LaVilla: The Rise & Fall of a Great Black Neighborhood

A detailed timeline illustrating the rise and fall of a great Jacksonville African-American neighborhood: LaVilla

Published December 12, 2014 in History -


Courtesy of,_Atlantic_and_Gulf_Central_Railroad_Map.htm

1857 - The city's first railroad, the Florida Atlantic & Gulf Central, is constructed, connecting Jacksonville with Alligator Town (now Lake City).


Image of Patrick Chappelle courtesy of Wikipedia

1866 - Francis F. L'Engle purchases and subdivides land in the area, forming the Town of LaVilla. L'Engle becomes LaVilla's first mayor.

1869 - Patrick H. Chappelle is born in Jacksonville. Chappelle dominated the entertainment profession in the southeastern United States for most of the first decade of the 20th century and was one of the most intriguing entrepreneurs of his time.


The Cookman Institute. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

1870 - 70% of LaVilla’s population was comprised of African-Americans, many of whom worked in Jacksonville’s booming hotel, lumber, port, building, and railroad industries. Early businesses include the Banes and Washington Lumber Dealership, the El Modelo Cigar factory, the Bergner and Engle Brewing Company, the Refrigerated Ice Works, carriage works, and beef dressing works.

1871 - James Weldon Johnson is born in Jacksonville on June 17, 1871.

1872 - Cookman Institute established and supported by the Freedmans Aid and Southern Education Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

1876 - Eartha M.M. White born in Jacksonville. White was the 13th child of a former slave.


Portrait of Henry Plant. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

1881 - Henry B. Plant opens the "Waycross Short Line" making direct rail travel from the North possible.

1887 - LaVilla is annexed by the City of Jacksonville. 3,000 people lived in LaVilla at this time.


From left to right: Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Image courtesy of

1890s - Patrick Chappelle opens the Excelsior Hall on Bridge Street (now Broad). Excelsior Hall was one of the first black-owned theatrical venues in the South.

1890s - Ward Street develops into a red light district, giving the neighborhood its original aura of notoriety. The district was established in 1887 as a result of Jacksonville mayor John Q. Burbridge who chased most of Jacksonville's prostitutes over the city line to the suburb of LaVilla. Burbridge's efforts were thwarted when Jacksonville annexed LaVilla two months later on May 31, 1887.

1890 - 17-year-old John Rosamond Johnson leaves LaVilla to begin six years of studies in music at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

1893 - Eartha White graduates from Stanton and moves to NYC. There she attends the Madam Hall Beauty School, National Conservatory of Music and becomes an opera singer with the Oriental American Opera Company.

1896 - Eartha White returns to Jacksonville and attends the Florida Baptist Academy.

1897 - Henry Flagler, as president of the Jacksonville Terminal Company, opens a passenger railroad depot in LaVilla in January 1897. Flagler, a partner of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, is a railroad tycoon who built the St. Johns River railroad bridge in 1890, enabling the growth of Florida's East Coast and Miami.

1897 - John Rosamond Johnson returns to LaVilla in the spring of 1897 and starts teaching private music lessons
out of his parents’ house.

1899 - James Weldon Johnson writes "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, which brother Rosamond sets to music. Song becomes unofficially known as the "Negro National Anthem."

1899 - Johnson brothers leave LaVilla for New York City.


Image of Zora Neale Hurston courtesy of Our State North Carolina.

1900 - Jacksonville is the largest city in Florida with a population of 28,429. 16,236 of these residents were African-American.

1900 - Patrick Chappelle establishes the Rabbit's Foot Company, a traveling performance troupe.

1901 - The Great Fire of 1901 starts at LaVilla's Cleveland Fibre Factory (a mattress factory at Beaver and Davis) and destroys the city.

1901 - Brewster Hospital opens, becoming the first African American hospital in Jacksonville. The hospital is named in honor of the late Rev. George A. Brewster, after Matilda Cutting Brewster of Danielson, CT donates $1,000 in his honor.

1901 - Along with seven other business associates, Lewis founded the Afro-American Insurance Association in 1901.

1902 - A consortium of black and white businessmen organize the North Jacksonville Street Company. R. R. Robinson, the African-American president of the North Jacksonville Street Company, hired black conductors and motormen for their cars and served the African-American neighborhoods in the northern part of the city.

1902 - New Orleans and Jacksonville naturally become cultural exchange partners. LaVilla becomes a brief haven for Robichaux, a “legitimate” musician, during this period after the elimination of the relative privilege of the Creole racial distinction and just before the implementation of Florida’s most restrictive segregation laws.

1903 - The North Jacksonville Street Company opens Mason Park on Kings Road near LaVilla. 10,000 people attend the New Year's Eve and Emancipation celebration held during the park's first year.

1904 - The Jacksonville Street Railway Company opens Lincoln Park on its west end for black residents.

1904 - The Clara White Mission is formally founded.

