Ennis Davis, AICP of ModernCities.com highlights the rise and fall of a forgotten downtown Jacksonville community: Hansontown
1920s plat map of Jacksonville illustrating the general area of Hansontown. Photograph courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Planning and Development Department.
The original settlement of Hansontown was the brainchild of Daniel Dustin Hanson. Hanson, a surgeon with the 34th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry, acquired a large tract of land northwest of Jacksonville in 1866. His intentions were to develop the property into a communal farming community for black Civil War veterans and freed slaves. Here, they would grow and sell crops, allowing them to pool their earnings towards land purchases. Due to his death in 1868, Hanson's visions did fully materialize but the community, characterized by a divergent street grid, did attract residents. Roughly sandwiched between Hogans Creek, Main, State and Davis Streets, it had grown to 1,623 residents by the time it was annexed into Jacksonville in 1887.
An aerial view of the Hogans Creek channelization project, over Hansontown and Springfield, during the late 1920s. (State Archives of Florida)
Largely built out by the turn-of-the-century, this working class community featured streets as narrow as 15' wide, a small commercial center in the vicinity of State and Julia Streets, several churches and a number of industrial uses in the vicinity of Hogans Creek. These businesses included the Jacksonville Gas Works, Eureka Ice Refrigerator Works, A.M. Illuminating Company and the Havana Cigar Factory. Two of Hansontown’s most well-known and respected residents were Clara English White and her adopted daughter, Eartha Mary Magdalene White. During the 1880s, former slave Clara White became known for feeding hungry neighbors from her two-room house in Hansontown. In subsequent years, Dr. Eartha M.M. White molded these humanitarian acts into the thriving Clara White Mission.
For 50 years, the tomb of Jacksonville founder Isiah Hart, and eight family members, was located near the present day intersection of Laura and Orange Streets. When Hart constructed the 35' tall Hart Monument in 1852, the site was on the outskirts of town. Ironically by the late 19th century, the tomb of the man who made his riches off slave trading was surrounded by neighborhoods populated by freedmen and their descendents. In 1896, the tomb was desecrated by grave robbers and a few years later it was toasted in the Great Fire of 1901. Although still standing, the Hart family graves were relocated to Evergreen Cemetery and the tomb was dismantled in 1902. (State Archives of Florida)
Disaster came with the Great Fire of 1901. Starting in nearby LaVilla, when the day of May 5, 1901 was over, the east half of Hansontown was lost. Like the rest of the city, by 1910 the community had largely been rebuilt. During the rebirth of the city, F.A. Chapman's Carriage Factory became one of Hansontown's largest buildings. In 1911, F.A. Chapman expanded his carriage and wagon business into the neighborhood, building a $200,000 three-story brick and plate-glass structure at Hogan and Caroline Streets. Here, with a capacity of six cars a day, Chapman manufactured carriages and automobile tops and parts.
Nevertheless, Hansontown's days were numbered by the time World War II came around. From its start, it had developed as a working class community for African-Americans. In segregated Jacksonville, its unpaved streets and frame shotgun houses were considered the slums. It quickly became an easy target for the city's early urban renewal programs. In 1942, a large swath of the neighborhood's west side was removed and replaced with the 700-unit Jefferson-Madison Homes Housing Projects. In 1954, an additional 171 units were added and the complex was named in honor of Joseph Haywood Blodgett.
Blodgett became one of the city's most dangerous places to live by the time it was torn down and redeveloped into a state office complex in the 1990s. Additional economic damage came as a result of the construction of the Jacksonville Expressway in 1957. To make room for what eventually became I-95, housing and businesses were removed in both Hansontown and neighboring Sugar Hill.
Many of Hansontown's narrow streets still were not paved when the neighborhood was razed as a part of the Hogans Creek urban renewal project. Photograph courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.
Still not happy about Hansontown's existence, the City began to participate in the Federal urban renewal program after approval by the state legislature in 1969. With access to more federal money, Hansontown and neighboring areas were immediately targeted for wholesale redevelopment.
Caroline and Broad Street during the early 1970s. Photograph courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.
For Hansontown, the Jacksonville Housing and Urban Development Department envisioned demolishing substandard housing on small lots and replacing them with townhouses, garden apartments and high-rise senior housing. In addition, their Hogans Creek project would replace Hansontown's narrow 19th century street grid with new wide vehicle friendly streets.
The Patten Sales Company building under construction in 1948 at 1021 Hogan Street. This section of Hansontown was razed to make way for FSCJ's downtown campus. (State Archives of Florida).
In 1974, plans were cemented to replace a large 10-block section of the neighborhood with Florida State College of Jacksonville's (FSCJ) downtown campus. To clear a path, Hansontown's residents were relocated and its commercial heart, which included the Chapman Carriage Factory and the neighborhood's street grid was erased. Utilizing 21-acres acquired with local and federal urban renewal funds, the $11 million downtown campus was officially dedicated on August 15, 1977.
FSCJ's downtown campus under construction in 1977. Photograph courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.
39 years later, it's hard to to believe there was a 19th century walkable community between downtown and Springfield. The structures and sites that replaced Hansontown were largely designed to not have any interaction between them and the black neighborhoods surrounding them. However, if you look hard enough, there are a few isolated structures and relics that date to an era passed bye. Here's a look at what remains.
Click Here for neighborhood photo tour with image captions!
Article and photographs by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com
Sources include the Historic Preservation Section, Jacksonville Planning and Development Department and the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.