JACKSONVILLE — Just after 6 p.m. Monday, chants rang out from James Weldon Johnson Park. Black fists waved in the air as cheers and claps mobilized the crowd that had gathered downtown for a rally against white supremacy.
“Black lives matter!” they yelled from underneath trees that provided little shade from Florida’s summer heat.
It had been two days since a white gunman killed three Black people at a Dollar General in New Town, just a few miles away. And only one day since the anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday – an attack on a civil rights protest that rocked the city 63 years ago.
Nykia Jackson, 27, stood toward the back of the rally, clad in all black, waiting for her friends to arrive.
Saturday’s shooting made it hard for her to feel like Black people in the city have progressed.
“We have a constant weight on our ankles,” she said. “No matter where we go we have to carry this burden. We always have to think of our color.”
For decades, racial tensions have lingered in this city that sits in Florida’s northeast corner. It’s a city with storied involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, but decades of segregation have left deep divisions that are exacerbated by the rhetoric of modern-day politicians that fuels racist ideologies. Some Black residents attribute Saturday’s attack, in part, to both the rhetoric and attacks on teaching Black history.
The 21-year-old gunman traveled 40 miles from his home in Clay County, Florida, to Jacksonville’s predominantly Black neighborhood of New Town, developed in the early 20th century for railroad and industrial workers. Security guards drove him off the campus of Edward Waters University, the state’s oldest HBCU, minutes before he took the lives of Angela Michelle Carr, 52; Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19; and Jerrald Gallion, 29.
Though Gov. Ron DeSantis called the shooter a “scumbag” and a “hateful lunatic” at the community’s vigil on Sunday, many people were angry DeSantis didn’t call the shooter a racist as other elected officials did following massacres in Buffalo and Charleston. Weeks prior, DeSantis defended whitewashing the existence of racism in the state’s education curriculum by saying that some Black people benefited from slavery.
“The blood is on your hands,” someone yelled to the governor.
A Historic Hub for Black Culture
A.J. Crane, 39, said the days since the shooting have been sobering. Crane, a former teacher born and raised in Jacksonville, went to middle school a few blocks from where the shooting took place.
Survivors of Ax Handle Saturday – a Ku Klux Klan-led riot on Aug. 27, 1960, that began when a white mob beat Black protesters with ax handles for sitting at a Woolworth’s lunch counter – attend her church. All the protesters wanted back then was equal rights and peace.
“I hate that this is still what we’re marching for,” said Crane.
Black history and culture were all around her as she grew up. Crane remembers her grandparents reminiscing about a time when the community had its own small version of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street. The Jacksonville community was destroyed in the city’s 1901 fire. The neighborhood, LaVilla, once brimmed with successful Black, middle-class families, said Sharon Wright Austin, professor of political science at the University of Florida. It “was considered to be an area that was sort of like the Harlem of New York,” Austin said.
Thousands of Black families were left homeless by the fire. And LaVilla, much like Tulsa, never fully recovered. Still, historians say the city’s rich Black culture continued to thrive, especially through citizens whose work would propel them to the national stage.
Author Zora Neale Hurston lived in Jacksonville from 1904 to 1914, when she briefly went to Florida Baptist Academy boarding school and experienced racism for the first time. Those years inspired Hurston’s essay “How it Feels to be Colored.” A. Philip Randolph was a civil rights activist who grew up in Jacksonville. He founded the country’s first Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925 and was one of the original organizers of the 1963 March on Washington – the 60th anniversary occurred on the same day as the Dollar General shooting.
Eartha M. M. White grew up in Jacksonville and became a philanthropist and humanitarian. Some of her work included leading the 1919 voter registration drive that boosted the number of Black women voters statewide and opening Oakland Playground, the first park for Black people in the segregated city. James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson were born and raised in Jacksonville where their years there inspired them to write the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900.
“They called Jacksonville sort of this mecca of intellectual and cultural development that was unique to this area,” said Abel Bartley, 57, who was born and raised in the city and now is a professor of history at Clemson University.
