Jacksonville’s legacy of resistance

The black passenger waiting room at the Jacksonville Terminal in 1921. At its height, the Jacksonville Terminal was the largest train station south of Washington, DC. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

With 57% of its population African-American in 1900, Jacksonville contradicted modern ideas of what a southern city was like in the early 20th century. Home to the largest concentration of Gullah Geechee descendants in the country, James Weldon Johnson once called it the most liberal town in the South, that it was regarded as a good place for African-Americans throughout the country.

This would change with the enforcement of Jim Crow era segregation and discrimination over the next few decades. While our modern day experiences may limit our perspectives, the boycotts, protests, and riots below prove that the fight for equality and social justice has continued for well over a century now. Instead of being shocked or continuing to make excuses as to what is taking place now, let’s do the things necessary to finally embrace true equality and inclusiveness for all.

1. The Streetcar Boycotts of 1905

Streetcars running down Bay Street during the first decade of the 20th century. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

In 1901, the City of Jacksonville passed an ordinance that segregated the local streetcar system. Immediately, the city’s African-American community elected to boycott the entire system until the ordinance was overturned. Although most of resistance was organized and peaceful, there were reports of violence when attempts were made to stop the operation of streetcars. These reports included firing shots through streetcar windows and threatening conductors. Opposed to segregation and placing his sons in situations where they would be treated inferior, Asa Philip Randolph’s father ordered that his sons either walk or ride bicycles around town instead of Jim Crow streetcars. While the ordinance was not overturned, law enforcement was not strictly enforced as a result.

Not only did the African-American community boycott, it established its own streetcar system, the North Jacksonville Street Railway company, which took pride in only having black motormen and conductors. This development made national headlines, with the New York Evening Journal reporting that “The Negroes of Jacksonville believe in self help” and had demonstrated this by putting their money together and building a street railway of their own in which “there is not a white man in the company.” The system did permit whites to ride.

Things would change in 1905 when the state of Florida mandated streetcar segregation through the passage of the “Avery Streetcar Law.” Jacksonville’s local African-American community immediately launched one of the most effective boycotts in Southern history. After local minister Andrew Patterson, intentionally subjected himself to arrest on July 19, 1905 for riding in the white section of a streetcar, his attorney, J. Douglas Wetmore, filed a writ of habeas corpus. Wetmore, a childhood friend and business partner of James Weldon Johnson, argued that the Avery Law violated the 14th Amendment on the basis that it allowed black nurses taking care of white families, rights denied to other blacks.

As a result, the Avery Law was declared unconstitutional just one month after being enacted. Unknown to most, the suit was secretly funded by the streetcar companies to end costly boycotts in Jacksonville and Pensacola. Briefly successful, the quick defeat of the Avery Law resulted in a flurry of new Jim Crow laws throughout the South, ultimately leading to the Great Migration a decade later.

An excerpt from the Dixie newspaper identifying what the local establishment thought of African-Americans during the era of the Jacksonville streetcar boycotts. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.

2. Ax Handle Saturday

Reporters talk with Alton Yates and Rodney Hurst during the first sit-in demonstration, August 13, 1960. Images from the Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Sr. Papers.

In 1960, witnessing successful sit-in campaigns in North Carolina, Rutledge Pearson and the NAACP Youth Council launched a series of sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters throughout downtown Jacksonville. On Saturday, August 13, 1960, the first demonstration was led by Rodney Hurst and 82 students. After three weeks of peaceful demonstrations, Jacksonville’s discriminatory community moved to bring the demonstrations to an end, instead of working to integrate the city’s public facilities and improve economic opportunities for its long disenfranchised African-American population.

On August 27, 1960, members of the Klu Klux Klan and White Citizens Council armed themselves with ax handles, baseball bats, and golf clubs to attack the peaceful sit-in protesters and any other African-American they could find. When the attacks began, Jacksonville’s police force was conspicuously absent. Former Sheriff Nat Glover recalled himself running to the police for help, only to be told to leave town or risk being killed. The tables were ultimately turned with an African-American group known as the Boomerangs armed themselves with guns, knives, sticks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails fought back.

“You had groups who were the prodding groups and then there were those who were the demonstrators. The demonstrators would take the abuse and the prodding groups would not take the abuse and would not allow you to abuse the demonstrators.”

Source: Arnett Girardeau, a former activist

The Boomerangs’ involvement and the fear of fighting taking place in suburban neighborhoods led the police to finally get involved. They ultimately made 62 arrest, 48 of whom were African Americans. Of the 14 white people arrested, some were protesters like Richard Charles Parker. An FSU student, Parker was arrested by the police and charged with vagrancy, disorderly conduct, and inciting a riot. He ended up with a 90 day jail sentence after telling the Judge he was a proud member of the NAACP.

The day would become known as Ax Handle Saturday. The sit-ins would ultimately be successful, with downtown Jacksonville’s lunch counters starting to integrate the following year.

Charlie Griffin, a victim of the violence in Jacksonville on August 27, 1960, being escorted by police. This image, taken by a Life Magazine photographer, has been commonly reprinted in retrospectives on Ax Handle Saturday and has become one of the best known images in Jacksonville history. Image courtesy of the Florida Historical Society.

Bartley, A. (1999). The 1960 and 1964 Jacksonville Riots: How Struggle Led to Progress. The Florida Historical Quarterly, 78(1), 46-73. Retrieved May 31, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/30150542