"If it hadn't been for the elders and the teenagers, there never would have been a civil rights movement in St. Augustine."
George Conway, who expressed this admiration for the courage and determination of the older women and men and the young kids who came out night after night to march and demonstrate, was the exception to his own description. He was a middle-aged man with grown children who put his life and fortunes on the line time and again during those years of upheaval in order to preserve his well honed sense of honor.
Conway was not a native son of St. Augustine. Born November 30, 1923 in Thomasville, Georgia, he first came to St. Augustine in 1938 to visit an aunt and uncle, staying until 1939. He described St. Augustine then as "the least segregated city in the south", unlike Thomasville, the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks and whites lived and worked together in pre World War II St. Augustine very amicably, until, Conway declared, "the 'nigger-haters' from Georgia and the Carolinas began to move in and spoiled the good relations, making St. Augustine in 1964 the worst place to integrate in the south".
George Conway served in the United States Army from 1942 to May 2, 1946, serving in active duty throughout Europe. "Britain was the most prejudiced place in the world, except the deep south of the U.S." After the war he returned to St. Augustine in 1946 to help rebuild his aunt's home which had been destroyed by fire. As a veteran, he was able to get the building materials, which were still in short supply after the war. He had in mind that, as soon as he had finished the house, he would take off for California, but cupid interfered. He met the woman who would become his wife, a marriage that lasted for 54 years, all spent here in St. Augustine.
By the early 1960's, as the Civil Rights movement began to gather strength around the country, Conway was working for Cass Distributing Company, a grocery store. He drove truck for the store, making deliveries. He had four teenage sons and a wife to support, but when the marches first began, he joined in with them. "We met every night at one or another of the black churches. Every black church in the town was involved in the protest movement. After a meeting, we would march down to the slave market. This was before Dr. Martin Luther King came to preach and lead. Dr. Hayling and others like Goldie Eubanks, the Robersons, the Twines, the Mitchell brothers, Ben James, and others were the leaders. But the kids marched, and the old people, some on crutches, some with canes, going as far as they could. Conway marched on crutches for a while himself, having broken an ankle.
Conway was among the first group to be arrested at the 'slave market' and taken to jail. The center of downtown St. Augustine is marked by a plaza, in existence since the founding of the town in 1565, and featuring an opened column, raised platform structure long referred to as the place where slaves were sold. This structure became the destination point for the protest marches held nightly beginning in 1963. Marchers left the black churches, mostly located south and west of the downtown area, met along King Street and continued down to the plaza, which ended at the waterfront of the Matanzas River. The plaza was and is today a park, maintained by the city for the use of its citizens and for public concerts and meetings. Yet no city official objected when Hoss Manucy, the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan, and Klan members one afternoon, in broad daylight, dumped a load of bricks right beside the slave market. Their purpose was clear. They would be thrown at the protest marchers as they reached the market that night. And they were, with no objection from the city police. Conway was one of those ducking the bricks, and helping those who were hit. He recalled helping Mrs. Green, who was hit squarely in the back and knocked down by a brick. The injured, with serious cuts, bruises, head injuries and possible other injuries, were taken to the local hospital - which refused to treat them, then or the many other times during those long months when fists, clubs and other weapons were used to try to stop the marchers.
A less physical - but very effective - weapon used by the white segregationists was economic. The local newspaper, The St. Augustine Record, published the names of all the marchers they could identify after each march. Pressure was put on local business men by the Klan to fire any employee - white or black - who participated. Many protesters were forced to leave the town because they lost their jobs and could not earn a living. Conway's employer, Mr. Cass, began one morning to bring up the issue of his and his cousin's participation, with the clear intent of issuing an ultimatum - stop or be fired. "I told him I wasn't beholden to any man for a job and would quit before I would let anyone tell me what I could do. My cousin joined in. But before Mr. Cass could fire me, Mr. Frank Hazen, the white butcher in the store, said, 'If they go, I go.', and Mr. Cass backed down. The issue of my activities was never brought up again."
Mr. Hazen was not alone among the whites who risked the social ostracism of other townsmen. Many remained true to old friendships. Hoss Manucy was not one of them. Before the civil rights protests began, Manucy was a friendly neighbor of the Conways. He often shared a catch of mullet, stopped to chat, and was in every way, a good neighbor. But with the beginning of the civil rights actions, Manucy became the 'bully boy' for the major business men who backed the Ku Klux Klan. Wasn't I afraid they would kill me? Nah. I'm from the old school. I believe with God on your side, no one can harm you. And I knew God was on our side."
Hoss Manucy remained unrepentant all of his life. And George Conway never forgave him. When asked what he felt about him now, more than 40 years later, he said, "He's right where he belongs. Six feet under. or more."
George Conway just celebrated his 82nd birthday - certain still in his beliefs that God was and is on his side, and deeply assured that his integrity and honor were tested and not found wanting during those turbulent years of the 1960's.
Copyright © Shirley Bryce, 2005
Copyright © 2007
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Last Modified: June 5, 2007.