316-318 and 320-322 Jefferson Street are two of the few remaining houses in LaVilla built immediately after the Great Fire of 1901. By 1914, the identical two family flats were occupied by members of the Safer family. Benjamin Safer was the first family member to arrive in Jacksonville from Lithuania around the turn of-the-century. Safer established the first kosher meat market in Jacksonville and was instrumental in forming the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Israel. B’nai Israel built a synagogue at the northwest corner of North Jefferson Street and West Duval Street, leading to this section of LaVilla becoming an early 20th century Jewish community.

An early Sanborn map illustrating the 300 block of North Jefferson Street in LaVilla.

Benjamin’s brother, Max Safer, who lived at 316 North Jefferson Street, started a business collecting and reselling used bottles and barrels in 1919. In 1961, it was incorporated as Duval Barrel and Bottle. In 1968, the name was changed to Duval Container Company. Duval Container Company continues to operate today in near the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Dennis Street. Another prominent member of the Safer family, late Circuit Judge Louis Safer, resided at different times at 316 and 320 North Jefferson Street. Sarah, the sister of Benjamin and Max Safer, married Morris Fallis, owner of a dry goods store, and occupied 316 North Jefferson Street from 1913 until 1922 or 23.

The former location of the Hotel George Washington.

Public directories indicate the block transitioned to Black community around 1933. The first Black tenants were employed as Pullman Porters at the train station and waiters and cooks at the George Washington Hotel. Developed by Robert Kloeppel, the Hotel George Washington opened its doors on December 15, 1926 with Mayor John Alsop, Governor John W. Martin and former Governor Cary Hardee in attendance. At the time, the 13 story building was the largest and most magnificent hotel in the city and the nation’s first one hundred percent air-conditioned hotel. Famed guests over the years included Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and the Beatles in 1964. Once owned by mobster William “Big Bill” Johnston, the hotel closed in 1971 and was razed and replaced by a surface parking lot in 1973. Today, the block is occupied by JEA’s new headquarters complex.

A Pullman Porter exhibit at the Pullman National Monument and State Historic Site in Chicago.

Founded in 1925 with Jacksonville’s A. Philip Randolph as its president, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was the first African American-led labor organization to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). At the time, the Pullman Company was one of the largest single employers of Black people in the country. With as many as 10,000 men belonging to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Pullman Porters fueled a growing Black middle class population in Jacksonville. With LaVilla being the location of the largest passenger railroad station south of Washington, D.C., the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was very influential to the rise of A. Philip Randolph emerging as a Civil Rights leader.

Another couple identified as Black in 1933 was Dr. Habbeed and Eddie Allah. Habbeed Allah was born in Egypt in 1890. Residing at 322 Jefferson Street, Habbeed was identified in the 1935 census as an herbal doctor. Wife Eddie was listed as a healer. Surviving Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance plan which leveled most of the neighborhood, today 316-318 and 320-322 Jefferson Street live on as a reminder of the impressive residential architecture and density that once dominated the streets of LaVilla.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com. Research by the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office and Ennis Davis, AICP