10 Facts About Jacksonville's Black History

In honor of Black History Month, here are ten facts about Jacksonville's African-American history that you might not be aware of.

Published February 26, 2014 in History - MetroJacksonville.com

1. 1969 Eastside Riot Destroys "The Avenue."

During its heyday, A. Philip Randolph Boulevard (formerly Florida Avenue) as known as "the Avenue."  In the height of Jim Crow-era Jacksonville, the Avenue was a center of commerce for the Eastside's black community.  t was the place to see and be seen. Things would change in a 1969 event involving a white cigarette salesman and a bullet in a black man's leg.

During the 1960s, two major events negatively impacted businesses along the roadway: Hurricane Dora in 1964, and the Race Riot of November 1969. Hurricane Dora was a Category 2 hurricane with 110 mile per hour winds that eventually caused $1.5 billion worth of damage to the City. A. Philip Randolph Boulevard suffered damage to buildings, as well as looting of businesses.

The Race Riot of 1969 was sparked by a shooting of an African-American man, Buck Riley by a white truck driver on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard. Buck Riley intended to rob the delivery truck driver when the driver was handed a gun by the storeowner and began shooting. The thief ran into a group of school children and the truck driver shot into the crowd.

The neighborhood, and people from across the city, fought back. They flipped the salesman's truck, threw rocks through windows and set buildings ablaze.

Charges were eventually dropped against the delivery truck driver and Buck Riley, but the damage was done.

Businesses rebuilt over time. Just not on the Avenue.

2. The First Documented Blues Song Recorded in Jacksonville

An example of Jacksonville's musical talent: Down The Country by Jacksonville's Blind Blake and Leola "Coot Grant" Wilson (married to Jacksonville's Catjuice Charlie) was recorded in November 1926. Catjuice Charlie, also known as Wesley Wilson was a musical talent in his own right. Playing both the piano and organ, Wilson's recordings included "Blue Monday on Sugar Hill" and "Rasslin' Till The Wagon Comes."

Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and the Mississippi Delta may claim the Blues, but Lynn Abbot and Doug Seroff have identified the first published account of blues singing on a public stage, as occurring in Jacksonville. The word was used to describe a performance in Jacksonville's LaVilla 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.

We can be fairly certain that visiting vocalists had adopted this style elsewhere and carried it into these theaters.

LaVilla regular, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was the conduit through which the blues first moved onto many vaudeville stages. When John W. Work interviewed Ma Rainey at the Douglas Hotel in Nashville during the early thirties, she described memories of her first experience of this music. While touring with a tent show through a small Missouri town around 1902, she heard a girl who “came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the ‘man who had left her.’”

Rainey learned this “strange and poignant” song and used it in her act as an encore. The overwhelming response to this song convinced her to give this music a “special place” in her act.

Work documented that “many times she was asked what kind of a song it was, and one day a few years later she replied, in a moment of inspiration, ‘It’s the Blues.’”

3. Harlem: The Lavilla of the North?

Inside the Central Hotel at the intersection of Broad and Beaver Streets. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office

Many refer to Jacksonville's LaVilla as the "Harlem of the South." Spanning the 1920's and also known as the "New Negro Movement", the Harlem Renaissance was an urban black cultural movement stimulating from the Great Migration from the South.

Jacksonville's James Weldon Johnson called it the "flowering of Negro literature." He should know since he was a notable figure and leader of the movement.

Harlem originally developed in the 19th century as an exclusive suburb for the white middle class. Primarily fueled by the Great Migration bringing hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to northern cities to escape southern oppression, it did not become a dominant African-American neighborhood until the second decade of the 20th century.

In reality, what Harlem experienced was a taste of what was taking place in Jacksonville's LaVilla before many of its black intellectuals and talents, such as Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Philip Randolph, and Ma Rainey, left the South and Jim Crow, in search of a better life.

4. Negro American League's Jacksonville Red Caps

Durkeeville's J.P. Small Memorial Park is Jacksonville's last historic baseball stadium. Baseball's beginnings here trace back to 1911. This was the year when Dr. Jay Durkee donated the site to Jacksonville Baseball Association Presidents, Amander Barrs, who converted it into a recreational field.

