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Jacksonville is rich with African American history; explore stops along Jax Heritage Trail, including the Catharine Street Fire Station and the Clara White Mission, founded by a former slave and in operation for over 100 years.
Take in a live performance at the Ritz Theatre & Museum in Jacksonville’s historic African American community of La Villa. During La Villa’s height of activity in the 1920s-1960s, it was known as the “Harlem of the South.” The Ritz Theatre & Museum begins its exploration of Jacksonville’s African-American heritage with an animatronics story of native sons James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson who composed the African-American national hymn, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Stroll along recreated streets depicting the daily lives of African Americans in Jacksonville during recent history. On any given weekend, you can see nationally acclaimed African American performers at the Ritz Theatre wowing sold-out crowds.
Another historic location of immense importance is the Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville's oldest residential home and Florida's last still-standing plantation home. Wander through the remarkably preserved slave quarters, barn, plantation house and kitchen house dating back to 1814. The historic site is also the southernmost point of the Gullah-Geechee Nation.
For a glimpse into Zora Neale Hurston’s early years, visit two landmarks in the historic Springfield neighborhood. The neighborhood, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has recently begun a renaissance and new developments are revitalizing historic houses and new retail shops. On the trail, Bishop Henry Y. Tookes House is one of the few remaining large residences in the old Sugar Hill Community, a neighborhood of Jacksonville’s African-American middle class during the first half of the 20th century, where Hurston also spent her childhood. Matthew Gilbert School was the former Florida Baptist Academy where Hurston attended school in Jacksonville. Besides Hurston, alumni include two-time Olympic gold medal winner, Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes. There are countless number of tales and historic markers along the trail in Jacksonville.
It is in Jacksonville that native sons James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson composed the “Black National Hymn” called “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in 1900.
Before the establishment of the United States, people of African descent had been shaping the history of Florida. From the Age of Exploration and European colonization; through slavery and the Civil War; to Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement; free Africans, Africans held in captivity and their descendants have been Lifting Ev’ry Voice to make major contributions to the building of this city, region, state and the nation.
Northeast Florida’s rich cultural history shows influences from European, African and Native American cultures. It is this rich diversity that defines the region today.
Don Juan Ponce de Leon of Spain landed in Florida in search of gold, glory, and the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Jean Ribault, a French Huguenot, explored the St. Johns River and made contact with the native Timucuan Indians.
The French Huguenots under Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere built Fort Caroline along the river at St. Johns Bluff, the first attempt to establish a permanent colony in Florida.
St. Augustine, which is the oldest continually occupied settlement in the United States, was founded by Spanish leader Pedro Menendez de Aviles. The Spanish settled St. Augustine as a base to attack and captured Fort Caroline. At the time, both the French and Spanish brought in African slaves as laborers.
The first black militia company had been formed in St. Augustine.
The Spanish king began freeing Florida slaves who converted to Catholicism and provided four years of service to the crown.
Garcia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, later known as Fort Mose, was founded as the first free, legally-sanctioned settlement for blacks in North America.
General Jorge Biassou-Caudillo, leader of the Black Auxiliaries of Carlos IV during the slave revolt of Santo Domingo in Haiti, found exile in St. Augustine.
Spanish land grant of 350 acres was made to John Johnson that later included the location of the historic black neighborhood of LaVilla
Zephaniah Kingsley, who married his African slave, Anna Madgigiane Jai, established a plantation on Fort George Island where he raised cotton, sugarcane and other cash crops.
Florida becomes a United States territory.
The town of Jacksonville is founded
Reverend James McDonald organized a group, including two African American slaves, Peggy and Bacchus, in the founding of Bethel Baptist Church, the first organized Baptist Church in Jacksonville. Reverend McDonald sold his plantation west of town to his successor, Reverend Joseph S. Baker, who renamed it LaVilla, the namesake of the community that later occupied the area.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published and greatly influenced the growth of the abolitionist movement in the North. She and her husband, Reverend Calvin Stowe, were seasonal residents in the Mandarin area from 1867 to 1884.
Start of the Civil War, during which Jacksonville was occupied four times by the Union army. African American soldiers composed the majority of the Union troops during the last two occupations of Jacksonville. The old Bethel Baptist Church in LaVilla was used as a makeshift hospital after the Battle of Olustee.
Confederate troops defeated a Union force composed of black and white regiments at the Battle of Olustee, near Ocean Pond in Columbia County, Florida. Among the black units were the 54th Massachusetts volunteers featured in the movie, Glory.