1904 - Zora Neale Hurston attends the Florida Baptist Academy.
1905 - Gertrude Pritchett, the bride of William "Pa" Rainey, a performer of Chappelle's Rabbit's Foot Company, joins the troupe and adopts the stage persona of "Ma" Rainey.

1907 - Mason Park is closed and subdivided into housing lots when the North Jacksonville Railway Company goes bankrupt.

1908 - Film companies like Kalem, Pathé, Thanhouser, and Lubin built production facilities in the region to take advantage of its sunshine, tropical locations, and cheap labor.

1908 - Frank Crowd opens the Bijou Theater at 615 West Ashley Street on July 19, 1908. Closes in 1909.

1908 - Carrie Nation (Temperance campaign) visits Cora Crane's Court and Rosa's New York Inn.

1909 - Lionel D. Joel and Mr. Glickstein open the Colored Airdome Theater at 601 West Ashley Street. With a seating capacity of 800, the Airdome is said to be the largest theater exclusively for black people in the South.


Stanton High School photograph courtesy of Void Live.

1910 - The Globe Theater opened its doors to the public on January 17, 1910.

1910 - The first published account of blues singing on a public stage occurs at the Airdome on April 16, 1910. In an Indianapolis Freeman Stage section article entitled "Jacksonville Theatrical Notes," the reviewer states that Prof. John W. F. Woods, a ventriloquist, and his doll Henry, "set the Airdome wild by making little Henry drunk. He uses the "blues" for little Henry in this drunken act."

1911 - The team of Rainey and Rainey joined the Globe Stock Company that January. At this time, Ma Rainey was billed as a “coon shouter” and the attraction of her powerful moan was undeniable. She was receiving three or four encores every night.

1911 - Pat Chappelle dies at his LaVilla home on October 21, 1911.

1912 - Chappelle's Rabbit's Foot Company is taken over by Fred Wolcott, a white carnival owner, who relocates the show's headquarters to Port Gibson, Mississippi.

1912 - Booker T. Washington stops in Jacksonville in March. Eartha White, on behalf of the Jacksonville Negro Business League had invited him to address the subject of education and to speak out against lynching and other crimes against African-Americans.

1913 - By November of 1913, new motion picture houses in LaVilla created additional competition for audience dollars. Two white-owned movie theaters, the Frolic and the Palace (later renamed the Star) opened on Ashley Street to serve blacks only.

1913 - Brewster Hospital is located on Lee Street, just south of Adams Street.

1915 - The Strand Theater opens at 701 Ashley Street on June 12, 1915. It rivaled the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Regal Theater of Chicago for artistry and popularity in its heyday.

1916 - (The Great Migration) Large numbers of working class African-Americans, who had prospered during the rebuilding of Jacksonville after the 1901 fire, were beginning to leave the region. By 1916 recruiters from two northern railroads, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central were successfully drawing black workers away from Jacksonville. 16,000 African-Americans leave Jacksonville between 1916 and 1917 due to economic conditions, white militancy, and Jim Crow laws.

1917 - Stanton High School (the building that exists on Ashley Street today) is completed.

1919 - The $2.5 million Jacksonville Terminal opens on November 17, 1919. Modeled after NYC's Penn Station, the train station is the largest south of Washington, DC


The Knights of Pythias Hall on Ashley Street.

1920s - The area of LaVilla, south of Forsyth Street and west of Bridge (Broad) Street becomes known as Railroad Row. The district is characterized by small hotels (ex. St. Charles, DeSoto, Bay View, Maxwell, Olympia, etc.) serving railroad passengers.

1920s - Across Ashley Street from the Old Globe Theater, the Lenape Bar and Manuel’s Tap room began to feature live music.

1920s - James Weldon Johnson is one of the major inspirations and promoters of the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston, A. Philip Randolph, Ma Rainey are a few notable Harlem Renaissance figures with Jacksonville ties.

1925 - The 665-seat Frolic Theatre opens at 741 West Ashley Street.

1926 - Mary LittleJohn Singleton is born in Jacksonville on September 20, 1926.

1929 - Neil Witschen's Ritz Theatre opens in September, becoming an important stop on the Chitlin' Circuit and LaVilla's primary performance venue. At the time, the area on Ashley Street west of Broad Street to and including Davis Street was known as the "Harlem of the South". Landmarks included Nick’s Pool Parlor or the Strand, the Frolic and the Roosevelt Theaters for a diversion. The Wynn/Egmont Hotel provided the best accommodations for travelling entertainers; the Boston Chop House, Mama’s Restaurant and Hayes Luncheonette provided good food; the Lenape Bar and Manuel's Taproom were the favorite watering holes. The Ritz Theatre and The Knights of Pythias Hall hosted numerous famous performers.


Image of Eartha M.M. White and her mother Clara White courtesy of

1931 - Brewster Hospital relocates to a larger campus on North Jefferson Street in Sugar Hill.

1934 - Clara White Mission purchases the closed Globe Theatre.

1938 - James Weldon Johnson dies on June 26, 1938 in Wiscasset, Maine.


Ray Charles Robinson at 16 years old. Image courtesy of Ray Charles Video Museum.