Some of the first teams to play here include the Jacksonville Tars and the Jacksonville Athletics, a team on which James Weldon Johnson played.

Baseball legends who played here over the years include Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Henry Aaron, and Buck O'Neill, who also attended college at Edward Waters College.

During this era, major league teams such as the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers also played a few games here. In 1936, after the original stadium was destroyed by a fire, the current structure was constructed. It was built much larger than the original to partially help separate the races during the era of segregation.

In 1938, once called Durkee Field, this ballpark became the home of the Negro American League's Jacksonville Red Caps.

The Negro American League was a professional baseball league established in 1937 during the time organized American baseball was segregated. The league was disbanded after its 1962 season.

Joining the Negro American League in 1938, Jacksonville's Red Caps was the league's only team in Florida. In 1939, the Red Caps relocated to Cleveland, becoming the Cleveland Bears. In 1941, the franchise returned to Jacksonville before being dropped from the league and being replaced by the Cincinnati Clowns.

Other Negro American League franchises included the Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox, Birmingham Black Barons and the Detroit Stars.

5. Great Fire of 1901 a Result of Racism?

The fire started in LaVilla on the corner of Davis and Ashley Streets and eventually burnt everything in it's path between that point and the St. Johns River. The only thing that stood in its path and the rest of Jacksonville was Hogan's Creek and the St. Johns River.

Most have heard of the Great Fire of 1901 but many may not know that this disaster started on Davis Street in the heart of Jacksonville's African-American community or that the damage could have been less if racism was not involved. On May 3, 1901, a candle factory boiler explosion set ablaze mattresses filled with Spanish moss at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory, which was located on the block bounded by Davis, Beaver, Lee and Union Streets.  

At the time, James Weldon Johnson, who later became famous in his own right, was the principal of the Stanton School.  In his autobiography "Along This Way," Johnson wrote this interesting line about the events he witnessed that day:

"We met many people fleeing. From them we gathered excitedly related snatches: the fiber factory catches afire - the fire department comes - fanned by a light breeze, the fire is traveling directly east and spreading out to the north, over the district where the bulk of Negroes in the western end of the city live - the firemen spend all their efforts saving a low row of frame houses just across the street on the south side of the factory, belonging to a white man named Steve Melton."

According to ,a Times-Union article by staff writer Sharon Weightman, Johnson also alleged that when people complained to the fire chief, he said it would be a good thing for blacks' homes to burn. Eight hours later, the fire had become one of the most destructive events in American history, leaving 10,000 residents homeless and destroying 2,368 buildings in the process.

6. Masonic Temple

Although not designed by H.J. Klutho, the Masonic Temple at 410 Broad Street is one of the most elaborate Prairie School structures still remaining in Jacksonville. Designed by Earl Mark & Leeroy Sheftall, after 10 years of fundraising, ground-breaking ceremonies were held on September 18, 1912.

When completed, the monumental structure housed office space, retail stores, and served as a meeting center for the black community during a period of time in which segregation laws limited opportunities for black citizens. The 1926 Negro Blue Book described it as "one of the finest buildings owned by Negroes in the world." The Masonic Temple has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

7. Sugar Hill: Jacksonville's Upscale Neighborhood Destroyed by Urban Renewal

Aerials over Sugar Hill from the 1940s.

From the late 1800s until the 1960s, Sugar Hill was the neighborhood where Jacksonville's most prominent African-Americans lived.

A prestigious upscale community, Sugar Hill was home to professional African-American families -- doctors, lawyers, teachers, bricklayers, ministers, morticians, pullman porters -- who developed a commune of comfortable, impressive, spacious homes. Like many urban Jacksonville districts, the neighborhood began as a streetcar suburb.

Former Sugar Hill residents included Abraham Lincoln Lewis, owner and founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Co.; William Raines, a high school principal; and Sara Blocker, a schoolteacher who took the Duval County school system to court for equal working rights for African-American teachers.

