In celebration of Black History Month, here's a few things you probably didn't know about Jacksonville.
4. Harlem: The LaVilla of the North
Almost everyone has heard of The Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of artistic work without precedent in the American black community during the 1920's and 1930's. If you have not heard of it, at the very least you're probably familiar with Harlem's Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. Even today, several cities across the south, from Atlanta to Jacksonville and Tampa, are quick to label a formerly vibrant black neighborhood in their community as being the "Harlem of the South." What most don't know is that the Harlem Renaissance is largely a result of the first Great Migration. Roughly, between 1910 and 1930, 1.6 million migrants left mostly southern, oppressive urban communities, like Jacksonville, to migrate to northern, industrial cities in search of a better life and economic opportunity.
From left to right: Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Image courtesy of http://songbook1.wordpress.com/fx/si/african-american-musical-theater-1896-1926/shuffle-along1921-mills-hall-galleries/
As early as 1870, Jacksonville's LaVilla was having its own "renaissance" with a 70% black population attracted to jobs in the area's booming hotel, lumber, port, building, and railroad industries. While Harlem was still a Jewish and Italian community, LaVilla had become the home to Excelsior Hall, the first black-owned theatre in the South, and a black owned streetcar company. In addition, during this time, Jaxon Pat Chappelle's Rabbit's Foot Company dominated the entertainment scene throughout the Southeast. LaVilla also served as a brief haven for Robichaux, a “legitimate” musician, during this period after the elimination of the relative privilege of the Creole racial distinction in New Orleans and just before the implementation of Florida’s most restrictive segregation laws.
In 1909, the Airdome Theatre opened on Ashley Street, becoming the largest theatre exclusively for black people in the South. A year later, the first published account of blues singing on a public stage took place at the Airdome (Central Harlem was about 10% black). By 1916, recruiters from two northern railroads, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central were successfully drawing black workers away from Jacksonville. Due to economic conditions, white militancy, and Jim Crow laws, 16,000 African-Americans left Jacksonville between 1916 and 1917 as a part of the first Great Migration.
The Knights of Pythias Hall on Ashley Street.
By 1930, the end of the first Great Migration, African-Americans accounted for 70% of Harlem's population and it had become associated with the New Negro movement. Jacksonville's loss became Harlem's gain. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature," as Harlem resident and former Jaxon James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, took place between 1924 and 1929. However, the cultural activities that made the Harlem Renaissance had been common in places like Jacksonville's LaVilla in previous decades. Being in Harlem, introduced the black experience within the corpus of American cultural history, redefining how the world viewed African-Americans.