Migration Bringing Change
Since 2010, the city has become a new mecca for Black families returning to the South after decades living in Northern cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this migration. Jacksonville is among the top four metropolitan areas across the country that have received the most new Black residents, and the region’s Black population has grown 10 times as much as its white population, according to a Capital B analysis of U.S Census Bureau data between 2010 and 2021. Jacksonville and its surrounding county, Duval, is about 30% Black, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
But the city remains as segregated today as it was in 1991, according to a 2021 UC Berkeley study – the 60th most segregated city in America – even though housing, employment and public accommodations laws loosened after the civil-rights era. Duval County started desegregating schools in the 1960s and were under court-order to bus Black students to all-white schools, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Bartley remembers being bussed in the 1970s to an all-white school miles away from home. He didn’t hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” inside a classroom until the eighth grade, when another student recited it as heckles of monkey noises echoed from their white classmates. And it wasn’t until he enrolled into Florida State University that he learned about Ax Handle Saturday.
Most of Bartley’s early Black history education came from his family who lived in a section within a predominantly white neighborhood called Arlington, located east of downtown Jacksonville. His father and uncle served in World War II, another uncle was a Tuskegee Airman and several of his relatives have been members of an Emancipation Proclamation committee that hosts annual celebrations.
Bartley uncovered a lot he hadn’t known about Jacksonville’s history as he researched his first academic book, “Keeping the Faith: Race, Politics and Social Development in Jacksonville, Florida, 1940-1970.” Among other things, he learned that one predominantly Black high school was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest – the first grand wizard of the Klan.
After decades of the Duval County school board declining to change the name, in 2013, they unanimously decided to rename it Westside High School. The switch from the board came after a Change.org petition was launched by a Black father who had moved his family to the area from New York. The petition received over 160,000 signatures – a sign of a community on the brink of change.
Political Rhetoric Quashing History
Despite the demographic changes, Florida is still a Republican state with a history of Republican leaders and policies that have made national headlines in recent years.
Certain aspects of history including the Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow laws have been administratively kept out of Florida’s K-12 public schools. DeSantis urged his hand-picked members of the state’s board of education to create new rules banning critical race theory and the 1619 Project curriculum. As a result, many teachers feel powerless to teach Black history without the fear of being fired.
But Jolita McCray, a 76-year-old Spelman graduate and Jacksonville resident, says that, given the climate, the Black community has to take responsibility for educating the next generation.
“It’s on us. I don’t depend on the school system,” she said, thinking of her grandchildren. To know their history “will give our children and young adults a better sense of who we are.”
And DeSantis isn’t the only culprit responsible for quashing full American history lessons, said Paul Ortiz, 59, an author and professor of Black and Latinx history at the University of Florida. Ortiz remembers educational professionals telling him that “Florida children are not ready to talk about civil rights or slavery until they’re seniors in high school or maybe college.”
“It’s frankly the entire state of policies and power system has been reoriented or kind of returning to the orientation of saying we’re going to stop any discussion of inequality. We’re gonna stop any discussion of hate crimes or racism, except insofar as it leads to a headline,” said Ortiz, author of “Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.”
Neal Jefferson, a 27-year-old local activist, started teaching in 2019, just before the pandemic. As a middle school history teacher, “all I really know is chaos and learning to survive within, and even in some cases control, the chaos,” he said.
When the state’s Stop WOKE Act — which bars educators from teaching anything that could cause “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” based on identity — took effect last July, Jefferson was shocked. He packed up the Black history books on his shelf. The irony, he thought. “I felt personally slighted,” he said.
In August, he was part of a rally staged in response to Florida officials moving to require schools to teach that slavery was beneficial to Black people. Almost every day, he hears from Black folks wanting to leave the state because they say the climate is creating a perfect storm for racist hate crimes like the Dollar General shooting. It breaks his heart, he said.
“I want to stay and fight for my home.”
Climate and environment reporter Adam Mahoney contributed to this report.