, when the NAACP Youth Council, under Hayling’s leadership, began downtown protests. The response was brutal.

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Night riders began terrorizing Scott Street. At the first word of the approaching pickup trucks, “We would call and alert everybody,” Vickers recalled. “ ‘They’re coming through! They’re coming through! Get down!’ ”

In September, the city’s first limited school integration began — nine years after the Brown decision. On Sept. 18, at a Klan rally in St. Augustine, Hayling was seized and almost burned alive.

One night in February 1964, the home of one of the families that had integrated a local elementary school was firebombed. A few hours later, night riders shot up Hayling’s house, killing his beloved boxer, Madonna, and narrowly missing his pregnant wife. The FBI report was chilling: “Investigation disclosed three or four loads of double zero shot had been fired at the front door. Penetration was sufficient to have killed anyone inside in the line of fire.”

Furious, Hayling moved his wife and children to Tallahassee, where his parents lived, then returned to the tinderbox in St. Augustine. With his home damaged, he rented the house next to Price’s.

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And in a move that would ratchet up the tension in St. Augustine, he sought the help of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its leader, Martin Luther King Jr.

By the time King arrived in mid-May, the city was being torn apart by racial tension. J.B. Stoner, the vice-presidential candidate for the white supremacist National States’ Rights Party, gave incendiary speeches at the Slave Market. The ultra-right-wing John Birch Society established a chapter in St. Augustine. The city’s White power structure, including the mayor, sheriff and publisher of the local newspaper, all fervently opposed integration.

Nightly marches to the Slave Market by Black demonstrators and White allies were met by attacks with bricks and chains. “Kneel-ins” at White churches led to doors being slammed to keep Black worshipers out. “Swim-ins” at St. Augustine Beach led to blood in the water. The local paper published the location of King’s rented cottage; that night, it was ravaged with gunfire. King appealed to President Lyndon B. Johnson for federal help, saying, “All sense of law and order has broken down in St. Augustine.”

Vickers, Price and Tyson forged a connection with King during his time in the city. Talking from the pulpit about an upcoming march, he turned directly to Vickers and said, “Young lady, will you go?”

“It was just electrifying,” she recalled. “He had something about him that was different.”

Price attended another church meeting where King spoke. At first, she didn’t recognize him as the young man she had known in Atlanta, but he approached her afterward and reminded her of those dances by the jukebox. Price and her husband hosted King for a night, as he moved from house to house for his safety. She was amazed by the man he had become.

“We called him our Black Moses,” she said in a 2019 interview. “I think he was put on this earth to do what he did.”

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Tyson’s house, next to Hayling’s dental office, became a home base for the SCLC. She cooked for King and his associates. They all signed her family Bible.

She even engaged King in conversation about his tactics. “I told Dr. King, ‘I do not appreciate this nonviolent thing you got going,’ ” she said. “He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Mrs. Tyson, that’s the strategy.’ ”

She thought it might prove a fatal one. When those black limousines drove by ahead of the marching Klan, King’s friend Hosea Williams ran onto her porch and said there were men with guns. He told King, “If they come in here, it’s going to be a slaughter.”

While King was in St. Augustine, the U.S. Senate finally broke a filibuster, ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act. His V-for-victory salute in a photograph taken inside the Ice Berg Restaurant on Bridge Street is one of the enduring images of the St. Augustine movement. John Herbers of the New York Times interviewed King on Tyson’s porch on July 1. The next day, King was in Washington as Johnson signed the bill, handing him one of the pens as a souvenir.

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The tripwire tension began to ease in St. Augustine, although not without fallout. Hayling, his dental practice ruined, left in 1965. In April 1968, he went to Atlanta, walking beside the mule-drawn cart that carried King’s casket. Hayling died in December 2015.

St. Augustine remains a tourist destination. Battles over public memory — what gets preserved, what gets erased — are ongoing. There is a small civil rights museum in Hayling’s old dental office. Scott Street has been renamed for Hayling, Central Avenue for King.

Vickers was the driving force behind a public art installation, the Foot Soldiers Monument, honoring the town’s unsung civil rights heroes. It was erected in the city’s central plaza in 2011. In 2020, after years of contentious debate, the Confederate memorial was removed by a 3-to-2 vote of the city commission. The Slave Market remains.

Lincolnville has been transformed. Once 90 percent Black, it is now about 90 percent White.

The grandes dames carry on. Tyson is a petite woman whose hair is still more black than gray. Price uses a wheelchair and relies on her niece’s help but continues to tell lively stories from her youth. Vickers, stylish and virtually wrinkle-free, could pass for 20 years younger.

They are not the city’s oldest residents — the local Council on Aging hosted a luncheon in May with seven people who were 100 or older — but the three women have become quasi-public figures in St. Augustine. The tourist trolleys, which used to bypass Lincolnville entirely, now routinely share some Black history, citing Price and Tyson by name as they pass their homes, sometimes eliciting a wave from the porch. The St. Augustine Record, which used to confine its coverage of Black people almost exclusively to crime, put Tyson’s 99th birthday on its front page.

They have seen both progress and backlash. They know the country is still riven by racial division, and they believe young Americans in search of a more perfect union could learn a thing or two from their experience trying to create lasting change.

“They need to know about it,” Vickers said. “You couldn’t just sit and think it was going to happen. You had to make it change.”

Martin Dobrow is a professor of communications at Springfield College.