As remembered by David Nolan
July 23, 2020
JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer (1946-2020) of
"The St. Augustine Four"
JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer was one of the ultimate "Foot Soldiers" of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, Florida. In July 1963, a group of young teens went to the Woolworth's store on the downtown Plaza. Previously they had just picketed outside, but this time they had been given some money by Washington Street barber Ernest Wells so they could go inside and order a hamburger and a Coke. They did this, were refused service, and wound up spending the next six months in jail and reform school in a tricky legal attempt to put them "under the jail" to break their spirit and that of the movement.
Soon the nation learned of them as "The St. Augustine Four." Newspaper editorials from Miami to New York condemned the teenagers' treatment. Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King protested. When Florida got ready to open its pavilion at the New York World's Fair, there were threats to picket it if they were still incarcerated. It took a special meeting of the governor and cabinet in January 1964 to release them, undoing the "brilliant" legal stratagem that had kept lawyers from appealing their case to less biased courts.
Martin Luther King came to St. Augustine in May of 1964 and wanted to meet JoeAnn and her fellow sufferers. He hailed them as "my warriors," and told them they had served above and beyond the call of duty.
When Jackie Robinson spoke the next month at St. Paul A.M.E. Church, he invited JoeAnn and fellow activist Audrey Nell Edwards to come to the Robinson family home in Connecticut to recuperate. He wound up taking them to the New York World's Fair!
JoeAnn took pride in the fact that as soon as she was released, she went right back to marching and picketing. She refused to let her spirit be broken. There was one tell-tale sign, however. As she raised a family, she would not let her children grow up in St. Augustine. For many decades she commuted here every day to her job at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, but she lived in Jacksonville until her death on June 30, 2020 at the age of 73.
It was appropriate that when she retired, her co-workers at the school took up a collection and donated nearly a thousand dollars in JoeAnn's name for the beautiful monument in the Plaza honoring the Foot Soldiers of the civil rights movement that was dedicated in 2011. Audrey Nell Edwards is now the last survivor of the St. Augustine Four. As articles and books are written about them, and their memories preserved by the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, she is the keeper of the flame.
The two young men of the St. Augustine Four, Willie Carl Singleton and Samuel White, both passed away before their time. They had been sent to the notorious Arthur Dozier School in Marianna, Florida — and always refused to talk about their experiences. In recent years the school has been closed, and bodies have been dug up there — a national scandal. Colson Whitehead recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Nickel Boys, set at the Dozier School. Brutal things that happened there constituted the kind of "extra-legal punishment — not unfamiliar to the civil rights movement — that will haunt us down through the ages.
St. Augustine, Florida
July 23, 2020