ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – News4JAX continues our deep dive into the psychological barriers that still exist among the Black community to learning to swim after decades of racism and a history of segregation surrounding swimming pools.
After taking a close look at two tragedies that emphasize the high drowning rates among the Black community, we now turn our attention to a local incident that helped bring an end to the very segregation at the root of these deep-seated issues.
A week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for trying to eat a meal at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine in 1964, his supporters were inspired to perform their own act of peaceful protest.
Historian David Nolan said it all started with a meeting inside a Bridge Street dentist office, owned by St. Augustine civil rights leader Dr. Robert Hayling.
King had called St. Augustine -- the nation’s oldest city -- a “lawless city” as he led demonstrations through the segregated South.
“People said, ‘Well, you know the Monson Motel,’ which had been the focal point for these demonstrations, ‘it has this small swimming pool. Why don’t we have a swim-in?’” Nolan said.
They had no idea that what would happen during that “swim-in” would shake the country to its core and lead to nationwide change.
When the Black and white swimmers jumped in together and integrated the St. Augustine motel’s pool, Monson Motor Lodge owner James Brock was so enraged he grabbed a bottle of acid and threw it into the pool.
JT Johnson vividly remembers being in the water.
“They beat us up pretty bad down there. We had never been in a situation like that,” Johnson said. “And that didn’t get us out of the pool.”
Johnson, knowing that the acid was used as a pool cleaner, remembers calming the group.
“I wanted to assure them that they were going to be alright. And they started to relax a little,” Johnson said, adding that eventually, two or three sheriffs jumped in and dragged the protesters out.
But not before photographers captured images of the protesters screaming in fear and pain as Brock poured the acid into the water.
One iconic image from that swim-in shows the late Mimi Jones screaming from the fumes of the acid and Brenda Darten in the water with her, visibly shaken.
Darten’s daughter, Cheryl Jones, recently came down to St. Augustine from Atlanta to see for the first time where the old pool used to be.
“I know my mom is happy that I’m here,” Jones said. “I was a little angry earlier because thinking about what she had to go through. Why she had to go through it because of the color of her skin.”
The protesters were arrested, but the images of them in the water made headlines nationwide and ended a weeks-long filibuster, helping lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“This development is merely the first step in a long journey toward freedom and justice in St. Augustine,” King said at the time.
No one could swim
But the turning point played by the St. Augustine swim-in protesters in the civil rights movement almost didn’t happen -- because many of the demonstrators couldn’t swim.
“As the meeting (at the dentist’s office) was breaking up, they looked around that room and realized there was not a single person there that knew how to swim,” Nolan said. “There was so much tension and violence in St. Augustine at that time that they were not about to go jump in the swimming pool.”
Nolan said he knows it seems strange for those living in a coastal town not to know how to swim.
“The swimming had been for whites only,” Nolan said. “We had a YMCA with a swimming pool, that was for whites only at that time. We had a whole lot of motels with swimming pools. Those were for whites only.”
At the time, the only pool open to Black Americans in St. Augustine was at HBCU Florida Memorial College.
Thomas Jackson, president of the St. Augustine Historical Society, recalled the lack of pool access as a child – and the dangerous way Black children made up for it.
Swimming in large holes used for construction projects, known as borrow pits, was commonplace.
“Every year, we lost somebody in the borrow pits,” Jackson said. “They drowned. It was dangerous to swim there.”
Not over yet
Despite the major victory for civil rights following the St. Augustine “swim-in,” equality in the water was far from complete.
Nationwide, public pools began to dwindle, and private swim clubs continued to shut out Black people.
Children’s show host Fred Rogers highlighted the issue in 1969 by sharing a wading pool with Officer Clemmons, who’s Black, in an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
It was a simple, yet meaningful gesture aimed at breaking down the color barrier.
Now, a plaque memorializing the steps where Dr. King was arrested at the Motor Lodge recognizes St. Augustine’s most iconic moment in civil rights history.
Nearly 60 years later, a Hilton sits in place of the Monson motel -- and JT Johnson still visits occasionally.
“I go swimming in that pool when I go down there sometimes,” Johnson said. “It tickles me. I just laugh about it. It’s kind of funny.”