Ashley Street: The Harlem of the South

May 13, 2009 44 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Ashley Street was the core of black life in Jacksonville before Integration. During its heyday, the four blocks from Broad to Davis Streets was known as the Harlem of the South. Not much is left of this once vibrant landscape today. However, by mixing historic images with present day conditions, we can put together a decent visual description of Jacksonville's Jazz Era entertainment district.

This aerial depicts the location of Jacksonville's "Harlem of the South" which centered around Ashley Street in the LaVilla portion of downtown.


A Sanborn Map illustrating building density at the corners of Ashley, Jefferson, and Broad Streets during the 1950s.  Today, only the two buildings indicated above still remain.


A Walk Down Ashley

 The Strand Theatre

The Strand Theatre was located on the NW corner of Ashley and Jefferson Streets.  Other theaters along this stretch of Ashley included the Frolic and the Roosevelt Theatre.  The Strand offered vaudeville movies and shows during its fifty plus year run on Ashley. There was also a popular cafe nearby called Brad's.  According to a 1986 Times-Union article, Brad's was famous for its apple and potato pies. 

Today, this area of Ashley Street no longer exists.  It is a part of the LaVilla School of the Arts' massive parking lot.


The Knights of Pythias Building

Located a few doors west of the Strand, the Knights of Pythias Building was the tallest structure on the strip.  It contained a hotel, meeting rooms, and street level retail.  It was demolished in 1957.  In a scenario that plays out time and again, the project planned to replace it never made it off the drawing board. 


Dining on Ashley

Ashley Street was well known for its restaurants and cafes.  Here is a 1938 image inside of Hayes Luncheonette at 634 Ashley Street.  


This Stretch of Ashley Street Today


Hollywood Music Store

The Hollywood Music Store was one of Ashley Street's most popular businesses.  Today, this site remains and is occupied by the Clara White Mission.


The Clara White Mission / Globe Theater 

This building was constructed in 1912.  It was the home of the Globe Theatre, a Mercantile Company, and a hotel.  Since 1932, it has been the home of the Clara White Mission.


Genovar's Hall

Now in ruins, this building was built by Sebastian Genovar as a grocery store in 1895.  The same year Cora Taylor would open her famed bordello, the Hotel de Dreme, across the street (present day LaVilla School of Art parking lot). 

In the 1920's, this building became the Wynn Hotel.  When in town, Louis Armstrong preferred to stay at the Wynn, because it was "on the street" where the action was.  The first floor of this building was occupied by the Lenape Tavern, one of Ashley Street's most popular nightspots. 

In front of the Lenape were two metal horse hitching rails, which still remain.  In the early 1940's this spot was known as "the rail of hope," where waiters and musicians would hang out, waiting for a job.  One of the frequent occupants of the rail was R.C. Robinson, a blind piano player who had attended the Deaf and Blind School in St. Augustine before coming to live with a relative at 633 Church Street, one block away.  He developed his talents playing as side-man for some of the well known performers and later rose to stardom himself under the name of Ray Charles.

"Genovar's Hall" - Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage by Wayne Wood

Genovar's Hall Today


LaVilla Shotguns

Just south of Genovar's Hall, these three decaying shotgun homes were saved from the area's urban renewal demolition frenzy and relocated to this site.  Constructed in 1914, they were originally located on the 600 block of Lee Street.


Manuel's Tap Room

Manuel's Tap Room was located at 626 W. Ashley Street.  Manuel's was described in the January 1942 issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, as "the Finest of its kind in the South."  Like most of Ashley Street, Manuel's is now nothing more than the remains of old building foundations covered with weeds. 


Old Stanton High School

This site was the original location of the Stanton Normal School, which opened in April 10, 1869.  The school was named in honor of General Edwin M. Stanton, an outspoken abolitionist and Secretary of War under President Lincoln. 

While serving as the principal of Stanton during the late 1800s, James Weldon Johnson wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing."  This song would later become known as the Negro National Anthem.

The building standing on this site today was constructed in 1917 as a permanent replacement to older frame structures destroyed by fire.


Richmond Hotel

Now known as Deloach Furniture, this building was the finest hotel in Jacksonville for blacks when it opened in 1909.  It featured 48 rooms along with a Tea Room at street level and balconies that famed guests would come out on and greet crowds below. 

Famed guest included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday while in town performing in the Ashley Street strip.


Masonic Temple

Although not designed by H.J. Klutho, the Masonic Temple at 410 Broad Street is one of the most elaborate Prairie School structures still remaining in Jacksonville.  This building was constructed in 1912 to house office space, retail stores, and to serve as a meeting center for the black community. The 1926 Negro Blue Book described it as "one of the finest buildings owned by Negroes in the world."

Jacksonville's Harlem of the South is now forever gone.  With the county courthouse now moving forward and as new development comes online, every effort should be made to preserve what's left of Jacksonville's Jazz Era entertainment district.

Article by Ennis Davis

*Historical Images from Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.