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.

9. Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman Dies in Jacksonville

Betsy Coleman and her plane in 1922. Courtesy of Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bessie_Coleman_and_her_plane_(1922).jpg

In 1921, a 29-year-old Bessie Coleman became the first female pilot of African-American descent and the first African-American to hold an international pilot license.

Known to many as "Queen Bess", she became a media sensation in the United States, making a living as a barnstorming stunt flier for paying audiences.

During this era, the present day location of Paxon School for Advanced Studies was the site of one of Jacksonville's earliest airfields, Paxon Field.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville to perform an airshow at Paxon Field with her recently purchased Curtis JN-4 (Jenny). Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, flew the plane while Coleman sat in the other seat.

Roughly ten minutes into the flight, the plane made an unexpected dive and Coleman was thrown from the plan, falling 2,000 feet to her death. Unable to regain control of the plan, Wills also died upon impact as the plane burst into flames. Later it was discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slide into a gearbox, jamming it. At the time of her death, Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was 34 years old.

10. Downtown Jacksonville Births Multiple Historically Black Colleges & Universities

The need for an institution of higher learning in downtown is a common desire of economic revitalization advocates. What is rarely mentioned in these discussions is how to better utilize Edward Waters College (EWC), its 800 students, and 50-acre compact urban campus, which is roughly one mile northwest of downtown.

Founded in 1866 to educate freed former slaves, EWC is Florida's oldest independent institution of higher learning as well as the state's first institution established for the education of African Americans. After its original downtown location was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1901, land containing the present day campus was acquired along Kings Road in 1904.

Today, the 800 student college awards degress in the following programs: Communications, Music, Psychology, Criminal Justice, Biology, Elementary Education, Mathematics, and Business Administration.

Of interesting black history note, Edward Waters College is one of three currently operating Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with roots leading back to early Jacksonville.

Now in Miami Gardens, FL, the 1,800 student Florida Memorial University was established in 1882 as the Florida Baptist Academy. Later it became the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, where two brothers, James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson wrote the words and music to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (known as the "Negro National Anthem"), in 1900. In 1918, the school relocated to St. Augustine and in 1968 to its present day South Florida site.

Likewise, Bethune Cookman University roots date back to 1872, when the Cookman Insitute was established by Rev. S.B. Darnell at the intersection of Beaver and Hogan Streets in downtown Jacksonville. After being destroyed by fire, the school relocated to the present day site of Darnell-Cookman School of the Medical Arts. In 1923, the Cookman Institute merged with the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School in Daytona Beach. In 1941, the school became a 4-year college and the name was changed to Bethune-Cookman College.

A sketch of the Cookman Institute in 1898. Image courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

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