5. Assassinated Universal Negro Improvement Association leader lived in Jacksonville

Laura Adorkor Kofi was born in Ghana around 1893. Her father was said to have been a king in the British West African coast. It is said that Kofi began hearing voices and visions, which was God calling on her to help Africans in America. Kofi soon concluded that it was her mission to travel to America and deliver her message to the African descendants there.

Kofi arrived in the United States around 1918, quickly rising as a national field director for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. In 1927, while living in an Eastside shotgun house, she established the African Universal Church and Commercial League, where she infused the importance of education and economy into her sermons. As Kofi became more and more popular, gaining thousands of followers and becoming a chair with the UNIA, other public speakers at the time became jealous. By the time her involvement with the UNIA ended, she had tens of thousands of followers, many of whom would see her speak at the Masonic Temple on LaVilla’s Broad Street business district.

While she was on the pulpit in Miami in March 8, 1928, an assassin shot and killed Mother Kofi at the age of 35. Although she died in March, Kofi was not buried until August 17, 1928. Huff Funeral Home on Davis Street (pictured) was responsible for her funeral and her body and had to wait for burial instruction from Kofi’s family in Ghana. While waiting for direction, Huff displayed Kofi’s body, charging 25 cents a person to view and pay respects. Eventually, it was decided that Kofi’s body would be interred at Old City Cemetery. Upon the day of the funeral, Kofi’s service had nearly 10,000 attendants who had showed up to pay their respects, with almost 7,000 following her funeral procession.

While Mother Kofi’s story is largely forgotten in Jacksonville, her impact on the African American community was significant enough that there is a small collection of research materials related to her life and works at the New York Public Library.

4. Ida B. Wells considered Jacksonville to have a progressive 19th-century Black community

One of the lost truths of Jacksonville’s storied past is that it was known for having a progressive minority community during the late 19th century. So progressive that it caught the attention of Ida B. Wells in 1892.

Born in Mississippi in 1862, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most outspoken enemies lynching. On October 26, 1892, Wells began to publish her research on lynching in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. After highlighting several lynching cases across the country, Wells concluded her document by using Jacksonville as an example of how self help could overcome lynchings:

“Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves in Jacksonville, Fla., and Paducah, Ky., and prevented it. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches and which every Afro American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

Subjected to continued threats for her outspoken nature, Wells eventually left the south for Chicago where she remained active in both the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, becoming the most famous black woman in early 20th century America.

3. Booker T. Washington was almost lynched in Jacksonville

One of the founders of the National Negro Business League and key proponent of African-American businesses, Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856 – 1915) was a dominant leader in the Black community during the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the Tuskegee, Alabama-based Washington visited Jacksonville several times, his 1912 trip may have been the most colorful.

In 1912, Washington conducted a Florida tour, visiting Pensacola, Tallahassee, Lake City, Ocala, Tampa, Lakeland, Eatonville and Daytona Beach before concluding the trip in Jacksonville on March 7 and 8. Washington’s visit to town was arranged by the Jacksonville Negro Business League, led by several influential African Americans including Joseph Blodgett, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Charles Anderson, Lawton Pratt and William Sumter. Arriving by special train from Daytona Beach, Washington visited several schools and points of interest and attended a banquet in Old Fellows Hall. He also gave a speech to 2,500 citizens at the Duval Theatre.

At the time, a local African American man had been accused of a crime. In fear of a lynching possibly taking place, Washington was encouraged to cancel his stop in Jacksonville. Nevertheless, he came and on the way to the Duval Theatre, an automobile in his entourage was stopped by a crowd of angrily White men who demanded that Washington be handed over to them. When it was discovered that he was not in the car, the men allowed the driver to go without harm. Later, at the Duval Theatre, Washington urged African American residents to buy as much land as possible, get rid of immoral leaders, denounced lynching and appealed for better race relations.

2. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass takes Springfield by storm

“We have always learned in our schools that the one who gave liberty to our country was George Washington. The one who will always be known as the savior of his country is Ulysses S. Grant. But we have one of our own race who… is as great as the greatest–one who carved his way from darkness into light. This man is Honorable Frederick Douglass!”

This is what Joseph E. Lee had to say about Frederick Douglass right before he spoke in Springfield in August 1889. Born in 1818, Frederick Douglass rose from slavery to become an abolitionist leader and one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing to thousands on a range of causes, including women’s rights and civil liberties in general.

The guest of honor at the Sub-Tropical Exposition, a band played at every station and at every stop that Douglass passed on his train ride to Jacksonville. By the time he arrived in town, over twenty thousand gathered to hear the inspiring orator speak, dwarfing the eight thousand in attendance at the Confederate veterans union that would take place across the street in 1914, leading to the renaming of that space to Confederate Park. According to The Florida Times-Union, Douglass was “the most historic character” in the “checkered history” of Black Americans.

Despite the local media’s view and fear of the large African American crowd that came out, James Weldon Johnson was one person in attendance and in total awe of seeing Douglass in person. What stood out to a teenage Johnson was Douglass’ powerful presence and supreme eloquence when addressing criticisms regarding his marriage to Helen Pitts, who was White.

1. The father of Jazz robbed, dumped and gets his revenge in Jacksonville

Tired of traveling with Will Benbow’s minstrel show, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton and girlfriend Stella Taylor quit when they arrived in Jacksonville in 1910. Here she quickly left him for man who he happened to know as a supposed-to-be pool player. Seeking revenge, Morton caught up with his rival at Nick’s Pool Parlor on Davis Street and hustled all of his money out of him.

To soothe his sorrows, Ferdinand purchased a trombone that he used to perform at the Globe Theatre (now Clara White Mission) while living in LaVilla. He eventually went back on the road with Billy Kersands’ Jacksonville-based tent show, gaining the name Jelly Roll Morton. In 1915, his “Jelly Roll Blues” became one of the first jazz compositions ever published. A colorful character also called a gambler, hustler and pool shark, today many jazz historians claim Morton to be the father, or at least a founding figure, of jazz.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com.