Presentation by Ennis Davis, AICP is an excerpt from APA Florida First Coast Section’s Planning for Equity & Underrepresented Communities virtual panel discussion held on August 28, 2020.
The story of Jacksonville predates the 1832 incorporation of the city. In fact, during the Civil War, Jacksonville was largely confined to what we now refer to as the historic Downtown Northbank.
During much of the antebellum period, after the removal of the area’s indigenous population, thousands of West Africans were enslaved at Sea Island and St. Johns River plantations where they cultivated crops such as rice, cotton, corn and turpentine. In many local history books, these plantations are described as land grants.
During the Civil War, the Union Army occupied the city, relying heavily on emancipated freedom seekers who were mustered into service in the U.S. Colored Troops. During Reconstruction, these victorious Civil War veterans and others formerly enslaved in the area settled several communities around the town of Jacksonville.
Descendants of West Africans enslaved throughout Northeast Florida, as well as in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, became known as the Gullah Geechee people. Following Reconstruction, two major events would cause the Gullah Geechee settlements of LaVilla, Brooklyn, Hansontown and Oakland to rapidly urbanize.
The first, Plessy v. Ferguson, was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. This 1896 decision became known as the “separate but equal” ruling. In practice, African-American facilities were never treated equally, and the decision upheld the enforcement of Jim Crow laws across the South.
The second event took place in 1901 when the downtown section of Jacksonville was destroyed by fire. While the Great Fire of 1901 was devastating, leaving 10,000 Jaxsons homeless, it did not destroy the city’s Black neighborhoods. Today, many communities just outside of downtown are still home to buildings constructed in the 19th century, predating the fire.
Rapid rebuilding after the fire resulted in Jacksonville becoming Florida’s first city to pass 100,000 residents prior to the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s. In this era, the city was 57% Black, and came to be known as the Magic City to the Gullah Geechee in rural communities across the South, and thousands flocked to its urbanizing neighborhoods.
During the Great Depression, several local, state and federal planning efforts and policies negatively impacted the region’s Black population and neighborhoods. In 1929, Jacksonville became the first city in Florida to adopt a comprehensive planning and zoning ordinance. Created by George W. Simons, Jr., this segregationist-driven plan used Euclidean (or Exclusionary Zoning) practices to force undesirable industrial uses into the city’s Black neighborhoods, in order to foster a better quality of life within other neighborhoods where Black citizens were legally prohibited to live.
A few years later, the National Housing Act of 1934 led to the creation of residential security maps that ranked neighborhoods by the estimated riskiness of mortgage loans. Known as redlining, this discriminatory practice resulted in Black communities being fenced off as areas where banks would avoid investments based on community demographics.