A look at the remains of the South's most overlooked substantial African-American entertainment district during the formative years of ragtime, blues and jazz in the early 20th century.
In the decades following the Civil War, Jacksonville emerged as an African-American cultural exchange partner with New Orleans. During this era, individuals such as James Weldon Johnson, John Rosamond Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Ma Rainey, Rhonda Robichaux and Jelly Roll Morton helped developed a culture of black entertainment and enlightenment culminating with the first published account of blues signing on a public stage occurring in LaVilla and the Jacksonville Rounder's Dance growing into the nation's most popular dance during the 1920s.
LaVilla's Broad Street business district in the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, the 1990s River City Renaissance plan destroyed many of the buildings where LaVilla's significant contributions to the development of the ragtime, jazz and blues music genres took place. However, not all is lost. Here's a look at significant sites still standing in what was once Jacksonville's version of Beale Street.
Old Stanton High School
Courtesy of Kyriaki Karalis
This site was the original location of the Stanton Normal School, which opened in April 10, 1869. The school was named in honor of General Edwin McMasters Stanton, an outspoken abolitionist and Secretary of War under President Lincoln during the Civil War. In 1877, President Ulysses Grant visited the school during a tour of Florida. During the visit, a six-year-old student named James Weldon Johnson raised his hand from the crowd and Grant shook it. Johnson would go on to become the school's principal in 1894, and expanded it to become the only high school for African-Americans in the city. While serving as the principal, Johnson wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which his brother Rosamond put to music. This song would later become known as the Negro National Anthem.
The Johnson brothers relocated to New York City in 1902. James Weldon Johnson becoming a nationally famous songwriter, author, poet, diplomat, and civil rights orator. As a result of one of the first civil-rights litigation cases in Jacksonville and the South, the existing building was constructed in 1917. In 1953, this school was replaced by a newer facility in the nearby Durkeeville neighborhood. It then served as the Duval County Vocational School until closing in 1971.
The 3-story Genovar's Hall building can be seen to the right of Manuel's Tap Room in this mid-20th century image of West Ashley Street.
Originally built across the street from 19th-century madam Cora Crane's Hotel de Dream, this three story structure housed a variety of businesses during the ragtime, jazz and blues age of the early 20th century. In 1913, it housed a restaurant owned by M. Kinsey Bellamy. In 1931, the Wynn Hotel opened in the building's upper floors, while a jazz club called the Lenape Tavern and Bar opened on the first floor.
Operated by Jack D. Wynn, the hotel became a favorite spot of Louis Armstrong when visiting LaVilla. Wynn's son, David Ruben Wynn, is a noted local artist who had his work exhibited at the Center of International Culture in Paris, France in 1975. In addition to Armstrong, others who performed at the Lenape include Dizzie Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Ray Charles, who briefly lived at 633 West Church Street.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org