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. 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 One: Jim Crow
The history of Jacksonville Race Relations is really two stories in one. First are the attempts of African Americans to achieve the American dream after Emancipation, to enjoy their lives with healthy families, decent homes, good schools, working in safe communities.
The second story is the resistance, and too often grudging acceptance, of African American progress by the white majority. The whites built systems of discrimination in work, schools, housing, health care and criminal justice based on their experience with slavery, the teachings of their families, and the influences of their religious, educational, business and political leaders.
In 1860 slightly fewer than 1000 people of color lived in Jacksonville, Florida, 90 percent of whom were slaves. (The town’s total population was 2,118.) A decade later, the Black population had quadrupled to almost 4000 freed men and women, 57 percent of the city’s population. Blacks remained a majority of Jacksonville’s population until the First World War.
Most Blacks arriving in Jacksonville were probably young, able bodied, and willing to work. Some had skills as housekeepers, cooks, carpenters, masons or shoemakers. But most were unskilled, manual laborers seeking work in construction, on the docks or in sawmills.
Housing was a challenge. Daniel Dustin Hanson, a surgeon in the U.S. Colored Troops which had occupied Jacksonville at the end of the Civil War, purchased land north of town (today FSCJ’s downtown campus), and sold or leased parcels to men from his regiment and other Blacks. Francis F. L’Engle, a prominent lawyer and former slaveholder, acquired a portion of the LaVilla plantation west of town, which also provided land for Black settlement. L’Engle incorporated the village of LaVilla in 1869 and governed with a multiracial council until LaVilla’s annexation into Jacksonville in 1887. Still the influx of newcomers exceeded the housing supply.
Literacy was a priority for Blacks. Under slavery, laws prohibited teaching slaves to read, though some did learn. Many of the discharged Black soldiers who settled in Jacksonville learned to read in the service. In 1869, the Freedman’s Bureau provided land for building what became the first public school for Blacks, Stanton Normal or Graded School. Black children attended during the day, and Black adults attended at night.
Jacksonville changed rapidly after the war. Rebuilding downtown, re-opening the port, and reviving tourism provided employment for both Blacks and whites. Over time Blacks started small retail businesses, became police and firefighters, worked in construction, nursed the sick and elderly, opened churches, read law, became doctors and formed labor unions. Within a generation Blacks had formed political organizations, partnered with white Republicans and in 1887 elected five Black city council members. Attorney Joseph E. Lee became a municipal judge and collector of customs for the port of Jacksonville, one of the power brokers of the Republican Party. In later years James Weldon Johnson could write about the 1880s in Jacksonville as a city regarded by Blacks “as the most liberal town in the South.”
Young African-American adults in Jacksonville like Eartha White (age 25 in 1901) and James Weldon Johnson (age 30) had parents either born slaves or born during the time of slavery. They were one generation removed. The accomplishments of these parents and their children were amazing. Between 1865 and 1900 Duval County established free primary education for Blacks and they comprised half the student enrollment. Lacking public high schools, Jacksonville’s African American community with outside help established four private secondary schools (Edward Waters College, Florida Baptist Academy, Cookman Institute and Boylan Haven School for Girls). By 1900, according to census reports, 86 percent of the African American population was literate. Only 35 years earlier state law had banned teaching slaves to read.
James Weldon Johnson’s father was head waiter at the city’s most deluxe hotel, the St. James. His mother taught at Florida Baptist Academy. After finishing high school and college in Atlanta, Johnson returned to Jacksonville, becoming principal of Stanton School. He read law and became the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar. He also briefly published a weekly newspaper. While principal at Stanton, he expanded the curriculum to include secondary studies, making Stanton the first Black public high school in Florida. This was some twenty years before Atlanta opened its first Black public high school.
But Johnson wasn’t the only achiever. Eartha White, daughter of a mother born a slave, became a schoolteacher, nurse, businesswoman, social worker and political activist. She revitalized the dormant Colored Old Folks Home (later the Eartha White Nursing Home), opened Clara White Mission to feed the homeless, and successfully lobbied for new parks and schools in the Black community.
