The epicenter of black Jacksonville’s upscale community, growth came to Sugar Hill as a part of the city’s rebuilding effort following the Great Fire of 1901. When the original campus was destroyed during the fire, the Cookman Institute, Florida’s first institution of higher education for African-Americans relocated its college campus to the outskirts of town near the intersection of Davis and West 8th Streets. In addition, the North Jacksonville Street Railway, Town and Improvement Company, owned and operated by several prominent members of the black community, began streetcar service to the area which was situated on the top of a hill rising west of Hogans Creek and Springfield.
Bolstered by the Cookman Institute, Duval County Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and Brewster Hospital, the hill quickly became a desired residential location for Jacksonville’s prosperous black community, eventually leading to subdivision names such as Hendersonville, Springfield Heights, West Greeleyville, Highland Heights and College Heights giving way to the name “Sugar Hill”. By the end of the 1920s Florida Land Boom, Sugar Hill’s West 8th Street was lined with mansions and elegant residences of Jacksonville’s black businessmen, attorneys, architects, doctors, educators and other professionals.
Key figures from Sugar Hill’s past include Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Lawton Pratt, Bishop Henry Young Tookes, Joseph Blodgett and A. Philip Randolph. Unfortunately, much of the neighborhood was lost due to the construction of Interstate 95, urban renewal and the eventual expansion of UF Health Jacksonville. With that said, you’ve probably heard a lot about the lost neighborhood of Sugar Hill but we rarely see images of the neighborhood during its heyday. In honor of Black History Month, here’s a few!
Sugar Hill of Yesterday
1. The Jacksonville Belt Railroad was organized in 1886 to connect the Fernandina and Jacksonville Railroad in Springfield to the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Railroad in the Jacksonville Terminal area. Both the Fernandina and Jacksonville and Jacksonville Belt Railroads became Seaboard properties. The Belt Line was removed entirely in the mid 1980’s upon the completion of the new Milldale Junction. Both Lines made up Seaboards Mainline Between Savannah and Jacksonville. Today, this railroad line is known as the S-Line Urban Greenway. (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
2. A look inside Sugar Hill’s Wilder Park Library. Wilder Park was the city’s largest public space for the African-American community during Segregation. Donated by the descendants of Charles B. Wilder, the 30-acre park included a track, baseball diamond, a diamond ball field, community center and branch library. Located at the intersection fo 3rd and Lee Streets, the Wilder Park Library was the Jacksonville Public Library’s first branch. (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
3. Sugar Hill youth enjoy the recreational fields at Isaiah Blocker Junior High School in 1958. Originally known as Public School No. 135, the African-American school opened in 1917 and was one of 12 new schools funded by a $1 million bond issue that Duval County voters passed in 1915. During this era, Rutledge Henry Pearson was an American History teacher at Isaiah Blocker. Pearson was the president of the local NAACP branch and advisor to the NAACP Youth Council. He then became present of the Florida State Conference of NAACP and a member of the Board of Directors for the national NAACP. Because of his activism for equal rights, Pearson was forced out of the Duval County school system in 1964. After his death in 1967, he became the first African-American buried at the formerly segregated Evergreen Cemetery. (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
4. The Abraham Lincoln Lewis residence at 504 8th Street. Lewis was the longtime president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company who also founded American Beach in Nassau County. He was said to be one of the city’s first African-American millionaires.
5. The residence of Bishop Henry Young Tookes at 1011 8th Street. Tookes was known for spreading the Gospel and philanthropy. During his administration at Edward Waters College, the school gained accreditation.