With the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction, the federal government began enacting sweeping political changes aimed at improving conditions for recently freed African Americans. These actions allowed African American men to vote and hold public office for the first time. Branches of the Freedmen’s Bureau were also established in Southern cities and towns to provide assistance and protection for these new citizens. The Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, was added to the U.S. Constitution.
Mother Midway Church in East Jacksonville was established as the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida.
1866 - African American families began settling in LaVilla on lots owned by Jacksonville lawyer, Francis F. L’Engle. Many of the men in these families were former Union soldiers.1866 - Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in downtown Jacksonville.1866 - Edward Waters College was founded. It is the oldest historical black college in Florida and is named for Bishop Edward Waters, the third bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
1868 - The Fourteenth Amendment, granting citizenship to African Americans and all people regardless of ancestry or national origin, was adopted.1868 - Named after President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, Stanton Institute was founded by local African Americans with the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was the first public school for African Americans in Florida. Later, under the direction of James W. Johnson, it became the first public high school for African Americans in Florida.1868 - Jonathan C. Gibbs, Vice President of the Jacksonville Republican Convention, was elected as a delegate to the Florida Constitutional Convention following the Civil War. Gibbs was also the first African American appointed as the Secretary of State of Florida.
The neighborhood of LaVilla was incorporated as a town with the majority of office holders being African American.
The Fifteenth Amendment that extended voting rights to African American men was added to the Constitution.
Noted educator, lawyer, journalist, writer, and civil rights leader, James Weldon Johnson, was born in the LaVilla neighborhood of Jacksonville. John Rosamond Johnson, the brother of James Weldon Johnson, was also born in LaVilla and went on to have a successful career as a song writer and composer.
Joseph E. Lee, the first African American lawyer in Florida, was elected to the Florida Legislature where he served for six years before being elected to the senate. He was later appointed as a municipal judge, Custom Collector of the Port of St. Johns, and Collector of Internal Revenue.
Shiloh Baptist Church was established. Reverend James Johnson, the father of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, served as minister of the church from the late 1880s to 1901.
Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church was founded. Mary Barton, the grandmother of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, and her daughter, Helen Dillet Johnson were early members of the church.
Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Fells Savage was born in Green Cove Springs.
Dr. D Watson Onley began his architecture and builder business and three years later opened the first steam saw and planning mill in the United States owned and operated entirely by African Americans. Dr. Onley later went to dental school at Howard University.
Sponsored by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, Boylan Industrial Training School for Girls was founded by Miss Harriet Emerson. Growing out of the school’s training for the general care of the sick, Brewster Hospital and Brewster Hospital School of Nursing were established in 1900. First located in LaVilla, the school moved in 1910 to a new facility in East Jacksonville. In 1932 the school merged with Haven School of Savannah. It operated as Boylan Haven Boarding School until 1959.
Five African-American men were elected to the Jacksonville City Council. LaVilla was incorporated into the City of Jacksonville, ending its status as an independent town.
A. Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida and moved to Jacksonville in 1891. He organized the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Florida Baptist Academy was founded by Rev. Matthew Gilbert, Rev. J.T. Brown and Ms. Sarah Ann Blocker. The School was supported by Bethel Baptist Institutional Church and neighbors of the surrounding East Jacksonville community. After several years, the school moved to St. Augustine, FL, then relocated to Miami FL and is now known as Florida Memorial College
Cuban revolutionary leader, Jose Marti rallied support in Jacksonville for the Cuban war of independence from Spain.
James Weldon Johnson became principal of Stanton School, and added a grade each year, finally making it the first public high school for African Americans in Florida.
Cuban-born Gabriel Hidalgo Gato managed and later owned the El Modelo Cigar Manufacturing Co. With 15 factories in Jacksonville, cigar manufacturing was the city’s second-largest industry.
During Cuba’s fight for independence, Duval County Sheriff Napoleon Bonaparte Broward delivered munitions and Cuban expatriates to the island in his ocean-going tug, The Three Friends. He later served as the 19th governor of Florida.
The U. S. Supreme court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson established the principle of “separate but equal”.
Jacksonville hosted over 32,000 soldiers at Camp Cuba Libre in Springfield during the Spanish American War.