Just before the fire of 1901, five Black community leaders, including A. L. Lewis, organized the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, which became a major economic institution over the next fifty years. Shortly after the fire, with help from the Methodist church, community leaders opened Brewster Hospital (forerunner to Methodist and UF Health Jacksonville) to serve the Black community. Other residents started pharmacies, groceries, restaurants, saloons, funeral parlors, bicycle and furniture repair shops and even two small banks. Workers built churches, worked on the railroad, unloaded ships and labored in lumber mills. The number of doctors, lawyers, teachers and clergy also increased. Black Jacksonville was not wealthy, but as Johnson wrote upon his return home from a diplomatic post in Nicaragua in 1913, the city had become “a bustling, go-getter… boom town.” He heard stories from African American friends and saw evidence in the new automobiles and fine homes built in the Black community. He concluded, “I could not help but be infected by the enthusiasm, prosperity and opportunities around me.”
Unfortunately, there was another side to the story of Black progress. White attitudes toward Blacks were hardening in the city, across the state, regionally and nationally. A belief in white supremacy had always existed, but when Johnson first wrote about the 1880s and 1890s, there was frequently a generous paternalistic attitude that encouraged Johnson to read law and pass the bar. The forerunner of the United Way hired Eartha White as a social worker to assist poor Blacks in the community.
That generous attitude changed. It began at the state level in 1885 with a new state constitution requiring a poll tax which effectively excluded poor Black and white voters. In 1887, the Democratic state legislature suspended Jacksonville’s city government with its majority of Black and white Republicans until such time as election districts could be re-drawn to ensure a more conservative white Democratic majority. It continued in 1900 with the passage of a white Democratic primary law barring Blacks from voting for candidates of the party in primary elections. In a state where that party dominated in general elections, the prohibition meant that Black voters had no say. In 1907 city council further re-drew council district boundaries to exclude all Black representation. It segregated street cars, saloons, theaters and other public accommodations. It also eliminated Black police and firefighters, restricting city employment for African Americans to only the most menial jobs. Black attorneys challenged the changes taking place, but the courts ruled against them.
Official Jim Crow established an American brand of apartheid by governmental action. It was matched by changing public opinion. Johnson saw it on trips home from New York after he moved there in 1903. He wrote that Jacksonville had become a “100 percent cracker town.” When Johnson returned to Jacksonville after serving as a consul in Nicaragua in 1913, he considered whether to settle here. A white banker friend and patron warned him that if he had never left Jacksonville, it would have been one thing, but to leave and return, he said, “don’t try it.”
When Jack Johnson, an African American prizefighter (and no relation) won the heavy weight championship in 1910, Blacks celebrated the achievement. Whites responded by rioting in the streets, attacking Blacks and destroying their property. White police became notorious for their violence against Black men. And while there were no riots on the scale of Atlanta, Wilmington, N.C., New Orleans, Chicago or Washington, D.C., there was a lynching in 1919. Whites dragged two Black murder suspects out of jail, killed them and tied one to the rear bumper of a car, dragging the body through town as a warning to other African Americans. Additional lynchings followed in the 1920s.
The harshness of Jim Crow lasted through the first half of the 20th century. When Mayor Haydon Burns appointed the first Black police officers of the modern era, they were housed at a separate substation in the old Blodgett Homes public housing project and lacked authority to arrest whites. When the new city hall and Duval County courthouse opened in the 1960s, both had separate Black and white restrooms and water fountains. Conditions in the segregated schools were among the factors in the county’s school disaccreditation in the 1960s. Not only were Black schools physically too small, run down and often dilapidated, but books were hand-me-downs from white schools with marked and torn pages. Desks and chairs were scratched or otherwise scarred. These conditions, however, began to change during the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1950s.
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.”