By James B. Crooks
Editor’s note: Dr. Jim Crooks, Jacksonville historian and retired University of North Florida Professor, has written a brief history of Jacksonville’s race relations presented here in three parts. We believe these articles offer perspective on where our city has come from, race relations in Jacksonville today, and how we might move forward into the future.
Part Three: The 21st Century
The new century began with hopeful signs. Another JCCI study, “Beyond the Talk: Improving Race Relations in Jacksonville,” was seen as a starting point for substantial community action. For six months, 84 citizen volunteers examined race relations in the city. They reviewed the history of the past 100 years. They learned about the different perceptions Blacks and whites have of events and of each other. They learned that African Americans are much more aware than whites about the inequality of opportunity in education, employment, housing and health care.
The study participants also learned there was a factual basis for the disparities perceived by African Americans. In schools, Blacks have lower test scores and higher dropout rates than do whites. On the job, Black families on the average earn less than whites. In health care, Black mortality rates are higher and life expectancy lower than for whites. In the criminal justice system, a disproportionate number of Blacks are arrested and incarcerated.
Further, study participants learned about the causes of these disparities. Clearly there was evidence of racism and prejudice, both past and present, which contributed to them. Another factor was what the study called “institutional practices” or “structural racism” in which public schools, city government, businesses, courts, and health care providers engaged in practices intentionally or unintentionally that resulted in disparate outcomes by race. Examples included the assignment of inexperienced teachers to inner city schools, the relegating of a disproportionate number of Black youngsters to special education programs, all-white search committees in businesses hiring new employees who looked like themselves, poorer public services in inner city neighborhoods compared with suburban neighborhoods, absence of public transportation to suburban jobs. The list goes on.
The JCCI study concluded that past efforts to address racial disparities were insufficient and made 27 recommendations to the Jacksonville community to promote change toward greater equality and opportunity for all minorities. The recommendations asked the mayor, school system, Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, housing and real estate interests, health department and medical profession, sheriff and courts, United Way, media and others to change policies and practices to further open our community to all of its residents. Mayor John Peyton accepted his responsibility to provide leadership. Sadly, very little change took place.
Even before citizen volunteers began to examine race relations at JCCI, other citizen volunteers in Jacksonville began to come together in Study Circles, a program begun by Charlene Taylor Hill at the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission. A Study Circle is a group of eight to fifteen culturally diverse people who meet together for two hours per week for five weeks under the supervision of trained diverse facilitators to listen and learn from one another. In the process participants begin to listen to and trust one another and build relationships. They also created action programs such as Jax Reads, a youth theater group, and media workshops. The concept spread to city hall, chamber of commerce, several major corporations, churches and nonprofits providing a foundation for new directions in race relations in Jacksonville.
In 2005, Mayor Peyton, who had engaged in a study circle, brought together community leaders to create Blueprint for Prosperity to raise median incomes, especially for minorities, to national levels. Its focus included education, economic development, quality of life issues, racial opportunity and harmony, infrastructure and leadership. The plan began with considerable enthusiasm, received some national attention, but petered out in 2008, a casualty of the Great Recession. https://www.bizjournals.com/jacksonville/stories/2005/07/04/daily27.html
Two years later, Peyton introduced the Jacksonville Journey, an attempt to address violent crime proactively. Its focus included neighborhood safety, dropout prevention and literacy programs, positive youth development with support for after school programs, summer jobs and mentoring, partnerships with the sheriff in increasing deterrence measures, and targeted intervention for at risk youth. The Jacksonville Journey also began with substantial community support including increased city funding. But it too fell victim to the Great Recession, losing much of its funding. Under Mayor Lenny Curry the program was rolled over into his revamped Kids Hope Alliance, successor to the Children’s Commission, losing its identity.
Another effort begun in 2006 was Project Breakthrough: Changing the Story of Race in Jacksonville, sponsored by the city, The Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, OneJax, and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. The last named chose Jacksonville as one of the more enlightened cities in the country for having recognized racial problems and beginning to work on them. https://www.unf.edu/onejax/project_breakthrough.aspx
After promising beginnings with governmental, business, educational, media, philanthropic and non-profit sector leaders, Project Breakthrough also lost momentum in the Great Recession. OneJax managed to continue in a limited effort working through its Metrotown summer youth program and in partnership with UNF’s College of Education preparing student interns to work in inner city schools.
Financial challenges at city hall and other organizations distracted Jacksonville, particularly the white majority, from further addressing racial issues. When prosperity began to return in the early teens, other issues dominated the public agenda.
Change began once again following the acquittal in 2013 of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Additional violent actions included the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Gardner in New York City. These deaths were but the tip of the iceberg. The protests that followed led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and others in Brunswick, Georgia, Louisville, Atlanta and beyond mobilized substantial white support for Black Lives Matter, including in Jacksonville.
Locally, efforts by a new group, 904WARD, led to the recognition and commemoration of lynchings in Jacksonville’s history. The mayor removed the statue of the Confederate soldier from top of the monument in Hemming Park. The school board proposed changes to public schools named after Confederate generals, and the city council voted to re-name Hemming Park after James Weldon Johnson. In the fall election voters endorsed a referendum tax to support major public school needs primarily on the north side of town. All of these actions reflected changing attitudes locally.
Over recent decades, individual African Americans have achieved great success and prominence locally in this predominantly white city.
Yet more than sixty years since the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, Jacksonville exists with inadequate public school facilities, public health services, public parks, housing, infrastructure and other public services disproportionately in minority neighborhoods. Blacks are also disproportionately caught in the criminal justice system. As a community, a predominantly white community, Jacksonville has refused to pay for the programs and services required to meet all its citizens’ needs.
Many whites have been awakened by Black Lives Matter. Whether they will stay awake and arouse others to work for a more just society remains to be seen.
James Crooks is professor emeritus of history from the University of North Florida and author of Jacksonville After the Fire, 1901-1919, a New South City  and Jacksonville the Consolidation Story, from Civil Rights to the Jaguars . This article first appeared in the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, “Study Circles Discussion Guide on Race Relations.”