1940s - The Ward Street red light district is shut down by Mayor Haydon Burns after health concerns are expressed by the US Navy. Soon bordellos are replaced by commercial warehouses.

1942 - The 654-unit Blodgett Homes public housing complex was constructed.

1944 - Annual rail traffic at the Jacksonville Terminal peaks with 38,345 trains and 10 million passengers. Over 2,000 are employed at the LaVilla railroad station making it the second largest employer in the city behind Springfield's King Edward Cigars (now Swisher).

1946 - 15-year-old Ray Charles Robinson moves to LaVilla to stay with friends of his mother after she dies. For over a year, he played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla, earning $4 a night. Charles moves to Seattle in 1947 after desiring to move to the farthest US location from Florida.

1947 - Adrian Kenneth "Ken" Knight became the first black radio announcer in the South when he went to work for a radio station in Daytona Beach. He moved to Jacksonville and produced the first black television program in Jacksonville, the Ken Knight Show which featured live gospel music on WJXT, TV-4. He continued working in radio and became the general manager of radio station WPDQ.  He is also credited as one of the founders of the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers.

1947 - Abraham Lincoln Lewis dies.

1947 - The original 18-mile path of Jacksonville Expressway system is proposed. The selection of the expressway system's routes was determined by avoiding areas deemed most valuable at the time, to eliminate "blighted" neighborhoods and serve as barriers to stop spread of "blight." Deemed to be "blighted" neighborhoods, the expressway's original route cuts through the center of each community.


The Jacksonville Expressway being over Myrtle Avenue. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

1950 - The Frolic Theatre closes. Now demolished, the site where the theatre stood is now the LaVilla School for the Arts.

1957 - The Knights of Pythias Building, the Ashley Street strip's largest and tallest structure, is demolished for a proposed development that never comes to fruition.

1958 - First link of the Jacksonville expressway opens, connecting Beaver Street in LaVilla with the Fuller Warren Bridge.


The Strand Theatre was located on the NW corner of Jefferson and Ashley Streets.

1960s - 75% of Sugar Hill's families are relocated outside of neighborhood after their homes were demolished by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city threatened residents who refused to move by forcing them to remodel their homes and buy more property. Residents whose homes sat on 25-foot-wide lots had to buy additional property to meet the new 50-foot requirement.

1960 - On March 26, 1960, the second phase of the Jacksonville Expressway opens, linking Beaver Street in LaVilla with Heckscher Drive.

1960 - Ax Handle Saturday takes place on August 27, 1960 as a result of a Civil Rights sit-in demonstration at the lunch counter of downtown's woolworths at Hemming Park. A White mob attacks the teenage demonstrators with ax handles. Riot ends once police jump in after a group of LaVilla youth, known as the Boomerangs, fit back to protect demonstrators.

1964 - The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, ending Segregation.

1966 - Brewster closes after suffering from competition from previously segregated medical facilities after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1967 - Mary Littlejohn Singleton is the first black woman elected to the Jacksonville City Council in 1967. She becomes the first black from North Florida to be elected to the Florida Legislature when she was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1972.

1968 - The Strand closes in December 1968 after National Theatre Enterprises fails to renew its lease.

1969 - The Strand is demolished after suffering significant fire damage. It's location is now a part of the campus of the LaVilla School of Arts.


Image courtesy of Da Radio Lady.

After the 1960s, however, the neighborhood entered a period of precipitous decline. Urban decay set in as the railroad industry declined and the construction of I-95 disrupted the neighborhood, and after the end of segregation, many residents left the area to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

1973 - Ken Knight dies in Jacksonville on September 12, 1973. He was the first black in the south with his own syndicated show on CBS. He played "The Night Train" to open and close every show. The Jacksonville, Fla., street named after him in 1962 - Ken Knight Drive - still bears his name. Was program director in 1949 at WERD, the first-black owned radio station.

1974 - The last Amtrak train leaves LaVilla's Jacksonville Terminal on its way to St. Petersburg on January 3, 1974. A victim of high maintenance costs, decreased rail travel and civic shortsightedness, the terminal (once LaVilla's largest and Jacksonville's second largest employer) is closed for good.

1974 - Eartha M. White dies in Jacksonville on November 8, 1876.


Inside the Richmond Hotel in an article and photo tour of the building at Jax Psycho Geo.

During the 1980s the crack cocaine epidemic hit LaVilla hard, furthering the decline.


1990 - The Afro-American Life Insurance Company founded by Abraham Lincoln Lewis closes.

1990 - 394 families were relocated and the crime-riddled Blodgett Homes public housing complex was demolished. Today, the site is home to the 159-unit Blodgett Villas complex and a $42 million state office complex.

1993 - The River City Renaissance plan crafted by then Mayor Ed Austin allocated millions of dollars to renovating LaVilla. Dilapidated buildings were torn down and historical structures, like the Ritz Theatre, restored or reconstructed.

Timeline compiled by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at

This article can be found at:

Metro Jacksonville