The Many Lives of Viola B. Muse

by | Apr 17, 2022

The Jacksonville Historical Society has a long history of teaming up on meaningful projects with the University of North Florida. One such project currently underway is the Viola B. Muse Digital Edition. For over a year, UNF’s Digital Humanities Institute has been digitizing and transcribing our collection of papers accumulated by Muse during her employment with the Federal Writers Project division of the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. The Negro Unit was located at the Clara White Mission on Ashley Street, and it was run by Zora Neale Hurston.

As a fieldworker, Muse documented the stories of the formerly enslaved and other members of the community. She also wrote biographical sketches and essays on local Black history and culture. The collection is a significant one for the JHS, as it contains original notes and documents created by Muse prior to submission to an all-white editorial board. Until recently, little else was known about Muse’s multifaceted life, but this project has uncovered a fascinating snapshot of the woman.

Viola Walker was born in Alabama in 1898 to William and Annie Walker, but moved to St. Lous with her family when she was very young. This is likely where she met her first husband, Priestly Leonard Mullins. Mullins was a graduate of Howard University and a pharmacist. The two moved to Nashville and established a beauty school known as Vole College, while attempting to market a hair treatment product Mullins developed. The story gets a little murky here, but some legal entanglements with Mullins’ brothers, who were stockholders of the college, seems to send them to Jacksonville, where Mullins dies at a young age in 1920. His grave can be found in Old City Cemetery.

In 1922, Viola married John P. Muse, a local attorney whose office was in the Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge on Broad Street. Viola is also listed there as a hairdresser and selling hair treatment products. Whether it’s the same product her late husband developed is unclear, but she and John Muse did register a patent for it in late 1922. The two never had children but they do adopt a girl named Patricia in the late 1950s, who in turn gives them a grandson named John Priestley Muse. Both Patricia and her son are now deceased, leaving no living descendants.

After her time with the Federal Writers Project, Muse ran a Jack and Jill Kindergarten out of her home on Steele Street. Muse passed away in 1981 but is remembered even today for her many contributions to the community.

The Jacksonville Historical Society is extremely grateful to UNF for taking an interest in highlighting Muse’s work, and we’d like to especially thank Dr. Laura Heffernan, Dr. Tru Leverette, and Dr. Clayton McCarl for their tireless efforts. These valuable partnerships help us all tell a more inclusive story when interpreting our history.

Mitch Hemann
Archivist, Jacksonville Historical Society

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