September 22, 2021
In The Public Interest
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Jacksonville Race Relations: An Introductory History, Part Two (revised 2021)

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 Two: Civil Rights

Different people date the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement differently. Some say the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools started it. Others say it began with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. For Jacksonville, there were earlier court cases to eliminate unequal pay for white and Black teachers, and the elimination of the all-white Democratic primary. But in the popular mind Jacksonville’s civil rights movement began with the 1960 downtown protests and demonstrations to integrate restaurants and lunch counters. It led of course to the ax-handle riot in August of that year begun by the Ku Klux Klan.

Rutledge Pearson was the charismatic advisor to the NAACP Youth Council. Rodney Hurst, Arnette Girardeau and Alton Yates were important leaders. Their efforts achieved limited success at lunch counters, but not in restaurants. Demonstrations in 1964 to desegregate local restaurants led to more rioting. Only passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by Congress brought integration of restaurants and other public accommodations.

Meanwhile, in December 1960, six years after the Supreme Court’s school decision, attorney Earl Johnson filed suit on behalf of Black parents to desegregate Duval County public schools. Two years later the U.S. District Court approved a neighborhood school plan, but progress was slow. In September 1963, only 13 Black first graders were enrolled in five previously all white schools. No whites were enrolled in Black schools. In February 1964, Ku Klux Klansmen dynamited the home of one of the first graders. Under the leadership of Wendell Holmes, later elected to the Duval County School Board, the NAACP persisted. It took more than ten years and additional court orders to achieve substantial desegregation in 1971.

In 1959 and again in 1960, Black businessman Frank Hampton successfully sued to desegregate city-owned public facilities which led to the sale of the public golf course and the closing of swimming pools to prevent Blacks from using them. The 1960s were a tumultuous decade in many ways. Civil disturbances occurred locally in 1960, 1964, 1968 following King’s assassination, and in 1969 after a salesman shot a Black youth on Florida Avenue claiming he was stealing goods from his van.

Two themes stand out during these and subsequent years in race relations. First were the achievements of African Americans. In 1967, Sallye Mathis and Mary Singleton became the first Blacks elected to city council in sixty years. Following city-county consolidation, Earl Johnson was elected at-large by a predominantly white population. Voters also selected Oscar Taylor, father of a later Jacksonville Human Rights Commission executive director, Charlene Taylor Hill, to represent District 7.  Many other African Americans have followed in their footsteps. In 1968, Wendell Holmes became the first Black elected to the Duval County School Board, and later its first Black chair. Others have followed his lead. In the early 1970s, voters elected Mary Singleton to the state legislature, and others have followed. In 1982, Dr. Arnette Girardeau, along with Carrie Meeks from Miami Dade, were the first two African Americans elected to the Florida Senate since Reconstruction. Girardeau subsequently served as president pro-tempore.

In 1992, local voters elected Corrine Brown the first African American from the First Coast to the United States Congress. In 1995, Nat Glover became Jacksonville’s first Black sheriff, elected by a majority white population, and in 2011 Alvin Brown became the first Black mayor. African Americans have been appointed to management and professional positions at city hall, in the schools and with the independent authorities. Dr. Adam Herbert became the first African American state university president of a predominantly white institution in Florida (Dr. Andrew Robinson previously had been an interim appointee). Subsequently the Chamber of Commerce chose Herbert as the first Black to lead that body. Dr. Diane Greene became the first Black and first woman School Superintendent. The list could go on–of judges like Brian Davis and educators like Dr. Barbara Darby at FSCJ, outstanding Black youngsters succeeding at magnet schools and Ivy League universities, Black and white volunteers contributing to the success of nonprofit community organizations, and successful business and professional men and women buying homes in an increasingly integrated Jacksonville.  African Americans have made their positive mark on the Jacksonville community in a multiplicity of ways.

Yet there is another theme that parallels the achievements of local African Americans. That theme has been one of reluctant acceptance of those achievements by the white majority.  The school system is a good example. For forty years the NAACP was in court trying to desegregate the schools. In the 1960s the Duval County School Board dragged its feet, resulting in minimal desegregation. The courts finally forced the board to act. Its 1970s plan bused Black youngsters, K-5, out of their neighborhoods across town to strange, sometimes hostile schools, while busing white youngsters only for grades six and seven. Neither teachers nor children were well prepared for the process. Where it truly succeeded in integrating classrooms, it was generally the result of extraordinary teachers and cooperative parents. The system did not create a hospitable atmosphere for racial integration. Decisions by the school board to build new suburban schools, which were needed by the growing suburban population, were seen in the Black community as neglect of their decaying inner-city schools. The successful construction of Andrew Robinson Elementary school, reconstruction of Kirby Smith, James Weldon Johnson, and John E. Ford schools in the 1990s were positive steps, but the awareness that inner city students generally did less well on FCAT and SAT exams continued to feed community skepticism about the commitment of the school system to inner city kids.

