A story can spark the imagination to help create great things. One story from the 1920s concerned a white woman visiting St. Augustine from the north who sent her children to the beach with their black maid. The maid was arrested for violating the segregation laws, even though she was the caregiver of the children on the white beach. Her white employer, livid about the incident, threatened to sue the city over the issue.
This story got Frank Butler thinking, he was a black business man who worked to make the community thrive. He realized there was no black beach for one hundred miles between Fernandina and Daytona. Known as Lincolnville’s Unofficial Mayor, Butler encouraged his neighbors to work together, to get an education, to vote, and to be involved and build each other up. It was time for the black community to develop their own recreational spot.
Butler owned a market on Washington Street and later turned his ambition toward real estate and investment. In 1927, he purchased undeveloped land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Matanzas River, about ten miles from St. Augustine. He received support from the city commissioner and future mayor, Frank Upchurch, who thought it was a reasonable request for the black community to have their own beach. The land was built up to include several resort areas, but there was no road that passed over the sand and swamp to get there. In August 1927, the St. Augustine Record ran a story on the request for a beach access road:
“Negroes’ Beach Resort Request Denied by Board” An application made on behalf of the colored beach property owners on Anastasia Island for a runway through their property to the St. Augustine Beach some eight miles down from the main runway was refused by the county commission yesterday upon protests voiced by the commissioners in behalf of constituents owning property in that vicinity. Several telegrams were received by Commissioner L. A. Braswell from Hastings people and residents of Putnam county asking that the commission deny any application which might tend to detract from the value of beach property by sponsoring or making possible a colored resort and dance hall near their holdings. Considerable deliberation was accorded the matter by the commission and the final action represented the decision of the entire body.”
A road was finally approved and built in 1931 (the predecessor of Route A1A) and upgraded from gravel to graded sand in the late 1940s, however the promise of a water system for Anastasia Island still went unfulfilled by 1954. The frustration of these delays led Butler into politics so he could gain greater influence. White politicians often sought Butler’s support, though he could not be bought. He would not back political solicitors unless they were willing to give back to his community.
In 1956, Butler threw a “Glorious 4th of July at Butler’s Beach” which included sports, games, a beauty contest and fireworks. According to author Barbara Walch, in September of that year Senator Verle A. Pope contacted the president of the Florida Greyhound Line to request a bus line to Butler’s Beach, which was
“patronized by many colored residents of Duval County and other surrounding areas and it seems they are unable to purchase tickets on the bus to butler Beach with the result they are taken to Crescent Beach, which is some three miles farther south and is a white area…I have requested the road Department to include butler Beach on the future State Road Maps and I am just wondering if your organization could issue tickets to Butler Beach and make provision for stopping at that location. I might add that because of Butler Beach being in existence it has helped to solve many of our problems as the place is available to colored people of this community and surrounding areas.”
The resort area continued to grow during the 1960s between Butler’s contributions and the Florida Park Service, but after his death in 1973, the park closed after vandals wrecked the property. In 1980, Butler’s family urged the state to turn the park over to St. Johns County, including a grant for upkeep and ecological protection. Renamed Frank B. Butler County Park, it was dedicated to unofficial mayor of Lincolnville. Frank Butler was a man who opened doors for others and believed in the betterment of his community, proving his mettle by doing for others for the greater good of his community.
Frank Butler Virtual Tour. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvnP4LPao4E. Lincolnville Aug 20, 2020. Accessed 11/3/2021.
Walch, Barbara. Frank B. Butler: Lincolnville Businessman and Founder of St. Augustine, Florida’s Historic Black Beach. St. Augustine: Rudolph B. Hadley, Sr., 1992.