In January 1866, the city of Jacksonville purchased a small parcel of land from the prominent Hart family following the death of our city’s founder Isaiah D. Hart (yeah … the bridge guy). That piece of land would eventually become the Hemming Park that we know today.
But in its first incarnation, the land was known as St. James Park, named after the luxurious St. James hotel that stood just across the street from the park.
The hotel, with its fabulous amenities and central location, attracted all manner of wealthy Northerners who wanted to spend winter in Jacksonville. The original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1901 that decimated much of the city and was not rebuilt until 1910. This same building still sits across from Hemming Park, known today as Jacksonville City Hall.
So, where did the name Hemming come from?
Charles C. Hemming was a young man from Jacksonville who became a Confederate soldier at the outbreak of the Civil War. Hemming had quite a dramatic military career, being captured by the Union army, later escaping his imprisonment and acting as a spy for the Confederacy. He spent much of his time in the war traveling around the country and repeatedly escaping capture by the other side. After the war ended, he went to work for a bank and worked his way up the later in the financial world. His new position gave him the resources to donate his own memorial to his hometown, which commemorated the heroes of the Confederacy. This memorial was placed in the middle of St. James Park in 1899, and as a thanks for his generous donation, the park was renamed one more time in Hemming’s honor.
In its early history, Hemming Park was a great center of commerce and entertainment in the city. Originally a grassy park, it became a fun place to socialize and gather for events and speeches. There was often live music and even ostrich races.
In the 1960s, presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon gave campaign speeches in the park. This era was also marked by several civil rights protests. The infamous Ax Handle Saturday was centered around a demonstration in Hemming park when a group of white supremacists clashed violently with black protesters staging a sit-in. Racial tensions remained high throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and the area around Hemming park began to decline as a cultural center.
Efforts to improve the park in the 1970s resulted in removal of the grass and trees, transforming the park into a concrete plaza. The plaza has since struggled to regain its place as a top destination in Jacksonville, but recent efforts to restore Hemming Plaza to its former glory have been slowly coming along and have seen success. The location is now the center of several awesome events like Jaxsons Night Market, Art Walk and One Spark.
Whatever your feelings are about Hemming Park as a place to hang out, you can’t deny that it has a fascinating past and may be one of the most important locations in the city of Jacksonville. Next time you visit, look around more closely and think about the incredible history behind that little square of land.