The second example of a slow acceptance of Black achievement and inclusion within the larger community could be seen in the sheriff’s department. After each racial disturbance of the 1960s and early 1970s, Blacks criticized the police for heavy-handed responses. They also criticized the sheriff’s department for the absence of minority officers. Report after report recommended training to improve police-community relations, and the hiring and promotion of more Black officers. It required the threat of withholding federal funds in 1974 to persuade Sheriff Dale Carson to draft an affirmative action hiring plan. At the time, 5 percent of the force was African American in a city with a 25 percent Black population. The only Black chief had no officers assigned to his command. It took until 1987 for a new sheriff, Jim McMillan, to establish and move toward the goal of police officers proportionate to the Black population of the city.  

The local media, especially the Florida Times-Union and the Jacksonville Journal, had their problems, upholding segregation practices long after the Atlanta Constitution and Miami Herald shifted their policies. Initially those local dailies responded to civil rights demonstrations by ignoring them. Subsequently their coverage of disturbances in the 1960s and early 70s was criticized as superficial and sometimes sensational by the African- American community and others. School desegregation policies were treated without the journalistic skepticism that one expects of the Fourth Estate. Investigative reporting on racial issues was rare. As first Blodgett and then Durkeeville public housing facilities faced renovation and replacement, no one asked what happened to the displaced residents. In each case the newer facility housed fewer residents. When LaVilla urban renewal began n the 1990s, no one in the press questioned the absence of affordable housing to replace housing torn down. As inner-city students struggled with their FCATs, the media did not ask what works or does not work, or assess the innovative programs of the Schultz Center.

One could cite other examples of the failure to respond to changing times.   Every mayor since Lou Ritter in the 1960s–Tanzler, Godbold, Hazouri, Austin, Delaney, Peyton, Brown and Curry–has reached out to the Black community. Yet the effort to desegregate the fire department required a court order. Goals for minority hiring at supervisory levels were set but rarely met. Contracts for qualified minority businesses in minority set-aside programs never seemed to match promises. Street paving, sewer construction, drainage, park maintenance, trash collection and street lighting on the north side of the city never achieved the standards of the south side, despite promises made in the city/county consolidation charter of 1967.

Local government made some progress toward equalizing services across the city, especially in targeted neighborhoods. But, when push came to shove, the commitment to reduce property tax rates always seemed to have a higher priority than providing additional services needed in the minority community.

When the Jacksonville Community Council Inc. (JCCI), a local citizens’ think tank, undertook a study of race relations in 2001, participants found that African Americans viewed city government, police-community relations and the school system differently than did white Jacksonville residents. Blacks and whites disagreed about equal opportunity in the job market, the need for continued school integration, and the importance of affirmative action. Meanwhile JCCI’s annual Quality of Life indicators showed that 61 percent of African Americans believed racism was a continuing problem as compared to only 45 percent of whites. Clearly Blacks and whites saw life in Jacksonville quite differently.

(you can read the JCCI report here: https://issuu.com/jcci/docs/02_improving_race_relations)

Other issues included racial profiling at the malls, inner city ballots not counted in the 2000 presidential election, glass ceilings in employment, state funding cuts in programs most affecting at risk children and adults, racial discrimination in mortgage loans and life insurance policies, racial graffiti during the 2003 mayoral election, and disputes over minority contracts in the Better Jacksonville Plan. All of these issues had multiple points of view. Some may not have had consciously racist motivations, but, given the history of race relations locally, it is little wonder that African Americans were critical of each new incident.

Still, there have been successful biracial efforts that should not be overlooked. The formation of the Jacksonville Urban League in the late 1940s resulted from a study initiated by Richard P. Daniel about conditions in inner-city neighborhoods. The consolidation of Jacksonville with Duval County in 1968 under the leadership of Daniel’s son, James Jacqueline “Jack” Daniel and Lex Hester, was another example of interracial cooperation, though the results fifty years later have not fulfilled promises to the Black community for infrastructure development. Still Earl Johnson, Sallye Mathis and other African Americans took part in the deliberations and 60 percent of Black voters supported the consolidation referendum. Following the riots of 1969, the biracial Jacksonville Community Relations Commission undertook a study of conditions on the east side of the city and made significant recommendations. In 1983, Mayor Godbold appointed Bucky Clarkson to chair a study of police-community relations which led to policy changes in police hiring and promotions. Following Judge John Santora’s racist public remarks in late 1991, the Black and white communities came together again to make recommendations to improve race relations.  JCCI’s 1992 study of Young Black Males was another example of biracial cooperation. In each case well intentioned Blacks and whites worked conscientiously together to try to improve Jacksonville’s race relations. Unfortunately, in about half of the cases, study conclusions were never implemented. Other community issues surfaced and took priority.

The news media, too, had their success stories, including the Judge Santora interview which reported the thoughtless racist comments of the chief judge. The media also uncovered racial discrimination in mortgage loans and life insurance policies.

Still, what stood out in 1990 was the report of the Florida Advisory Committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that labeled Jacksonville as one of the most “racist” cities in Florida. A JCCI poll in 1992 showed two-thirds of Jacksonville residents and 75 percent of Blacks saw racism as a major problem across the city.

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 [1991] and Jacksonville the Consolidation Story,  from Civil Rights to the Jaguars [2003]. This article first appeared in the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, “Study Circles Discussion Guide on Race Relations.”

Written by
James B. Crooks

James B. Crooks is professor emeritus of history from the University of North Florida.

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Written by James B. Crooks

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