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Historic anniversaries are not just for looking back

Historic anniversaries are not just for looking back

by | Sep 16, 2021

A century ago, Jacksonville was poised for greatness. It began the 1920s as Florida’s largest city and the center of statewide commerce. Jacksonville was the sophisticated, prosperous metropolitan place that people elsewhere in Florida hoped their communities would someday grow to resemble. New homes, churches, businesses, banks, office buildings, civic clubs, streets – more of everything appeared each month, signs of an established society and expanding urban economy.

If we could travel back in time to interview Jacksonvillians in 1921, what might we ask? Here are a few examples of Jacksonville people of that year, and things that would likely have been much on their minds:

Grace Wilbur Trout, 1864-1955. The nationally-known suffragist, fresh from helping to win passage of the 19th Amendment, then co-founded the League of Women Voters. By 1921 she and her family moved from Chicago to Jacksonville. Typically for her, she plunged straight into civic life of her adopted city: “Mrs. Trout, how soon could Jacksonville elect its first woman mayor?”

George W. Simons, 1891-1977. In 1921 he was the State of Florida’s engineer devoted to controlling its mosquito population, and later drew up Jacksonville’s first comprehensive municipal plan: “Could automobiles ever change how people live in Jacksonville?”

A. Philip Randolph, 1889-1979, ultimately a giant of the U.S. civil rights movement and creator of the 1963 March on Washington. Having left Jacksonville in 1911, by 1921, he was a labor organizer, newspaper editor and anti-lynching activist in New York City: “How can Jacksonville be a place where every man and every woman takes the same rights for granted?”

John W. Martin, 1884-1958. In 1921 he was the mayor of Jacksonville, and later became governor of Florida: “Does Prohibition mean a better future for Jacksonville and Florida?”

Time travel fantasies are fun, but historic anniversaries are not just for looking back. They are a chance to look around and at ourselves, and to take stock in a thoughtful way. Likewise, oral history is sometimes about more than preserving memories of the past. It can also capture significant moments to help interpret and understand them in the future. For example, in the days immediately after 9/11, the Columbia University Center for Oral History, the oldest and largest such program in the U.S., interviewed more than 200 New Yorkers about their experience, preserving forever the reactions to a searing event.

Growing our oral history program is a major part of the Jacksonville Historical Society’s plan. We already hold a significant, diverse collection of nearly 150 interviews recorded since 2004 and, since the 2020 launch of our music history project, we have gathered nearly 50 oral history interviews devoted to that topic. Since 2018 we have conducted an annual workshop on oral history best practices, which we will host again this September – to register, click here.

This fall and winter, on the eve of the city’s bicentennial, the Jacksonville Historical Society will record interviews with citizens from across Jacksonville, aiming to capture their sense of where their city stands, and where they imagine it may be going. The complete interviews will always remain accessible to researchers – a gift to the future. We will select responses for inclusion in a 2022 Bicentennial book about Jacksonville to be published next June. To volunteer as an oral history interviewer, email us at communications@jaxhistory.org.

Can you help? To better understand this big city at the beginning of its third century, who should we talk to, and what questions should we ask? Share your ideas and suggestions by messaging communications@jaxhistory.org. To keep up with developing plans for the Bicentennial, visit www.jax200.org or message us at bicentennial@jaxhistory.org.

Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer

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