1861-65: The Civil War and Emancipation

U.S. troops in front of the Provost Marshal’s guardhouse at the corner of Bay and Ocean Streets in December 1864.

The Gullah Geechee neighborhood Eastside was platted in 1869 and originally settled by the former enslaved. (University of North Florida)

Though part of Confederate Florida, Jacksonville was a hotbed of Unionist sentiment throughout the Civil War. Many prominent citizens and virtually all African Americans supported the Union effort. Union forces occupied Jacksonville four times through the war, and held the city permanently after February 1864. African Americans in particular played a major role in the Union war effort. Thousands of enslaved people escaped to freedom behind Union lines in Jacksonville as well as U.S.-held St. Augustine and Fernandina. Each escape weakened the Confederates and thousands of freed enslaved joined the fight as members of the U.S. Army and Navy.

Following the war, thousands of Black U.S. troops settled in and around Jacksonville, establishing historic Gullah Geechee neighborhoods like Brooklyn, Hanson Town and Oakland (the modern Eastside). Thanks to the protection of current and former Union soldiers, Jacksonville emerged as a comparatively safe place for African Americans to settle. This reputation remained intact for several decades and Jacksonville saw the rise of a large, vibrant and politically involved Black community. Over the next decades, Jacksonville transformed from a small town into a thriving, rapidly growing city.

1887: Jacksonville’s last stand against Jim Crow

Dr. Neal Mitchell and the Sand Hills Hospital, Harper’s Weekly, 1888.

The Reconstruction era ended in 1877, ending much in the way of formal federal protection and services for freedmen and women. As ex-Confederates and their sympathizers returned to power, the State of Florida passed increasingly repressive Jim Crow laws aimed at curtailing the rights and progress of African Americans. However, in Jacksonville, the Black community had gained enough power and political influence that the city fended off Jim Crow for another decade.

In 1887, Jacksonville annexed several surrounding communities like LaVilla and Springfield. This made Jacksonville a Black-majority city just as the white Democratic elite was working to introduce Jim Crow. In the local December 1887 elections, a coalition of Black and white Republicans and the labor movement dealt a major blow to the establishment in electing a historic progressive government. The coalition took 13 of the 18 city council seats, including five African Americans. African Americans were appointed to various high offices, including police commissioner, city marshal, municipal judge. Progressive white Republican Charles Bristol Smith served as mayor and led an ambitious campaign for reform.

The progressive government was derailed when Jacksonville was struck with the yellow fever epidemic of July 1888. Smith was out of town when the fever broke out and did not return. Eight city council members fled and two others died of the fever, leaving the city government unable to reach quorum. In response, some prominent citizens formed the Sanitary Association to take charge of the city’s core functions. Subsequently, the state government removed the entire City Council and replaced them with appointees who introduced a poll tax and other measures to disenfranchise Black citizens as well as many working class whites. Home rule did not return until 1893, by which time the local elite and Jim Crow were firmly established. Not until the 1960s did African Americans again begin to see the level of representation they had won in 1887, the year Jacksonville stood firm against Jim Crow.

1901: The Great Fire

The remains of the St. James Hotel north of what’s now James Weldon Johnson Park after the Great Fire of 1901.

By the turn of the 20th century, Waldo W. Cleaveland had become quite the local businessman as the proprietor of the Hotel Geneva, Cleaveland Furniture Company, and the American Fibre Company in LaVilla. Located at the northwest corner of Beaver and Davis Streets, the American Fibre Company manufactured bed springs and mattresses.

It was here on May 3, 1901 around noon, a spark from a small wood-burning stove would set ablaze Spanish moss laid out to dry at Cleaveland’s factory. Eight hours later, 146 city blocks, 2,368 buildings and seven lives had been lost, resulting in nearly 10,000 homeless Jaxsons. Known as the Great Fire of 1901, the fire was the largest metropolitan fire recorded in the American South, with a black plume of smoke being seen as far north as Raleigh, North Carolina. It was also the third largest urban fire in American history behind the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Chicago Fire of 1871. While a major disaster, Jacksonville would never be the same again as the rebuilding effort transformed the city into Florida’s first city to surpass 100,000 residents.