Words and images by Blake Allen
When people think black history, they often think of the people whose names are chiseled into memory — names such as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
But the sites where historic events actually occurred are just as important as those who took part in the events. They’re just, often, not as well known.
Throughout the country, these sites hold tremendous significance in the historic journey of black Americans, from slavery to now. Jacksonville is no exception.
While these are not the sum total of historic sites in the city, here are 10 that should be on the list for this city.
10) Catherine Street Fire Station
In 1886, the city of Jacksonville passed an ordinance establishing a paid fire department. During that year three stations were founded, including Station 3, which would be known as the Catherine Street station. This station was originally staffed by four black firefighters. Although the station burned down in the Great Fire of 1901, it was built again near its original location on the 500 block of East Bay Street. Today the station has been moved to Metropolitan Park and serves as the Jacksonville Fire Museum.
9) The Historic Springfield Neighborhood
To the north of downtown Jacksonville is the historic Springfield neighborhood. At one point the city’s wealthiest neighborhood, it was also home at one time to some popular characters in black history, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Olympic champion Robert Hayes. Springfield dates all the way back to 1869, and experienced its most major growth after the Great Fire of 1901 when many of Jacksonville’s residents were left homeless and forced to relocate to the neighborhood. In 2011, Southern Living magazine named Springfield one of “The South’s Best Comeback Neighborhoods.”
8) Norman Studios
Originally built in 1916 under the name Eagle Studios, Norman Studios is a historic motion picture studio in the Arlington area of Jacksonville. The studio was purchased around 1920 by Richard Norman, who renamed the studio Norman Laboratories. Now known as Norman Studios, it is most known for its role in producing popular films with all-black casts in positive roles. Norman was a white man who was saddened by race relations in real life as well as film, so he set out to give the black community a more positive image on film. Eventually films stopped being made here as the movie market moved to California. Today, four of the original five buildings have been renovated and turned into a museum to preserve the history of the studio.
7) Ritz Theatre and Museum
The Ritz Theatre and Museum is located in the former “Harlem of the South,” the once-flourishing black community of La Villa. Originally a movie house constructed in 1929, it was compared in importance to The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It was designed in art deco style by Jacksonville architect Jefferson Powell. After it heyday, the theater and museum went into decline but was restored by the city in 1999. Today the staff aim to the black culture of Northeast Florida and particularly its artistic legacy. Regular concerts, shows and lectures are still held at the theatre.
6) Edward Waters College
Established in 1866, Edward Waters College is the state’s oldest independent institution of higher learning and the first school for the education of blacks in the state. In the beginning, the black community in Jacksonville was plagued by poverty and illiteracy, so the school began to offer education to the community at the elementary, high school, college and seminary levels. The school officially became Edward Waters College in 1892 in honor of the third president of the AME Church. Today, the college enrolls nearly 850 students.
5) Stanton High School
Named after Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Stanton High School was the first school for black children in Florida. In February of 1868, the land Stanton currently stands on was purchased by the Education Society, a group of blacks who lived within the city of Jacksonville. But it wasn’t until December of that year that the first school was built with help from the Freedman’s Bureau. The school was named after Gen. Edwin McMasters Stanton because he was an advocate for free education for black youngsters. Today, Stanton College Preparatory School is regularly recognized as one of the top high schools in the nation.
4) Durkee Field
Now known as J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, it is the last standing historic baseball park in Jacksonville. The original stadium was built in 1912 and was the location of the first football game between the University of Florida and the University of Georgia. The stadium was once home to the American Negro League Red Caps, as well as spring headquarters for major league teams. The present brick stadium was built in 1935.
3) Brewster Hospital
Brewster Hospital was the first hospital in Jacksonville to admit blacks and the first training hospital for blacks in the nation. The current Brewster Hospital building stands at 915 W. Monroe St., where it was relocated in 2005 by the city. The hospital was founded in 1901 and named after an early supporter, Mrs. George A. Brewster. It has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Ironically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hurt the business of the hospital because blacks were now allowed where they weren’t before, including previously whites-only clinics and hospitals. It closed in 1966.
2) American Beach
What was once the only beach in Northeast Florida where blacks could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation,” American Beach today is now only a memory of what used to be in the early part of the 1900s. Founded in 1935 by Jacksonville’s own Afro-American Life Insurance Company, American Beach was the first black resort community in the state. In its heyday, American Beach would be flooded with people from all over the country, regardless of socioeconomic status. Ray Charles and Duke Ellington were among some if its popular visitors. But the most important person in the beach’s history may have been the Beach Lady, MaVynee Oshun Betsch, the great granddaughter of the beach’s founder, Abraham Lincoln Lewis. She is credited with saving the beach from development and ensuring it be remembered as a black landmark.
1) Kingsley Planation
One of the most significant pieces of Jacksonville’s black heritage is the Kingsley Plantation. Zephaniah Kingsley moved to Fort George Island in 1814 to create what is now the Kingsley Plantation. There were about 60 slaves on the plantation in the beginning, who produced Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane and corn. But Kingsley was a paradox, at once a former slave trader and later a staunch fighter for the rights of freed slaves. He presided over a multiracial household that include his black wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, who was said to be royalty from West Africa. He was devoted to his multiracial children and provided them with the best education possible. He revered Anna, eventually putting her in charge of a sister plantation. Upon his death, she presided over his vast estate. The site was bought by the state of Florida in 1955 and transferred to the National Park System in 1991. Twenty-three of the original 32 slave houses remain along with the original plantation home.