From the arrival of the very first European explorers back in the 1500s, people of African descent have had a significant role in the making of Jacksonville. Today, the region's African-American Heritage Trail rounds up the most significant sites for a wonderfully wide-ranging look at Jacksonville's past.
Ready for a tour? It's well worth making every stop—here are just ten of the most captivating highlights.
#1 Learn about the composers of "America's Black National Anthem." Written by Jacksonville native sons James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson right here in Jacksonville. The Johnson brothers were two luminaries in early African-American history and culture, hear the story behind "Lift Ev'ry Voice" and so much more at the Ritz Theatre and Museum in the historic LaVilla neighborhood of Downtown. You can also visit the birth site of the famous brother. Where their house once stood, a new park will be built to celebrate their legacy.
#2 See where Hank Aaron got his first big break. One of three players to break the color barrier in the regional minor leagues, the famed right-fielder made a splash with the then-Jacksonville Braves at historic Durkee Field, now known as the J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, before being called up to the majors in 1954.
#3 Learn about Jacksonville's importance to the early African-American film industry. Once known as the winter film capital of the nation, Jacksonville was home to more than 20 movie studios at the turn of the last century. The still-standing Norman Film Studios made movies for black audiences starring Black actors that eschewed the usual silent-era fare, creating less stereotypical, more well-rounded characters.
#4 Lay out at American Beach, the playground of Florida's first black millionaire. This prime bit of Amelia Island oceanfront was purchased by local businessman A.L. Lewis in the 1930s as a resort destination where black families could call their own in the years before desegregation. Today, the area is on the National Register of Historic Places. Another first beach destinations for Blacks in Jacksonville is in Atlantic Beach. The area once known as Manhattan Beach was the first beach where African Americans could gather freely. Visit the site now located at Hanna Park.
#5 Learn about Jacksonville's original renaissance woman at the Eartha M.M. White Museum. The city's Clara White Mission is a monument on its own, but this small exhibit located on the second floor of the foundation gives a greater glimpse of the legacy of Eartha White, a woman of many talents—from opera singer to real estate broker—who became best known in later years as a tireless humanitarian, dedicated to improving the lives of local residents in any way she could.
#6 See Jacksonville's oldest home at Kingsley Plantation. First built in 1798, this is one of the last remaining plantation homes left standing in the state of Florida, providing a vital link to the region's colonial heritage and the fascinating story of the family who lived there —a white landowner and his African wife, a free woman from Senegal he first bought as slave—. Daily guided tours and audio tours are available of the Kingsley home, and the slave quarters of the plantation.
#7 Visit Jacksonville's first black suburbs. Laid out in the 1930s, Durkeeville was one of the original streetcar suburbs, just northwest of Downtown. It was the center of commerce and culture for the local black community during the first decades of the 20th century. Today, the Durkeeville Historical Society maintains a museum (by appointment only) that walks visitors through the area's unique history. www.durkeevillehistoricalsociety.org. Another significant neighborhood to explore is the LaVilla neighborhood, a suburb of Downtown, this area was once known as the “Harlem of the South” with a vibrant music and entertainment scene that attracted many nationally renowned jazz artists to play at local black clubs.
#8 Explore a restored historic Black Theatre in the heart of LaVilla. The Ritz Theatre and Museum is located in the LaVilla neighborhood of Downtown, considered "the mecca for African American culture and heritage" in Florida. The Theater was once a movie house for black families. It now houses a museum for Jacksonville’s African American History.
#9 Pay tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers at the city's oldest cemetery. Along with many of Jacksonville's most prominent early African-American families, Old City Cemetery, established back in 1852, is, notably, also home to the graves of dozens of black servicemen, going all the way back to the Civil War.
#10 Visit the last remaining Black School House in Jacksonville. Located at the grounds of the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society, the St. Joseph’s Mission Schoolhouse for African-American Children dates back to 1898. It was built for the education of black Mandarin residents, some even had to walk 4 miles to get there and back every day.
There are many more reasons to check out Jacksonville’s extensive African American Heritage, to get started on the self-guided African American Heritage Trail, visit www.jaxheritagetrail.com.