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Little known moments in Black history in Jacksonville

Bessie Coleman poses with her plane in 1922. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In honor of Black History Month, News4Jax is sharing local places and people in the history of our community. Some you likely have not heard about before.

We begin with Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, who in 1921 became the first female pilot of African-American descent and the first African-American to hold an international pilot’s license.

Known to many as “Queen Bess,” she became a media sensation in the United States, making a living as a barnstorming stunt-flier for paying audiences.

During this era, the present-day location of Paxon School for Advanced Studies was the site of one of Jacksonville’s earliest airfields, Paxon Field.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman was in Jacksonville to perform an airshow at Paxon Field with her recently purchased Curtis JN-4 (Jenny). Her mechanic and publicity agent, William Wills, flew the plane while Coleman sat in the other seat.

Roughly 10 minutes into the flight, the plane made an unexpected dive and Coleman was thrown from the plane, falling 2,000 feet to her death. Unable to regain control of the plane, Wills also died upon impact as the plane burst into flames.

Later it was discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had slid into a gearbox, jamming it. At the time of her death, Coleman was 34 years old.

Dr. Arnett Girardeau served in the Army and attended Howard University, where would ultimately earn his doctor of dentistry. He went on to serve in the Florida House from 1976 to 1982 and in the Flordia Senate from 1982 to 1992.

But before all that, Girardeau was a civil rights pioneer in Jacksonville. He witnessed Ax Handle Saturday in August 27, 1960, when a mob of white supremacists assaulted African-Americans during NAACP-led sit-ins near Hemming Park (renamed James Weldon Johnson Park after the Confederate statue was removed last summer).

Girardeau was elected to represent Jacksonville in the Florida House from 1976 to 1982 and the Florida Senate from 1982 to 1992 -- the first African-American elected since Reconstruction outside of Miami.

Girardeau was a founding member of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, the only African-American to have served as Senate president pro tempore and he was inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. His activism in state politics laid the path for many that came after him.

Girardeau died in 2017 at age 88.

Ray Charles is considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time and Northeast Florida played a major role in his career.

Charles attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945. It was there he learned to play piano and where he performed in front of an audience for the first time.

In 1945, Charles moved to Jacksonville and began performing at the Ritz Theatre. He remained in the city for just a year before moving on and taking over the music world.

Charles had 86 hits including the chart-toppers: “Georgia On My Mind, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Hit the Road Jack.” He went on to win 17 Grammys and 10 of his songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Charles is ranked No. 10 Rolling Stones magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

MADISON COUNTY: Ray Charles, the legendary musician of soul music, was born in Georgia, but grew up in Greenville, Fla. The town preserves his childhood home at 443 SW Ray Charles Ave., and has a bronze statue of him at the Greenville park. (Getty Images)

“Blind Blake” was a celebrated blind blues singer and guitarist. Not much is known about him, but Arthur Blake is believed to have been born in either Virginia or Jacksonville in the late 1890s and was raised in the River City.

He reportedly moved to Georgia as a teen and earned money as a street performer.

Blake recorded nearly 80 songs between 1926 and 1932 for Paramount Records.

His distinct sound earned him the title “King of Ragtime Guitar.”

Very little is known about Blake’s personal life, everything from his real name to the cause of his death has been debated.

Copy of the only existing photograph of Arthur "Blind" Blake (believed to have been taken in 1926). (Wikipedia)

Earl and Janet Johnson were leaders of the Civil Rights movement in Jacksonville in the 1960s.

Earl Johnson Sr. was the first African-American to become a member of the Jacksonville Bar Association, and he became known for taking on cases that helped desegregate public places in Florida. His son said that in 1958, his father integrated the Jacksonville courthouse before the end of segregation.

At the time, there were only a handful of Black attorneys in the city. But none of them sat where the white lawyers did. They sat in the gallery section, where the public sat. Johnson’s son said when Johnson walked in, he saw fellow attorney E.W. Perkins and said, “Come on, Mr. Perkins. Let’s go sit where the lawyers sit.”

Johnson represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when King came to march in St. Augustine. King would meet at his house to plan marches in the area. Johnson also helped to free dozens of peaceful protesters who were arrested during those protests.

He also served as chair of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners and was instrumental in the consolidation of Jacksonville’s government. Johnson has a memorial park named in his honor on St. Augustine Road in Jacksonville.

In 2016, he was inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Last year, city leaders began discussing the idea of renaming a local school after the civil rights attorney.

Johnson’s wife, Janet, was also a trailblazer in her own right. She was the first African-American professor at Jacksonville University and was the founder of the “Upward Bound program” at JU.

It serves local low-income and first-generation high school students. The program offers tutoring, college prep classes, college tours and fairs.

She is credited for helping hundreds of first-generation college students achieve their dreams of academic and professional success. After more than 30 years, she retired.

In 2009, for JU’s 75th anniversary, Janet Johnson was honored as one of the “75 Distinguished Dolphins,” for her contributions to the university and Jacksonville as a whole.

Norman Studios is a historic film studio property in the Arlington neighborhood that was founded in 1916 as Eagle Film City.

It’s now the last remaining complex of buildings dating to a time when Jacksonville was a leader in the silent film industry.

The studio was later known as the Richard E. Norman Film Manufacturing Company after it was purchased by Richard Norman, a white man who was among the first filmmakers to break the racial barrier in the motion picture industry.

Jacksonville was an early competitor for the center of the film industry, boasting more than 30 movie studios in 1916.

The “race films” produced by Norman Studios were intended for African-American audiences and starred Black actors in positive, professional roles, such as lawyers, bankers, pilots and doctors.

Some of the more notable films produced by Norman include “The Green Eyed Monster,” “The Flying Ace,” and “The Bull-Dogger.”

Norman Studios is the only preserved film studio in the nation that once specialized in silent films starring African-Americans.

In 2016, the state designated Norman Studios as a National Historic Landmark. The city is working to restore and reopen the complex.

There will be a panel presentation on “Race Films” at 11 a.m. Feb. 17. You can register for the online event by going to NormanStudios.org

On Feb. 21, you can watch “The Flying Ace” at 2 p.m. The 1926 film was inspired by stunt pilot Bessie Coleman.

Before becoming an Olympian and NFL star Jacksonville Native “Bullet” Bob Hayes went to Matthew Gilbert High School where he played football and ran track.

He went to Florida A&M University on a football scholarship and was also on the track and field team.

Hayes was one of the fastest college athletes at the time. While at FAMU, he never lost a 100-yard or 100-meter competition.

He broke a number of track records, earning him the nickname “Bullet.”

During his senior year, Hayes competed in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

He won two gold medals in the 100 meters and the 4x100-meter relay. Hayes’ performance earned him the title “World’s Fastest Human.”

He went on to play in the NFL as a wide receiver for the Cowboys from 1965 to 1974. During his first two seasons, he led the NFL in receiving touchdowns, combining for 25.

He was also a part of the 1971 Super Bowl-winning team.

Hayes was inducted into the Black College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 1964, the first Bob Hayes Invitational Track and Field Meet was held in Jacksonville.

During the first year, only the five Black local high schools participated, and Northwestern High won. Now, every year, the top high school athletes from around the country compete for the top prize.

Thousands of runners from hundreds of schools -- some as far as Ohio -- come to the River City.

On March 20th, the 56th Annual Bob Hayes Invitational Track and Field Meet will be held at Raines High School.

Locally, he also has a park named after him. The “Bob Hayes Sports Complex” on Soutel Drive opened in April 2000.


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