North Florida History: Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing
This was also a time of great ignorance that roamed the streets like a rabid dog.
Dangling in roulette and oblivious to compromise, the greatest country on Earth was not so great. America was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, in which segregation and hate were normal and heralded. Known are the national heroes: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, but shadowed in their greatness stood local heroes and stories.
The south was the center of racial struggle and Jacksonville took no exception.
Ax Handle Saturday
August 27th, 1960
Downtown Jacksonville was a heavily commuted place filled with businesses, department stores and food counters. Over the course of two weeks, African-Americans conducted sit-ins at the food counters of Woolworth’s and other establishments in the downtown area around Hemming Plaza.
Led by the Jacksonville Youth Council of the NAACP, the protesters met their strongest opposition on “Ax Handle Saturday.” A mob of more than 200 white men stationed themselves in Hemming Plaza with ax handles and baseball bats.
The violence quickly grew as not only protesters but any black individual in site were beaten to a bloody pulp. The police stood back and watched the violence until a black gang known as the Boomerangs came to the aide of protesters. It was only after the Boomerangs’ arrival that the police took any action by arresting only the black protesters.
This event sparked major change for Jacksonville’s race relations.
Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Kirby Smith. These are the names of American Civil War Confederate Generals as well as public schools in Duval County.
Further, Jacksonville has a high school by the name of Nathan B. Forrest, a founding member of the K.K.K, who, after killing black troops in the “Fort Pillow Butcher,” was quoted as saying, “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with southerners.”
The 1954 landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education resulted in a declaration from the United States Supreme Court that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. This was a major turning point in the school desegregation, but Florida continued to resist and struggle for almost ten years despite having a Duval County Schools Director of Negro Education, Dr. John Irving Elias Scott.
Scott was a black man who is said to have gone with the flow rather than plot against segregation with his leadership role. The lack of equality persisted in Duval County until United States District Judge Bryan Simpson observed that the city failed to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling and ordered a desegregation plan in 1963. (In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a bill designating the Federal Courthouse in downtown Jacksonville as the John Milton Bryan Simpson United States Courthouse.)
One of the largest forces in downtown Jacksonville is the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville and is widely mistaken to be the oldest Baptist church in Jacksonville. That title rightfully belongs to the predominantly black Bethel Baptist Institutional Church located just a few blocks away.
Bethel Baptist was established in 1838 and was interracial through the Civil War at which point the church began to divide.
Whites attempted to force blacks out and forced the issue to court. The court ruling ended up favoring with the majority of the congregation, the blacks, who the court claimed were the rightful owners of the church. Thereafter the white population established Tabernacle Baptist Church, later to be known as First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, and the rest is history.
- Nat Glover was the first African-American Sheriff in Florida and is the current President of Edward Waters College.
- Rodney Hurst and Alton Yates were members of the Jacksonville Youth Council of the NAACP and have continuously retold the story of Ax Handle Saturday to a local and national audience.
- The Florida Times Union printed a separate paper, called the Star Edition, for several years to serve the black community.
- Edward Waters College founded in 1866 and located near downtown Jacksonville is the oldest historically black college in Florida.
- Stanton High School was Florida’s first school for black children.
- Mayor Alvin Brown is Jacksonville’s first African-American Mayor.
- Magnolia Gardens was Jacksonville’s first black subdivision.
- James Weldon Johnson, author of the negro national anthem “Life Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was born in Jacksonville and attended Stanton High School.
- LaVilla, Jacksonville’s first suburb, was considered “the mecca for African American culture and heritage” in Florida during its prime. It is home to the famous Ritz Theatre, a venue long tailored toward black entertainers and black audiences. Unfortunately the area went into decline during the 1970’s due to heightened crime.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” spent winters in Mandarin where she wrote the memoir “Palmetto Leaves.”
This briefing is but a partial look into the timeline of African-American history in Jacksonville. From legends such as Eartha White and A. Phillip Randolph to plantations and space exploration, Jacksonville’s black history has it. Moving forward and looking at the layout of Jacksonville culture and community today have we learned from history? Are historically black schools and neighborhoods segregated today? Have we moved to a state of peace and equality? Void would love to hear your thoughts.