JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood was once its own city, where African Americans flourished and prospered. But when the area became part of Jacksonville in 1887, it struggled to keep its identity.
LaVilla was considered a safe haven for freed Black residents because many Union soldiers remained in the area after the Civil War and literally protected the community.
LaVilla was nearly wiped out in Jacksonville’s great fire of 1901, but from the ashes rose a part of downtown that eventually would become part of the Black renaissance.
Former Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover vividly remembers, when he was just a child, moving on up to the newly built, segregated A.L Lewis Elementary School. The LaVilla neighborhood was his foundation, where he learned to play football and eventually earned a scholarship to attend college.
“All of the kids in the neighborhood met there. There was a lady who was over the park called Miss Hightower, and she kind of kept us in line,” Glover recalled.
Glover was born in 1943, 15 years after the opening of The Ritz, when the neighborhood was a hub for Black culture during the segregation era.
“It was Ashley Street that had the theaters. It was The Strand, it was The Globe and The Frolic theater. They had restaurants and hotels. LaVilla, at one point in the ’20s, had 600 Black-owned businesses,” historian Carol Alexander said. “Most of them were on Ashley Street.”
Alexander, founding director of American Beach Museum, remembers when the LaVilla area was known as the Harlem of the South. Musicians and writers would travel from New York to Jacksonville because this was the spot to be.
“The lights never went off on Ashley Street in LaVilla, and they would jam here. They would stay in people’s homes or the two segregated hotels, and then they were off to places like Chicago and New Orleans,” Alexander said. “But here, oh if you were at The Strand tonight and The Frolic was still rolling, you go and you jam there.”
It’s easy to close your eyes and visualize the prosperity from the time, but when you open your eyes and see what’s left …
The old Stanton High School -- where the principal was James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the Black national anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” -- now sits empty and falling apart.
Down the street was the club where famous singer and song writer Ray Charles performed, but the building is now an empty shell.
For some, LaVilla was the dream. It housed a train station, had water access to transport goods and the streets were filled with thriving African Americans -- until the area started to decline around the start of the Civil Rights era.
In the ’70s, the Union Terminal shut down and by the ’80s, LaVilla had a new reputation -- for dilapidated buildings and crime.
“It’s painful visually. It’s painful for the legacy of African Americans in this community. It’s painful for the memory of the great education that came out of here,” Alexander said.
There have been efforts over the years for revitalization. In the ’90s, Mayor Ed Austin launched his grand River City Renaissance plan. The Ritz Theatre was restored as part of the project.
Alexander was the founding theater director at the time. She it was a start -- but there have been many stops. For example, plans to create a monument, known as “The LaVilla Experience,” fell through and were abandoned.
“I think the plan disappeared or somebody squashed the plan because we should be here by now, but we are constantly restarting and restarting and restarting,” Alexander said. “But I think now is the time that it will change, I do feel now is the time of change.”
Change is happening -- starting with the new courthouse, condos and JTA building.
There’s a level of optimism, but still, as you look through the shiny and new, you can see the struggle right in the midst -- like the tent city filled with people who have no other place to live.
“But when I looked on the street right here and I see, at my age, the struggle and the passion that I have about Black folks and the passion that I have about change and I see that -- it makes me confused, but when I see you telling a story – it gives me hope,” Alexander said. “That’s the difference in the generations.”