Located on Martin Luther King Avenue in Lincolnville stands an unassuming two-story coquina building. Originally home to Excelsior High School, the first public high school in St. Johns County for African Americans, which closed in the mid-1960s, the structure now houses the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center.
Designed by New York City architect Fred Henderich, who conceptualized Mediterranean Revival-style buildings such as the Plaza Bandstand and the Visitor’s Center, the museum was built in 1925 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We would like the space to be a clearinghouse for other museums relative to African-American history in St. Augustine,” explains Gayle Phillips, Lincolnville Museum’s secretary. “There are different entities in the area like ACCORD Civil Rights Museum that we would like to work with.”
Established in 2007, the museum’s 18,000-square-foot building is in need of a lot of repairs. Gayle and her husband, Floyd, who took over as Lincolnville Museum’s president six months ago from former superintendent of schools, Otis Mason, are only currently able to utilize around half of the enormous space.
“Much of the second floor needs a new ceiling, we need to update the sprinkler system, upgrade the heating and air conditioning units, solicit memberships and send letters out to the community asking for donations and funding,” says Gayle. “There are so many things that we want to do; children’s programs, an artist-in-residence space, meeting spaces, offices and a recording studio.”
Open Thursday through Saturday from 12:30pm to 4:30pm, Lincolnville Museum currently offers free admission with a suggested donation. And there is still quite a bit to see save the much-needed renovations on the second floor.
The main floor’s exhibition space features African-American paintings, educational material on archaeological digs in Lincolnville, which was originally called Little Africa, old Ray Charles’ records and the piano he used to play on and a section dedicated to civic leader Frank B. Butler and other notable African-Americans.
“We’re hoping that the seeds that we plant will bloom into something more,” says Gayle. “We have to work with what we have, for now.”
Gayle, a Florida native who grew up in the Mandarin area of Jacksonville, grew up coming to St. Augustine as a kid – playing at Butler Beach, one of the only African-American beaches just south of the city, and digging oysters from the creek. Born and raised in Alabama, Floyd spent much of his career as an executive for Allstate.
In 1984, the couple met through a mutual friend and married in 1986. As they are partners in life, Gayle and Floyd are partners in seeing the Lincolnville Museum find success as one of St. Augustine’s premier African-American cultural centers.
“He’s a visionary,” Gayle says of her husband. “He sees the big picture while I’m a details person. I fill in the spaces and that’s why it’s worked out.”
From May 8-12, Lincolnville Museum will host “Sweet Emmaline,” a musical journey of Debbie McDade, a popular jazz singer in the 1950s, presented by A Classic Theatre. A play by Deborah B. Dickey, “Sweet Emmaline” is one of many performances that the Phillips’ hope to see staged at the cultural center.
“In February, we hosted a sold out show with A Classic Theatre about Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,” explains Gayle. “We had a great group in the upstairs function room. In June, we’re going to have an afternoon of poetry and prose with Lee Weaver as the MC and Mama Blue singing in between readings.”
With a long road ahead of them, Floyd and Gayle Phillips admit that they get overwhelmed at times, but have a committed and passionate group behind them. “When I started getting involved in the museum in the winter of 2015, I knew that this was something that needed my attention,” says Floyd. “I knew this was where I should put my time.”
“Sweet Emmaline,” presented by A Classic Theatre, will be held at the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center, 102 Martin Luther King Ave., on Sunday, May 8th at 3pm and Monday, May 9th through Thursday, May 12th at 7:30pm. Tickets are $25. Visit aclassictheatre.org, call 904-501-5093 or email [email protected] for more information.
The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center is open Thursday through Saturday from 12:30pm to 4:30pm. Admission is free, but a donation is suggested.
Images via The Lincolnview Museum