7 Black Facts About Jax You Didn't Already Know!

In celebration of Black History Month, here's a few things you probably didn't know about Jacksonville.

Published February 2, 2016 in History - MetroJacksonville.com

1. The Father of the Lindy Hop and Swing Dancing was from Jax

Destroyed by the construction of I-95, Campbell Hill is a lost early 20th century African-American neighborhood along McCoys Creek near downtown Jacksonville. One of Campbell Hill's most famous residents was Frank Benjamin "Frankie" Manning. During the Great Migration, Manning's mother, who was a dancer, left Jacksonville, moving the family to New York in 1917. Learning to dance at an early age, Manning eventually became known as one of the founding fathers of the Lindy Hop and Swing Dancing. During his career he toured with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. He also appeared in movies including Jittering Jitterbugs and Hot Chocolate, Malcolm X and Stomping at the Savoy.

2. Before American Beach, Jacksonville's Manhattan Beach was the place to go

The 447-acre Hanna Park is one of Jacksonville's most visited public spaces. A little known fact is that the property was also home to Manhattan Beach, Florida's first beach for African Americans during segregation. Manhattan Beach was established by Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railroad company around 1900, for the African American workers that they employed.

Hanna Park today

The park flourished for many years, until about 1940, when it was superseded by another destination, Amelia Island's American Beach. A few years later, the land was donated by Winthrop Bancroft, who required in exchange, the name be changed to Kathryn Abbey Hanna. Hanna was a teacher and author from Chicago, who moved to Florida and served on the board of Parks and Historical Places. During the 1970s, the City of Jacksonville acquired additional property, expanding Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park.

Hanna Park today

3. Forty Acres and a Mule meets Jacksonville

Image courtesy of Isaac McCaslin

Forty acres and a mule refers to a concept in the United States for agrarian reform for former enslaved African American farmers, following disruptions to the institution of slavery provoked by the American Civil War. Many may have heard of the term "40 acres and a mule". However, most don't know that the land earmarked for former slaves included Jacksonville. Here's a brief description of the area from General Sherman's Special Field Orders on January 6, 1865:

[ quote ]The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.

At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the Blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations--but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress.[ quote ]

Image courtesy of NPR

What would Jacksonville look like today if Sherman's Orders were actually carried out by the federal government?

4. Harlem: The LaVilla of the North

Almost everyone has heard of The Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of artistic work without precedent in the American black community during the 1920's and 1930's. If you have not heard of it, at the very least you're probably familiar with Harlem's Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. Even today, several cities across the south, from Atlanta to Jacksonville and Tampa, are quick to label a formerly vibrant black neighborhood in their community as being the "Harlem of the South." What most don't know is that the Harlem Renaissance is largely a result of the first Great Migration.  Roughly, between 1910 and 1930, 1.6 million migrants left mostly southern, oppressive urban communities, like Jacksonville, to migrate to northern, industrial cities in search of a better life and economic opportunity.

From left to right: Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Image courtesy of http://songbook1.wordpress.com/fx/si/african-american-musical-theater-1896-1926/shuffle-along1921-mills-hall-galleries/

As early as 1870, Jacksonville's LaVilla was having its own "renaissance" with a 70% black population attracted to jobs in the area's booming hotel, lumber, port, building, and railroad industries. While Harlem was still a Jewish and Italian community,  LaVilla had become the home to Excelsior Hall, the first black-owned theatre in the South, and a black owned streetcar company. In addition, during this time, Jaxon Pat Chappelle's Rabbit's Foot Company dominated the entertainment scene throughout the Southeast. LaVilla also served as a brief haven for Robichaux, a “legitimate” musician, during this period after the elimination of the relative privilege of the Creole racial distinction in New Orleans and just before the implementation of Florida’s most restrictive segregation laws.

In 1909, the Airdome Theatre opened on Ashley Street, becoming the largest theatre exclusively for black people in the South. A year later, the first published account of blues singing on a public stage took place at the Airdome (Central Harlem was about 10% black). By 1916, recruiters from two northern railroads, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central were successfully drawing black workers away from Jacksonville. Due to economic conditions, white militancy, and Jim Crow laws, 16,000 African-Americans left Jacksonville between 1916 and 1917 as a part of the first Great Migration.

The Knights of Pythias Hall on Ashley Street.

By 1930, the end of the first Great Migration, African-Americans accounted for 70% of Harlem's population and it had become associated with the New Negro movement. Jacksonville's loss became Harlem's gain. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature," as Harlem resident and former Jaxon James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, took place between 1924 and 1929. However, the cultural activities that made the Harlem Renaissance had been common in places like Jacksonville's LaVilla in previous decades. Being in Harlem, introduced the black experience within the corpus of American cultural history, redefining how the world viewed African-Americans.

