‘The Harlem of the South,’ other glimpses of Jacksonville’s past

A recap of our coverage from The Morning Show’s special at The Ritz

Ritz Theatre after restoration (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As part of Black History Month, News4Jax has shared local stories about the Civil Rights movement, segregation, Black leaders and Black-owned businesses in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia.

Black history is all of our history, and News4Jax is committed to bringing you stories about our diverse communities beyond February.

Only through understanding our past can we build a better future for our community.

GALLERY: The Ritz Theatre & Museum in LaVilla

On Tuesday, The Morning Show presented special live coverage from the Ritz Theatre & Museum in LaVilla called “Our History, Our Future.”

‘Harlem of the South’

We began with an inside look at what was once celebrated as “The Harlem of the South,” the current LaVilla neighborhood of Jacksonville.

You might not know the area was once its own city and was a very prosperous area for members of Jacksonville’s African-American community.

LaVilla flourished but became part of Jacksonville in 1887 -- struggling to keep its identity.

It was nearly wiped out in the fire of 1901, but eventually became part of the Black renaissance.

Once its own city, a very prosperous area for Jacksonville's African-American community.

Plans are already in motion to re-energize the area and bring it back to its former glory with a project called The Emerald Trail.

In a few short months, the groundbreaking on this decade-long project kicks off.

It will feature a boardwalk, new greenery, and better pedestrian and bicyclist access with a 14-foot-wide concrete area for active and passive recreation.

Learn more about the history and future of LaVilla

The Emerald Trail will break ground in the coming months and will add 30 miles of biking/walking trails, link 16 schools, two colleges and 21 parks.

Diamond in the rough

We also explored Jacksonville’s ties to the Negro League, where baseball greats such as Hank Aaron came up to bat at a field in the city’s historically Black Durkeeville neighborhood.

One of the original Negro League teams, the Jacksonville Red Caps, played on the field in 1938.

In 1953, the Jacksonville Braves, a farm team of the Milwaukee Braves, took over the field, now known as J.P. Small Municipal Stadium, and new owner Samuel Wolfson introduced major changes, including racial integration.

Learn which other greats graced the field and see historic photos

The stadium saw the dawn of a new era with the Negro Leagues opening the door to Blacks playing in Major League Baseball.

Navigating the Green Book

Imagine fearing for your life just to stop for a bathroom break or to find a safe place to sleep while traveling to visit family.

That was the harsh reality many Black people faced -- especially in the segregated South.

The Green Book served as a survival guide for them, letting them know which restaurants, hotels and filling stations were safe to stop at.

See what local spots were in the Green Book

The Black traveler's guide to finding, hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and more across the country.

Living lessons on Kingsley Plantation

We also took a behind-the-scenes look at Kingsley Plantation, where one woman went from slave to slave owner.

Anna Kingsley’s story is a complex part of over 200 years of living, breathing history preserved on Fort George Island.

Take a journey through time with us

An African-American women who became a slave went on to become a slave owner herself.

Influence of Edward Waters College

You might not realize that Florida’s oldest historically Black college is right here in Jacksonville.

Edward Waters College was founded in 1866 by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to educate freedmen.

It’s now poised to become a university with a graduate program on the horizon.

Hear from notable alumni about the school’s rich history and Tiger Spirit

Highlight the importance of Edward Waters College and the role that it plays within the African-American community.

Is change ahead?

So where do we stand now when it comes to racial equity and justice?

Do some of the social implications from our history still hang over us today?

Race relations expert Dr. Tammy Hodo weighed in, saying she’s not sure our society is ready to have some of the difficult conversations that are necessary.

“It’s going to take a lot of funding, and it’s going to take some honest conversations, and it’s going to take the majority of America to get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations,” Hodo said. “It requires us to be quite frank and quite honest and to listen to people who continue to be marginalized in American society.”

Hear more from Hodo’s interview:

Examining Jacksonville's role in opening the door to racial equity and justice.

Teaching Black history

The History Museum at The Ritz in LaVilla is filled with images and stories of African Americans, the struggles they faced and how they thrived against all odds.

But how many of those stories are taught in history books today?

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene gave us an idea of what’s changed in terms of how we teach Black history in schools and how that’s different from 10 years ago and 50 years ago.

“A lot goes into teaching Black history. Our goal is to move it beyond February,” Greene said. “That Black history is American history. It needs to be integrated into our schools, in grades K-12.”

Hear more from Greene’s interview:

Many lessons about local Black History are not often taught in school. Students however are wanting more of it in their education.
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‘The Harlem of the South,’ other glimpses of Jacksonville’s past at the Ritz Theatre & Museum in LaVilla.

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.