Florida’s St. Johns County Public Schools has handed
the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society a big “Win”
Florida’s St. Johns County Public Schools has handed the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society a big “Win” in the quest to make known the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in U.S. history. There is now a non-compulsory element in the “Exploring African-American History” unit entitled “The Monson Motor Lodge Protests.” This element covers the June 18, 1964 arrests of 16 Rabbis who came to St. Augustine after receiving a request for help from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
Students are given a copy of the letter “Why We Went To St. Augustine” the Rabbis wrote in their cell at the St. Johns County Jail. After reading the letter, students are asked to evaluate the consequences of Social Activism. Secondly, students are asked, “What personal sacrifice did the rabbis experience protesting segregation?” Finally, students are asked how laws reflect the changing attitudes of society.
In another section of the curriculum, students are asked about the attempt on the part of the Rabbis to pray at the entrance to the segregated lunchroom at the Monson Motor Lodge. Students are asked to consider how prayer was used as a form of activism and how prayer was used to form a coalition, bringing together people of different faith traditions for the purposes of social justice.
Literally within hours of the arrests and the release of news coverage, the filibuster in the US Senate blocking the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was broken and the legislation was passed, creating what the US Constitution called “A more perfect Union!”
The creation of this curriculum is an important milestone in the efforts of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical to bring attention to this highly under-told episode in American-Jewish History and the role played by Jews in that history. For more than a decade, the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society has commemorated this largest mass arrest of Rabbis with an annual June 18th reading of the letter first “written at 3:00 am. in the sweltering heat of a sleepless night, by the light of the one naked bulb hanging in the corridor outside” their small cell. That annual event is held at the site of the arrest, now in the courtyard of the Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront.
Rabbis Arrested For Civil Rights
Since June 18, 2013, the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society has commemorated the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in US History by reading their penned letter written within the confined of the St. Johns County Jail.
Arrested in 1964 in St. Augustine, FL, these Rabbis stood in an integrated group as a protest against racial segregation, discrimination, and violence.
Acting on behalf of Dr. King, these Rabbis came to St. Augustine to support justice, righteousness, the Civil Rights Movement, and to break the US Senate filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Through our efforts, each year the St. Johns County Commission, with the St. Augustine City Commission, now proclaim January “Florida Jewish History Month” to honor these Rabbis.
Four Interviews of Some of the Rabbis Arrested and Other Associated Videos
are brought to you by
Deborah Hendrix of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, University of Florida
Spanish Law of Return
On December 18, 2019, the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society hosted First Coast’s Josh Fisher, a citizen under Spain’s new Law of Return for descendants of Jews exciled in 1492. Fisher has obtained Spanish citizenship through his Sephardic ancestry, demonstrating that his family was exiled in 1492.
“The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society completely changed my perspective on Jewish history!”
Spanish Jews in Colonial Florida
First, there was Harbor Pilot Antonio Martinez Carvajal dating back to 1565. He was followed by Cristobal Carvajal of “The Company of Colonel Hernando de Uruna” in 1566. Next followed Pedro de Carvajal whose name appears on the St. Augustine Garrison List in 1578. These three men have been identified as of Jewish descent by Professor Roger L. Martinez-Dávila, Associate Professor of History & Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Martinez has traced the family ties and intermarriages of the Jewish rabbinic ha-Levi lineage of Burgos, Spain (which became the converso Santa María clan) with the Old Christian Carvajal line of Plasencia, Spain, Martínez-Dávila and demonstrated the family’s changing identity. The positive identification was made as part of a project undertaken by the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society.
Now Dr. Stanley Hordes, formerly the State Historian of New Mexico and the co-director of a research project on the secret Jews, or “Crypto-Jews,” at the University of New Mexico’s Latin American Institute, has identified Pedro Luis de Paez, who brought his family to St. Augustine in 1583, as descended from Jews. Hordes discovered in Archivo General de Indias documents pertaining to de Paez, whose name appears on colonial musters in the notes of Dr. Eugene Lyon, historian of Colonial St. Augustine and have been put to use by the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society.
To obtain permission to come to Florida, de Paez sought and received a waiver of the Limpieza de Sangre, Purity of Blood, law, a hallmark of descendants of Jews who were not permitted in Florida at the time. A 1583 document referred to Paez, as returning to the province of Florida, along with his wife, children, and servants. The normal requirement to show proof of one’s Limpieza de Sangre was waived in this case. Permission was finally granted in 1585, the same year that another document showed him as having brought 30 African slaves to Florida. At the time, Pedro Luis de Paez was in Barga, Portugal where conversos dominated the trade in African slaves.
Documents related to de Paez and his role in St. Augustine have been located in University of Florida Digital Collections part of the George A. Smathers Library and the “Unearthing St. Augustine’s Colonial Heritage” collection. The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society continues the quest to identify the South’s earliest Jews.
St Augustine, FL USA