Before we dive into the multicultural heritage of the city, we first would like to acknowledge that historically, the land we refer to as Jacksonville today occupies the traditional homelands of the Timucua, as well as other historical Indigenous groups. The state of Florida is home to the Seminole, Miccosukee, Muscogee, and Choctaw, and to individuals of many other Native groups. We acknowledge the historical and continuing impacts of colonization on Indigenous communities and will continue work to be more accountable to the needs and history of Indigenous peoples. We encourage all attendees to learn more about the Indigenous people in our community and their way of life, here on their ancestral lands.
Jacksonville is–and has always been–the product of a rich tapestry of vibrant communities representing different geographies, cultures, and experiences. Together, our many communities influence our elected officials, urban planning, and cultural institutions. It is critical that our diverse voices are represented in the plans for our future.
The Gullah Geechee are descendants of Africans who were enslaved along the Atlantic Coast, between Wilmington, North Carolina and St. Augustine, Florida, beginning as far back as the 16th century. Building dense communities in Jacksonville after the civil war, their kinship, heritage and collaboration, made the city an early jazz and blues destination, culminating in 1910 with the neighborhood of LaVilla being the first location in the country where a documented live performance of the blues took place. Today, Jacksonville’s Black population has grown to be home to the largest concentration of Gullah Geechee descendants in the United States.
Twenty million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1890 and 1920. Typically associated with well-known northern and midwestern cities, immigrant groups also found Jacksonville to be an attractive destination to pursue the American dream. Playing an important role in the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire of 1901, these immigrants formed many small ethnic enclaves that have largely taken for granted and demolished over the years.
Considered the gateway to Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba, by the 1870s, Cuban cigar makers found Jacksonville as an attractive location to process Havana tobacco.By 1895, most of Jacksonville’s cigar makers were clustered into two areas within walking distance of Bay Street in LaVilla and the Cathedral District. Home to thousands of Cuban immigrants, José Martí visited the city eight times during the 1890s, to generate enthusiasm and financial support for Cuba’s freedom movement. A combination of Cuban obtaining its independence in 1898 and the growth of Tampa’s Ybor City eventually led to a decline of the city’s budding hand rolled cigar industry.
Between 1850 and 1882, over 300,000 Chinese immigrants entered the United States. In Jacksonville, the Chinese community concentrated in one occupation, commercial laundries, owning seven laundries by 1886 and 79 percent of the city’s commercial laundries by 1920. Settling in an area where they could make a living, a small Chinese community grew along West Adams Street, adjacent to LaVilla’s red light district which was known as “The Line”. This community faced the constant threat of discrimination, including an incident in 1900 where 32 laundrymen were arrested and held in jail, facing deportation until they could prove that they were U.S. citizens.
Many of Jacksonville’s early Greek settlers arrived from Southern Greece and Turkey as sailors from ships that docked along the river during the 1890s. A stretch of West Bay Street between the new passenger railroad terminal and downtown wharfs quickly became a preferred location for the city’s turn-of-the century Greeks. By 1910, this section of LaVilla had become known as Railroad Row and home to 49 percent of the city’s Greek population due to Greek fruit market, restaurant and hotel owners employing relatives and others arriving from their homeland.