JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The city of Jacksonville is full of history and one woman’s mission is to make sure the city’s Black history is highlighted and remembered.
Yolanda “Yollie” Copeland said it’s her mission to make sure Black history here in Jacksonville isn’t forgotten.
The South Florida native retired from law enforcement nearly a decade ago and is a self-proclaimed history buff.
After retiring, Copeland started a tour company called “Explore Jax Core” which takes passengers through what she calls the four pillars of the Black community — events that helped shape Jacksonville.
“I go on a lot of tours and they’re whitewashed, to be quite honest,” Copeland said. “I’m a descendant of the American Slave Experience and I’m really proud of that.”
She starts her tour at James Weldon Johnson Park, the site of Ax Handle Saturday, where white men terrorized Black protesters in 1960.
“This is that period of the civil rights movement where the youth from all the cities around the United States were involved and they were engaged,” she said.
Copeland even uses props like an ax, so tourists can imagine the brutality of that moment in time.
Copeland then stopped by the former Hansontown neighborhood, home of the historic Bethel Baptist Church, the oldest baptist church in the city.
“It is definitely one of the most important stops, because in the Black community because the Black church is the foundation historically,” she said. “There weren’t community centers. There weren’t any halls that you could rent. Every function was held in the church.”
Driving through different neighborhoods, there is also a reminder of the city’s segregation. For many cities across the country, Black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods were separated by railroad tracks.
In Jacksonville, Copeland said it was Hogan’s Creek.
“Hogan’s Creek. We’re at the top of Hogan’s creek. The railroad tracks for the sake of the tour, behind us is the Black neighborhood. It’s been erased. In front of us, we got historic Springfield. Alive, well and thriving,” Copeland said.
A stop along her tour also includes the Sugar Hill neighborhood, home to many prominent Black Americans.
“Have you ever driven down St. John’s Avenue? That’s what Sugar Hill was. That’s what 8th Street was for the African American community here in Jacksonville,” Copeland said.
It was home to two of Florida’s first Black millionaires — businessman Abraham Lincoln Lewis and architect Joseph Blodgett.
The location on 8th Street is now the home of UF Health.
“This tower right here, that is where the residence of A.L. Lewis once stood. A 22-room mansion. Those two millionaires took up the entire block, this short block. Between Jefferson Street and Illinois and there’s no marker. There’s no semblance of a community,” Copeland said.
Copeland reminds tourists that this neighborhood was destroyed following the passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, with the construction of I-95.
“Imagine 8th Street lined with houses that looked like this. And that’s what 8th street was for the Black community. It was a prominent corridor for the wealthiest citizens in the city of Jacksonville,” Copeland said.
The final stop of the tour — one of the only memories of what the neighborhood used to be — was the home of AME Church Bishop Henry Tookes.
“This is actually the last mansion from Sugar Hill,” Copeland.
“It is now the property of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority. They acquired the property in the 1970s.”
These moments, and memories, are the reasons Copeland makes this journey through the River City nearly every day.
“It’s so important because we helped to build this city, we helped to build this state, we helped to build this nation. I think it’s just as important that our history is told,” she said.
Each tour is about two hours and Copeland makes 10 stops throughout the city. Many of the stops don’t have any markers to indicate how prominent these locations used to be.
That is one of the reasons Copeland is so passionate about sharing Jacksonville’s Black history.