Sugar Hill would eventually become the victim of large development projects. These include the construction of I-95 through the neighborhood's heart, the continued expansion of the Shands Medical Center and urban renewal. More than 75 percent of the families were relocated outside the neighborhood after their homes were demolished in the late 1960s by the city Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Bishop Henry Y. Tookes House at 1011 West 8th Street

8. The Cultural History of the Shotgun House

Thousands of shotgun houses can been seen in this early 20th century aerial over LaVilla. Today, only three remain in Downtown Jacksonville neighborhood.

It can be argued that the Shotgun is the South's version of the rowhouse. Predominately found in the urban South, shotgun houses tended to be narrow across the front in order to maximize the number of units on each residential lot. Running deep on the lot, rooms were typically arranged one behind the other connected by a long hallway. Because this long hall usually ran the entire length of the house, the name derived from the possibility of firing a round from the front door through the back door without hitting any part of the house.

These structures exemplify a type of working class housing style that was common in black urban neighborhoods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The shotgun houses represent the Folk Victorian Style of architecture, which was popular between 1870 and 1910. This style is defined by the application of Victorian decorative detailing on simple frame structures in an attempt to mimic the popular high Victorian architecture of the era. Many scholars believe shotgun houses reflect African building traditions that entered the American Southeast via the transatlantic slave trade through the Caribbean Islands, starting in New Orleans and brought to cities like Jacksonville by migrating Black freedmen.

Urban Jacksonville has lost 50% of its residential population since 1950. The loss of shotgun housing districts is a major reason for this decline. Despite an urban landscape being dominated with them a century ago, not many significant shotgun rows remain today.  This isolated row in Durkeeville gives the viewer an impression of what many residential streets in Lavilla once resembled.

9. Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman Dies in Jacksonville

Betsy Coleman and her plane in 1922. Courtesy of Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bessie_Coleman_and_her_plane_(1922).jpg

In 1921, a 29-year-old Bessie Coleman became the first female pilot of African-American descent and the first African-American to hold an international pilot license.

Known to many as "Queen Bess", she became a media sensation in the United States, making a living as a barnstorming stunt flier for paying audiences.

During this era, the present day location of Paxon School for Advanced Studies was the site of one of Jacksonville's earliest airfields, Paxon Field.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville to perform an airshow at Paxon Field with her recently purchased Curtis JN-4 (Jenny). Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, flew the plane while Coleman sat in the other seat.

Roughly ten minutes into the flight, the plane made an unexpected dive and Coleman was thrown from the plan, falling 2,000 feet to her death. Unable to regain control of the plan, Wills also died upon impact as the plane burst into flames. Later it was discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slide into a gearbox, jamming it. At the time of her death, Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was 34 years old.

10. Downtown Jacksonville Births Multiple Historically Black Colleges & Universities

The need for an institution of higher learning in downtown is a common desire of economic revitalization advocates. What is rarely mentioned in these discussions is how to better utilize Edward Waters College (EWC), its 800 students, and 50-acre compact urban campus, which is roughly one mile northwest of downtown.

Founded in 1866 to educate freed former slaves, EWC is Florida's oldest independent institution of higher learning as well as the state's first institution established for the education of African Americans. After its original downtown location was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1901, land containing the present day campus was acquired along Kings Road in 1904.

Today, the 800 student college awards degress in the following programs: Communications, Music, Psychology, Criminal Justice, Biology, Elementary Education, Mathematics, and Business Administration.

Of interesting black history note, Edward Waters College is one of three currently operating Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with roots leading back to early Jacksonville.

Now in Miami Gardens, FL, the 1,800 student Florida Memorial University was established in 1882 as the Florida Baptist Academy. Later it became the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, where two brothers, James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson wrote the words and music to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (known as the "Negro National Anthem"), in 1900. In 1918, the school relocated to St. Augustine and in 1968 to its present day South Florida site.

Likewise, Bethune Cookman University roots date back to 1872, when the Cookman Insitute was established by Rev. S.B. Darnell at the intersection of Beaver and Hogan Streets in downtown Jacksonville. After being destroyed by fire, the school relocated to the present day site of Darnell-Cookman School of the Medical Arts. In 1923, the Cookman Institute merged with the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School in Daytona Beach. In 1941, the school became a 4-year college and the name was changed to Bethune-Cookman College.

A sketch of the Cookman Institute in 1898. Image courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2014-feb-10-facts-about-jacksonvilles-black-history

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