Jacksonville History: The Great Fire of 1901

November 25, 2010 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In just over eight hours on May 3, 1901, a small fire, started in a LaVilla mattress factory, would sweep through 146 city blocks of Jacksonville, destroying over 2,000 buildings, taking seven lives, and leaving almost 9,000 people homeless in the process.

By the late 1800's, Bay Street was a bustling corridor of commerce before Jacksonville was burnt to a crisp.

After the fire, Bay Street was a shell of it's former self.

Did racism allow the fire to grow?

James Weldon Johnson, one of Jacksonville's most famous residents, thought the Great Fire of 1901 might not have caused such destruction if it weren't for the authorities' racism. Johnson, who later became famous as a writer, diplomat and civil rights leader, was the principal of the original Stanton School in Jacksonville at the time of the fire. In his autobiography Along This Way, he recalled that he and his brother Rosamond were riding their bicycles to their parents' home when they saw smoke not far from their house.

Johnson wrote:

We met many people fleeing. From them we gathered excitedly related snatches: the fiber factory catches afire - the fire department comes - fanned by a light breeze, the fire is traveling directly east and spreading out to the north, over the district where the bulk of Negroes in the western end of the city live - the firemen spend all their efforts saving a low row of frame houses just across the street on the south side of the factory, belonging to a white man named Steve Melton.

Johnson also alleged that when people complained to the fire chief, he used a racial slur and said it would be a good thing for blacks' homes to burn. Soon it was too late to change plans.

Jacksonville residents tour their city of ruins, shortly after the flames finally went out.

Hemming Park after the fire.  The Confederate monument in Hemming Park was one of the few structures to survive.  Many witnesses claim that the base had a red glow during the fire.

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