5. The Colored Man's Railroad

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Railroading in early Jacksonville was a lot more than Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. on August 22, 1903, the North Jacksonville Street Railway, Town and Improvement Company began streetcar service to Jacksonville's black population. Organized by several prominent members of Jacksonville's black community (R. R. Robinson, H. Mason, F. C. Eleves, Walter P. Mucklow, George E. Ross and Frank P. McDermott), the streetcar system became known as "The Colored Man's Railroad." Hundreds came out for the system's grand opening ceremony to ride on cars operated with black motormen and conductors. Initially, the North Jacksonville Street Railway ran from downtown's Bay Street north on Clay to State and Kings Road before heading north on Myrtle Avenue. It returned to downtown via Moncrief Road through Hansontown. Black ownership ended a few years later when the system was acquired by Telfair Stockton, allowing it to be extended to the Eastside and Talleyrand. Stockton then sold the system to the Jacksonville Electric Company. Despite the change in ownership, the Colored Man's Railroad was heavily utilized by the black community and was among the last routes to be abandoned in December 1936.

6. Wilder Park: Paving Over Paradise

In every vibrant urban community you'll find a vibrant public space, and Jacksonville's Wilder Park was no exception. The economic prosperity associated with Jacksonville's growing African American community in the 1920s supported new and exciting social opportunities.  To serve this rapidly growing population, the Jacksonville Public Library opened the Wilder Park Library at the intersection of 3rd & Lee Streets in 1927.

Three years later, the descendants of Charles B. Wilder donated thirty acres surrounding the library to be used as a recreational area for Jacksonville’s African American community. Accessible via the Davis Street streetcar line (a part of the Colored Man's Railroad), Wilder Park was the largest public park in the city for African Americans.  It included a track, a baseball diamond, a diamond ball field and the branch library.  The playground accommodated several thousand spectators at football games, and within a decade of its opening, the Wilder Park branch library had grown to contain "one of the highest volumes of circulations" of any of the city's libraries. These amenities were joined by the opening of the Wilder Park Community Center in 1938.

Located at the intersection of 3rd & Mt. Herman Streets, the community center provided a number of recreational and social activities for Sugar Hill, including Saturday night dances sponsored by the "Mummies Club." Unfortunately, Jacksonville's grand public space for the African American community would be short lived.  Established by the Florida Legislature in 1955, the Jacksonville Expressway Authority found a new use for Wilder Park and the vibrant community surrounding it.  That use would be to serve as the belly for a new expressway that would facilitate Northside automobile movement between the Trout and St. Johns Rivers. Enamored by the discriminatory practices of Robert Moses, this superhighway would also serve as a dividing line between the highly minority populated Northwest Jacksonville, downtown, and the majority white (during Jim Crow era) neighborhoods north of downtown.  Jacksonville Historic Commission records indicate that the Wilder Park Community Center was demolished to make way for what would become Interstate 95 in 1958.

The completion of Interstate 95 in 1960 put a concrete barrier between the library and neighborhoods to the west, where a major community park had existed since 1930.  In 1965, the severed Wilder Park Library branch closed and was replaced by the Myrtle Avenue Branch, which still exists today.  

Looking at the present day location of Wilder Park.

7. The First Black School in Jax Remains one of the Nation's best

Today, Stanton College Preparatory School is a nationally known academically renowned public high school in Jacksonville's urban core. According to USNews.com, "the Stanton College Preparatory School challenges students to excel via a rigorous curriculum made up of honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses." In 2013, it ranked as 5th best public school in the country according to TheBestSchools.org.

Stanton High School photograph courtesy of Void Live.

Historically speaking, Stanton is actually the oldest continually operating high school in Florida. Its history dates back to 1868 when it was established as an elementary school to serve African-Americans during segregation. Named after Edwin McMasters Stanton, President Abraham Lincoln's second Secretary of War, the original campus was located in downtown at the intersection of Jefferson and Ashley Streets. Stanton was destroyed by fire in 1882 and 1901, before being replaced with a larger brick structure that still stands today. In 1953, the high school was relocated to its current location on West 13th Street near Mrytle Avenue in Durkeeville. In 1981, Stanton became Duval County's first magnet school.

The old Stanton High School building in LaVilla.

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

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2016-feb-7-black-facts-about-jax-you-didnt-already-know

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