Seeking economic prosperity and independence, following emancipation, my ancestors were involved in share cropping, turpentine, railroad labor, truck farming and phosphate mining as they migrated from the Carolinas and Georgia into Florida following the end of the civil war and into the 20th century. Common characteristics of family members during this southward pattern of migration included hard work, effort, determination and being proud of who you are and where you’ve come from.
Following the foundation laid before me, like my parents, older brother, uncles, great uncles and cousins, I attended Florida A&M University, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. A direct legacy of the individuals highlighted in this presentation, I was honored when the Durkeeville Historical Society reached out to ask if I’d be willing to talk about the work of early black architects in Jacksonville. Without their hard work and determination to succeed in spite of racial discrimination, I personally would not be where I am today.
To better understand the story of Jacksonville’s early black architects, it is good to first have a general image of the early development pattern of the city’s African-American neighborhoods. Although Jacksonville was incorporated as a city in 1822, its historic African-American neighborhoods came to life following the end of the Civil War. Occupied at times by United States Colored Troops from former plantations along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, after being mustered out of service in 1866, many settled on the outskirts of the city to take advantage of economic opportunities involving the railroad, lumber and maritime industries.
Three of those early communities, LaVilla, Brooklyn and Oakland (the Eastside), were places of initial concentration for the former enslaved seeking to build a new life locally.
By the end of the 1880s, Jacksonville had grown from a city of 2,500 residents during the civil war to approaching 20,000 with the majority of its residents being of African-American descent, living in neighborhoods such as LaVilla, Brooklyn, Oakland, Hansontown, Campbell Hill, West Lewisville, Silvertown, Drysdale, Durkeeville, North Burbridge, Campbellton and East Greeleyville.
The investments of railroad tycoons Henry B. Plant, Henry Flagler and their contemporaries were a major reason for Jacksonville’s rapid growth and popularity with Gullah Geechee descendants. Due to their streetcar and railroad investments, Jacksonville became Florida’s “Gateway City” employing thousands of freedmen transforming its early African-American neighborhoods into destinations for late 19th century black culture, religion, entertainment and enlightenment.
For example, along with a large red light district known as “The Line”, Patrick Henry Chappelle helped foster an environment that eventually led to LaVilla later becoming a dominant Chitlin’ Circuit destination. The son of former enslaved Gullah home construction laborers, Chappelle opened the South’s first black owned theater in LaVilla’s red light district in 1898. Two years later, a proficient banjo, guitar and piano player himself, Chappelle established the first traveling vaudeville show owned and operated by an African-American in LaVilla. Headquartered in LaVilla, The Rabbit’s Foot Company became the largest employer of black entertainers and musicians in the country, earning Chappelle the description of being called the black P.T. Barnum.
This early 20th century era played a significant role in the careers of many well known black entertainers and musicians including Ma Rainey (Mother of blues), Jelly Roll Morton (self proclaimed father of Jazz), Blind Blake (King of fingerpicking guitar), Perry Bradford (Black Bottom dance), Frankie Manning (Father of the Lindy Hop dance). A major highlight took place at the corner of Broad and Ashley Streets when the first published account of blues singing on a public stage occurred at the Colored Airdome on April 16, 1910.
The age of black enlightenment experienced locally emerged internationally due to the Great Migration. Large numbers of working class African-Americans, who had prospered during the rebuilding of Jacksonville after the 1901 fire, were beginning to leave the region. By 1916 recruiters from two northern railroads, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central were successfully drawing black workers away from Jacksonville due to economic conditions, white militancy, and Jim Crow laws. Many sons and daughters of our black community flocked north to larger cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit. In fact, Augusta Savage, James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston and A. Philip Randolph are all Jaxsons who relocated to Harlem, becoming major influencers of what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. Instead of us referring to ourselves as the Harlem of the South, Harlem should be called the LaVilla of the North.