1901 - Brewster Hospital, started under the direction of Harriet Emerson, opened its doors to African Americans in Jacksonville. At the time, it was the only hospital and nursing school available to African Americans in the city. Nurses from the school were well trained and highly recruited by hospitals all over the United States.1901 - The City of Jacksonville enacted a statute mandating the separation of blacks and whites on the city street cars. This measure was followed by other Jim Crow laws which established segregation as the rule in all areas of life.1901 - On May 3, a disastrous fire raged through 146 blocks of Downtown Jacksonville, destroying 2,368 buildings including 10 hotels, 23 churches, city hall, courthouse, jail, and armory. The fire left 8,677 people homeless and caused $15 million in property damage. Although started at the Cleveland Fiber Factory in LaVilla, most of the neighborhood was spared.1901 - The Afro-American Life Insurance Company, the first insurance company in the State of Florida, was founded by seven local African American businessmen and ministers. It provided burial, medical, life insurance and pension funds to the black community. The company became one of the most important African American businesses in the Southeast during the first half of the 20th century.1901 - Ellie Lee Weems was born in McDonough, Georgia and moved to Jacksonville in 1929 where he established a portrait studio. Operating for nearly 50 years, Weems took thousands of photographs that recorded African American life in Jacksonville during the first half of the twentieth century.
James Weldon Johnson resigned as principal of Stanton School and moved to New York. There he formed a musical collaboration with his brother John Rosamond and Bob Cole. This trio became one of the most successful song writing teams for early Broadway productions.
President Theodore Roosevelt appoints James Weldon Johnson U.S. consul to Venezuela and, in 1909, to the same position in Nicaragua.
The last year that African Americans served in Jacksonville’s city government because of Jim Crow Laws. In 1967, two African Americans, Mary Singleton and Sallye B. Mathis, were elected to the City Council.
1909 - The NAACP was founded.1909 - The 48-room Richmond Hotel opened under the ownership and operation of Alice Kirkpatrick. This beautiful hotel had all the modern amenities of the day and was most famous for its “Tea Room.” This building was the temporary home of such stars as Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday when they visited Jacksonville to play in the local clubs.
1912 - James Weldon Johnson’s first novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, was first published anonymously. It was reissued in 1927 under his name.1912 - Frank Crowd opened the Globe Theatre. The building was later remodeled to become home to the Clara White Mission in 1932.
The Strand Theatre, located at 703 West Ashley Street, opened.
The Masonic Temple building was completed by the Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge. The fire proof, fivestory brick building had commercial and office spaces and became the address of choice for Jacksonville’s African American professionals and business owners. The Masonic Temple housed several businesses, including the Anderson, Tucker & Co. Bank, Pedro Mendez Tailoring Shop and the law offices of Daniel W. Perkins. Because of its architectural and historical significance, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
United States enters World War I
The Florida Negro Funeral Directors & Embalmers Association was founded. Japhus Baker, one of the founders, was the first African American licensed embalmer in Florida. He was known as the “Father of Black Embalmers” because he trained many of the black embalmers in the state. As a teenager, Japhus Baker worked for his uncle, Wyatt J. Geter, who opened the first black owned funeral home in Jacksonville circa 1895. Geter & Baker Funeral Homes was located at 767 W. Beaver Street.
The Norman Film Studio was opened by Richard Norman, one of America’s most successful producers of race movies that featured all-black cast in roles free of racial stereotypes. Norman produced eight feature films between 1920 and 1928 including The Green-Eyed Monster (1920), The Crimson Skull (1921), The Bull-Dogger (1921), Regeneration (1923), A Debtor to the Law (1924), The Flying Ace (1926), and The Black Gold (1928). Located in the Arlington neighborhood of south Jacksonville, four of the five buildings in the studio complex were purchased and rehabilitated by the City of Jacksonville.
The Hollywood Music Store, owned by local African American businessman Joe Higdon, was opened. The store was a popular hub of activity for people in the entertainment business. The structure was demolished in 2001.
Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to obtain a pilot’s license, died in an airplane accident in Jacksonville while practicing for an air show. In Jacksonville, more than 5,000 were in attendance for her services at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, followed by another service at St. Philips Episcopal Church. After a service in Orlando, Bessie Coleman was buried in Chicago at the young age of 33.
1927 - Wilder Park Branch Library opened. It was the first branch library open to serve African American communities in Jacksonville. The library along with the rest of the 30-acre Wilder Park was removed for Interstate construction.1927 - The Lincoln Golf and County Club opened. It was the only facility of its kind available to African Americans until the 1960s.
