Jacksonville's early 20th century Chinese community

December 14, 2017 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Following the end of the Civil War, the United States experienced a major wave of immigration, fueling the growth of its urban centers nationwide. While the stories involving immigration in early Jacksonville have been lost to time, Jacksonville was no exception to the rule.

During the first 20 years of the 20th century, several Chinese owned laundry shops were located in the vicinity of Broad (pictured above) and Adams Street. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Between 1850 and 1882, over 300,000 Chinese entered the United States from the Kwangtung and Fukien provinces. Initially settling along the west coast, many moved east to escape virulent prejudice, and built a life by establishing businesses that did not take excessive capital or compete with local residents.

In various cities, the Chinese concentrated in one occupation, commercial laundries. By 1886, seven Chinese-owned laundries were operating in Jacksonville.  Instead of establishing segregated ethnic neighborhoods, early immigrants in the south opened businesses in areas where they could make a living.

A 1913 Sanborn map illustrating the proximity between two Chinese laundries and brothels (labeled F.B.) in LaVilla's red light district. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.

Following the arrival of the railroad terminal, West Adams Street transitioned into an environment filled with small hotels, businesses, and tenement housing catering to nearby wharves, rail terminals and freight depots. Between Adams and the railroad terminal, a red light district emerged along Ward (Houston) Street. Dominated by bordellos, such as the New York Inn, Turkish Harlem, Senate, Spanish Marie and The Court, the district became known as "The Line" with 60 bordellos. Along with hotels such as the Northern, Newport and the Little Ritz, this setting created an economic opportunity for the laundry business, leading to LaVilla emerging as a concentrated location for Chinese-owned businesses and residences.

A list of Chinese owned laundries in an early 20th century city directory. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.

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This article by Ennis Davis, AICP, was originally published by the Florida Times-Union on October 31, 2017. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro Jacksonville.com and ModernCities.com — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com