Divided by color: Jacksonville’s racially segregated past

'We were restricted in where we could go in public places,' historian says

'We were restricted in where we could go in public places,' historian says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On the surface, Jacksonville is a colorful, vibrant city in Northeast Florida where all walks of life come and go and gather where they please. A city where a predominantly Black NFL team brings people of all races together in one stadium to rally behind the same cause.

But, as history has shown, Jacksonville wasn’t always a melting pot of acceptance, especially for people of color. Before desegregation, the city was divided by the color of one’s skin.

To get a better idea of what it was like in 1960, News4Jax visited the Ritz Theatre and Museum in LaVilla to speak with Adonnica Toler, the museum administrator and historian who was born and raised here in Jacksonville. Local history is what she eats, breathes and sleeps.

SPECIAL SECTION: Ax Handle Saturday, 60 years later

During our interview, Toler showed News4Jax the museum’s exhibit of the Woolworth’s lunch counter, where a peaceful protest on Aug. 27, 1960, turned into one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in the city’s history. It’s the actual counter from the store that sat near what was once called Hemming Park.

At the time, Toler said, Black people in Jacksonville could not come and go where they pleased.

“We were restricted in where we could go in public places. If we could go to a place that was owned by someone white, they often required that we go through the back door or only to the window,” she said.

For instance, Black people were only allowed to drink for water fountains designated for them. In some restaurants, they would not be served unless they sat down at a table in the back next to the restroom or did carryout. By Aug. 13, 1960, Black teens began staging sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters after they had been denied service while sitting in the whites-only areas.

“It was a tense time, but a time like, ‘Enough is enough. I’m willing to take the chance. I’m willing to die for it. I don’t want it to be the same,‘” Toler said as she explained the mindset of demonstrators who wanted civil rights and were looking to bring an end to segregation.

The atmosphere grew so tense that by two weeks later, on Aug. 27, violence erupted downtown. A mob of white men, some of them believed to be members of the Ku Klux Klan, armed with ax handles, bats and other weapons, attacked Black protesters following one of the sit-in protests.

The attack, one that Toler says was allowed to happen, would become known as Ax Handle Saturday, one of the most brutal and bloodiest events in Jacksonville’s history.

“When the whites were attacking these children, the police were nowhere to be found. When the Boomerang, which was a gang that made themselves the security for the protesters, [showed up] then the police came out,” she said. “As long as the Blacks were getting beat up, it was okay, nobody worried about it. But when we stood up and was protecting ourselves, then it became an issue.”

Toler also said many young black students who protested had been taught by Rutledge Pearson, an educator and civil rights activist, whose lessons inspired a young Rodney Hurst, who would become the president of the NAACP Youth Council, the group behind the sit-in demonstrations.

“The students had to know the Bill of Rights,” Toler said. “They had to know the Constitution and they had to know how to debate the issue on both sides.”

Civil unrest in contemporary society typically dominates the news cycle, but Toler said the unrest that unfolded 60 years ago during a peaceful protest that turned bloody was not the headline. She said local media overlooked the violence that unfolded on Ax Handle Saturday.

“I would say it was because African Americans were standing up for their rights,” she said. “We’re in the South. They were not going to glorify the protest. Now other media across the country were aware of it -- Pittsburg Courier, News York Times and others. But here, if you go research the Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal, you’re not going to find any major coverage of this movement. There was a small entry that said, ‘Oh, there was a little disturbance downtown today,’ and that’s it.”

“It’s very similar to what’s happening with Black Lives Matter. We have young people who are saying, ‘I don’t like what I am seeing, so I’m doing something about it.’ And this what the civil rights movement was about and that is what Ax Handle Saturday is about.”

So, the next time you are out and about in Jacksonville mingling in places where there is racial diversity, remember the young African Americans whose protests paved the way to end racial segregation, not just in Jacksonville but all across the U.S. where segregation was the law of the land.

About the Author:

Award-winning broadcast and multimedia journalist with 20 years experience.