Eartha M.M. White was an educator, entrepreneur, humanitarian, philanthropist and social activist. In 1928, she established the Clara White Mission in honor of her mother, Clara English White, a former slave. Located at 613 W. Ashley Street, the Clara White Mission became the center of Eartha’s humanitarian and social activities. Food, clothing, and a helping hand were provided to the indigent, homeless, transients, and others in need without regard to race, color, sex, age, national origin or religious belief.
The Great Depression began with the stock market crash.
1935 - American Beach on Amelia Island in Nassau County was founded by A.L. Lewis and the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company as a vacation destination for African Americans during segregation. American Beach remains one of the only predominantly African American residential beach communities in the country.1935 - The current grandstand for Durkee Field, named for Dr. J. H. Durkee, was constructed. Originally called Barrs Field, organized sports have been played on the site of Durkee Field since 1911. The park was the home to the Red Caps of the Negro League, and later the field where baseball legend, Hank Aaron, started his professional career with the Jacksonville Tars in 1953. In 1980, the park was renamed the James P. “Bubbling” Small Park in memory of a longtime coach and mentor at Stanton High School.
Boy Scout pioneer David H. Dwight, Sr. became the first African American in the country to receive the Silver Beaver, scouting’s highest award. Dwight received the honor after he successfully led a campaign for African American boys to join the organization and to be allowed to wear the official Boy Scout uniform.
Durkeeville Housing Project opened. It was the first public housing project for African Americans in Jacksonville and one of the earliest in the state.
Housed in the Willie Smith Building located at West Ashley and North Broad Streets, Florida Cut Price Pharmacy, owned by African American entrepreneur Willie J. Smith, opened for business. Willie Smith also owned and operated the Florida Pharmacy at 1230-1232 Florida Avenue for over 30 years. 1940 African American businessman “Charlie Edd” Craddock, who operated numerous businesses in LaVilla, opened the Two Spot Club at 45th St. and Moncrief Road on Christmas Day, 1940. The Two Spot could accommodate 2,000 dancers with seating for an additional 1,000 on the first floor and mezzanine. It became the most prominent nightclub for African Americans in the city during the 1940s and 1950s.
On December 7, the naval facility at Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II.
Blodgett Homes, the third public housing project in Jacksonville, was built for African Americans. The project was named after the wealthy African American building contractor and developer, Joseph Haygood Blodgett.
1946 - After a successful legal battle led by local African American attorney D.W, Perkins and the plaintiff, Reverend Dallas Graham, African Americans in Jacksonville were allowed to vote in the state primary elections.1946 - The Roosevelt Barber Shop, one of the oldest businesses in LaVilla, opened.
U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown vs, the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas overturns the “separate but equal” principle.
1960 - Forty African Americans, mostly from the Youth Council of the NAAC P under the leadership of Rutledge Pearson, staged a demonstration in Downtown Jacksonville seeking access to “whites only” lunch counters. They were met by white men carrying axe handles and baseball bats that were used to injure many of the demonstrators with others seeking shelter at nearby Snyder Memorial Methodist Church. “Ax Handle Saturday” was a turning point in Jacksonville’s civil rights movement.1960 - Led by 16-year-old Rodney Hurst, the 450 member NAAC P Youth Council staged a sit-in at F.W. Woolworth’s on April 5. Rodney Hurst and Youth Council Secretary Margaret Meeks have the distinction of being the first blacks served at Woolworth’s white-only lunch counter.
Jacksonville native Robert Lee “Bullet Bob” Hayes won two gold medals, one in the 100 meter race and another as the anchor in the US 400 meter relay team at the Tokyo Olympics. At the time, Bob Hayes was called the “World’s Fastest Human,” and later went on to have a professional football career playing for the Dallas Cowboys, where he received two Super Bowl rings.
Sally B. Mathis, Mary Singleton, Attorney Earl Johnson and Oscar Taylor became the first African Americans to be elected to the Jacksonville City Council since 1907. Mathis and Singleton were also the first women ever elected to the City Council. Charles E. Simmons, Jr. was elected to the City Civil Service Board after having been appointed to the position in 1966.
Consolidation of Jacksonville and Duval County made the city the largest in land area in the lower 48 states.
Earl Johnson became the first black City Council President in 1976.
Warren Jones served two consecutive terms as Council President from July 1, 1991 to June 30, 1993.
Nathaniel Glover was elected as the first black Sheriff of the City of Jacksonville, and the second black Sheriff in the state of Florida.
Alvin Brown was elected as the first black Mayor of the City of Jacksonville.