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Witness: ‘Lot of progress’ since Ax Handle Saturday

'Jacksonville is indeed one of the finest places in the country,' Alton Yates says of hometown

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It has been 60 years since the brutal display of violence now known as Ax Handle Saturday unfolded in downtown Jacksonville.

The unrest happened following civil rights protests, mostly sit-ins, by Black demonstrators who wanted to be served at lunch counters in downtown alongside white citizens. The day, Aug. 27, 1960, got its name because a crowd of white people armed with ax handles and other weapons showed up to stop the demonstrators.

One local man who was there and remembers the violence firsthand was Alton Yates, a fourth-generation Jacksonville resident who’s been a civic leader since he returned to Jacksonville from the military in 1959.

“Just about the time we got seated at the lunch counter they spotted us,” Yates recalled. “And they came in with their baseball bats and ax handles and they started beating on us. Fortunately, we were able to get out through a side door. I was struck in the back of the head while I was seated at the counter.”

Sit-in at Woolworth (Rodney Hurst Collection)
Sit-in at Woolworth (Rodney Hurst Collection)

Yates, who’s remained involved with various civic organizations over the decades, said a major push for Jacksonville in the years following Ax Handle Saturday was the integration of schools and housing.

Yates now lives on Ribault Scenic Drive, which used to be an all-white neighborhood. He said federal housing laws were passed in the 1960s that allowed black Americans to move into any home they wanted to purchase without discrimination. He said officials began desegregating public schools in the early 60s, which included Ribault and Raines high schools in Northwest Jacksonville.

“Ribault High and Ribault Junior High — those schools were built for the white kids who lived in the Lake Forest-Ribault neighborhood where I lived,” he said. “And just across Moncrief Road, which was like four blocks away, William Raines High School was built for blacks only.”

Another voice we spoke with about this movement was Emily Lisska, president of the Florida Historical Society and former executive director of the Duval County Historical Society.

“Finally by 1963, you had a situation where about 13 students, African American students, were integrated into five white schools,” Lisska told News4Jax, noting that other civil rights issues came to light in the 60s.

Among them was in 1964 when the Beatles were slated to play a concert in Jacksonville at the Gator Bowl, now known as TIAA Bank Field. The concert was initially slated to be segregated but the Beatles refused to play to a segregated crowd and eventually the concert promoter relented.

Yet another issue involved Jacksonville’s consolidation in 1968. Lisska said there were differing views on this issue, but one belief is that a motive behind merging the city’s government with Duval County’s was keeping Jacksonville from electing its first Black mayor.

At the time, Earl Johnson was a prominent Black attorney who sat on the City Council. Some speculated that he could have become the city’s first Black mayor, decades before the city elected Mayor Alvin Brown in 2011.

“Some people question was that done in order to keep a Black mayor from getting into office?” Lisska told News4Jax. “Many question whether that was done because the votes would have swayed that way if there wasn’t a consolidated government with expanded city limits.”

Since all the developments in the 1960s, Yates said he has seen great improvements for the African American community in Jacksonville. He said he believed it was a great place to live when he moved back in 1959 and he continues to feel the same way to this day.

“I was just happy to say after 60 some odd years, I was not wrong. Jacksonville is indeed one of the finest places in the country you could live. We’ve made a lot of progress. We still have problems, a number of problems, but I believe if those problems can be solved anywhere, they can be solved here in Jacksonville.”


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