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St. Augustine civil rights leader receives award

8:05 PM, Jul 2, 2013   |    comments
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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Bernadette Reeves is a tour guide in St. Augustine. She gives Black History tours.

On Tuesday, she had a big goal. She was going to accomplish it at a luncheon celebrating the civil rights movement in St. Augustine.

"I am going to meet one of the greatest heroes outside of Dr. Martin Luther King in the city of St. Augustine," she said.

On her tours, Reeves tells the history of Dr. Robert Hayling, the city's first black dentist who literally worked side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine.

"I have told his story hundreds of times. I feel like he is so close to me," Reeves said. "I feel a part of him."

Because he peacefully fought for equal rights, Hayling was captured by the Ku Klux Klan in St. Augustine and beaten, Reeves said.

"Hayling was beaten so bad, he lost 16 to 17 teeth," she noted.

The tall but now-frail man was indeed at the luncheon.

"I was doing what I did for myself and my family and for my grandchildren," Hayling told First Coast News.

The city presented Dr. Hayling with St. Augustine's highest award, the La Florida award. He is only the 19th person to receive the award over a span of decades. According to the city's rules, only nine living people at a time can have the award.

While thankful, he said his reward now is the ability to "go into the various restaurants and gas stations and order a hamburger and a soda and go to a restroom and so forth. To certain measures that's my reward. Other recognitions are tertiary."

And Reeves? She indeed got to meet Dr. Hayling, and gave him a big hug.

"I explained to him I've been telling his story for the last 17 years," she beamed.

She also did something else she won't forget.

"I touched his cheek where they broke out those 16-17 teeth," she said, closing her eyes.

After the luncheon, she went back to Dr. Hayling's former dental office on Bridge Street in St. Augustine, knowing her tours will never be the same.

"I'll stand in front of the steps," she said, "with a vision of him coming out of the door, coming to hold my hand and saying, 'Good job, Ms. B!'"

She walked back to her tour office lifting her hands in the air in glee.

"I have work to do, to give out the reality of what happened here so we don't repeat it!"

First Coast News

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