Lost Jacksonville: Sugar Hill

March 2, 2009 53 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

From the late 1800s until the 1960s, Sugar Hill was the neighborhood where Jacksonville's most prominent African-Americans lived.

East 8th Street over Springfield, looking towards Sugar Hill.

A prestigious upscale community, Sugar Hill was home to professional African-American families -- doctors, lawyers, teachers, bricklayers, ministers, morticians, pullman porters -- who developed a commune of comfortable, impressive, spacious homes.

Sugar Hill included the area surrounding and to the south of University and Methodist medical centers. It primarily consisted of the land sandwiched between Interstate 95 and the western edge of historic Springfield, where Darnell-Cookman Middle School and the new Jacksonville Regional Service Center are located on Davis Street.

Broad Street can be seen at the bottom of the image.  This aerial was taken over Sugar Hill before a portion of the neighborhood was demolished for the Blodgett Homes housing project. 


Former Sugar Hill residents included Abraham Lincoln Lewis, owner and founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Co.; William Raines, a high school principal; and Sara Blocker, a schoolteacher who took the Duval County school system to court for equal working rights for African-American teachers.


Davis Street in the 1940s.


Like many urban Jacksonville districts, Sugar Hill began as a streetcar suburb.  The neighborhood's major thoroughfare was Davis Street, which directly connected residents to LaVilla and Downtown Jacksonville.


Aerials over Sugar Hill from the 1940s.


Sugar Hill would eventually become the victim of large development projects.  These include the construction of I-95 through the neighborhood's heart, the continued expansion of the Shands Medical Center and urban renewal.  More than 75 percent of the families were relocated outside the neighborhood after their homes were demolished in the late 1960s by the city Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city threatened residents who refused to move by forcing them to remodel their homes and buy more property. Residents whose homes sat on 25-foot-wide lots had to buy additional property to meet the new 50-foot requirement. Today, not much remains of the community.  Nevertheless, its centralized location, availability of vacant property, and accessibility to the S-Line, Shands and Downtown give it a level of potential few inner city districts can claim.


Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum

During Sugar Hill's and LaVilla's heyday, the Ashley and Davis Streets were the epicenter of commercial and entertainment oriented businesses for the communities. Completed in 1929, the Ritz Theatre is one of a few structures still standing from what was known as the "Harlem of the South."  Today, this is the location of the LaVilla Museum and a 400-seat theatre.

Davis Street during the 1940s.


Davis Street Today

Today, the streetcar tracks and most buildings along Davis Street no longer exists.

A pedestrian bridge was constructed over I-95 to connect the Davis Street area with the portion of the neighborhood that was severed by the expressway.

The St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of a handful of historic buildings that still remain on what was Sugar Hill's main commercial corridor.

Sugar Hill's largest houses were located in the vicinity of 8th Street, between Davis and Jefferson Streets.  Today, this area is dominated by the campus of Shands Jacksonville.

Brewster Hospital was the community's main economic driver.  The former all-black hospital would grow to become Methodist Hospital and the first in the state with all private rooms and baths.  Over the years, this medical complex has continued to grow and is now known as Shands Jacksonville.

A row of houses along Jefferson Street were recently demolished. 


Davis Street and the S-Line rail crossing in the 1940s.

Bishop Henry Y. Tookes House
1011 West 8th Street

Bishop Henry Y. Tookes, assigned to serve the Florida District of the AME Church, and his wife Maggie, built this brick, two-story neoclassical-style house in 1939. The house is one of the few remaining large residences in the old Sugar Hill Community, a neighborhood of Jacksonville’s African American middle class during the fi rst half of the 20th century. Under Bishop Tookes’ administration, the college expanded with the acquisition of additional property, and the construction of the library, a women’s dormitory and the J.M. Wise Stadium. The Gamma Rho Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, founded in 1908 at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., occupies this rehabilitated property and offers a tour of Jacksonville’s African American sites.



"They said the homes were built too close together, but those were ways to push us out."
said former resident Olivia Forest to the Times Union - 2/4/96



The Shot Gun House

The Shotgun house is a narrow one-story dwelling without halls. Each room is placed behind the other in single file. The roof ridge is perpendicular to the street. The traditional description of why these houses are called "shotgun" is that if one fired a shotgun through the front door, the shot would pass through the lined-up doors of each room and out the back door.  On some side streets, near the S-Line ROW, dense rows of small shot gun houses can still be found.

Emmett Reed Park was dedicated on September 28, 1969. The land was acquired for the park by a donation from E.J. and Mary E L’Engle in 1941. The 12.5-acre complex's a wide range of amenities include playscapes, 2 tennis courts, a swimming pool and a community center housing many community services programs. The entire complex is named for Emmett Reed, a native of Jacksonville, and an employee of the Recreation Department of the City of Jacksonville for over thirty years. In 2002, City of Jacksonville received an Urban Park Renewal and Recovery Program grant to build the Emmett Reed Tennis Facility.  The facility (above) opened in early 2008.


The Andrew Huff Funeral Home on Davis Street is one of the oldest African-American funeral homes in Jacksonville.


Blodgett Homes 

The 654-unit Blodgett Homes public housing complex was constructed in 1942.  By the 1980s, the development had become ridden with crime.  In 1990, 394 families were relocated and the public housing complex was demolished.  Today, the site is home to the 159-unit Blodgett Villas complex and a $42 million state office complex.

This unique shotgun house on Louisiana Street is made of brick.  Constructed in 1898, it was one of many houses in the area that served as barracks for members of the cavalry during the Spanish-American War.


Julius Guinyard Park and Pool

The land for what is now Julius Guinyard Park and swimming pool was acquired by fee simple from the Housing Authority of Jacksonville in June of 1949. The swimming pool, that was constructed at this park in 1951 and originally called "Blodgett Homes Pool," is one of the oldest public pools in the City of Jacksonville. The built out park offers a varity of activities that include basketball, baseball, and offers picnic facilities and a playscape for small children. The park located at the corner of West 4 Street and Jefferson Street had improvements done in 1978 and then a major improvement project in 2001. In 2006, the park was remnamed after Mr. Julius Guinyard a former City Parks employee.


Article by Ennis Davis