10 Facts About Jacksonville's Black History

February 26, 2014 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In honor of Black History Month, here are ten facts about Jacksonville's African-American history that you might not be aware of.

5. Great Fire of 1901 a Result of Racism?

The fire started in LaVilla on the corner of Davis and Ashley Streets and eventually burnt everything in it's path between that point and the St. Johns River. The only thing that stood in its path and the rest of Jacksonville was Hogan's Creek and the St. Johns River.

Most have heard of the Great Fire of 1901 but many may not know that this disaster started on Davis Street in the heart of Jacksonville's African-American community or that the damage could have been less if racism was not involved. On May 3, 1901, a candle factory boiler explosion set ablaze mattresses filled with Spanish moss at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory, which was located on the block bounded by Davis, Beaver, Lee and Union Streets.  

At the time, James Weldon Johnson, who later became famous in his own right, was the principal of the Stanton School.  In his autobiography "Along This Way," Johnson wrote this interesting line about the events he witnessed that day:

"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."

According to ,a Times-Union article by staff writer Sharon Weightman, Johnson also alleged that when people complained to the fire chief, he said it would be a good thing for blacks' homes to burn. Eight hours later, the fire had become one of the most destructive events in American history, leaving 10,000 residents homeless and destroying 2,368 buildings in the process.

6. 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. Designed by Earl Mark & Leeroy Sheftall, after 10 years of fundraising, ground-breaking ceremonies were held on September 18, 1912.

When completed, the monumental structure housed office space, retail stores, and served as a meeting center for the black community during a period of time in which segregation laws limited opportunities for black citizens. The 1926 Negro Blue Book described it as "one of the finest buildings owned by Negroes in the world." The Masonic Temple has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

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