Jacksonville has often seemed less concerned with its history than any of Florida’s other major cities, even though it is the oldest among them. Explaining that is challenging, but the Bicentennial seems a good time to try. After all, this is by far Florida’s largest and most interesting city.
Two hundred years is 20 decades, or approximately eight human generations, measured at 25 years each. Considered that way, perhaps 200 years seems like a short span of time, but Jacksonville’s existence during those two short centuries has been fabulously crowded and eventful. Consider: until the year before they established the place they called Jacksonville, its people had been subjects of Spain. During the Spanish period, free Blacks enjoyed the full rights of citizenship. Soon after the colony became part of the U.S., that began to change. Florida’s newly arriving residents came from slave states such as Georgia and South Carolina. That was also the case for Duval County, but not Jacksonville, where many new citizens arrived from the non-slave states of the North, or from Europe.
By the time of the American Civil War, Florida’s economy had come to depend on slave labor, and its laws aligned with those of America’s other slave states. As historian Daniel Schafer and others have shown, the legislature took Florida out of the U.S. and joined the Confederacy to protect the right of its white citizens to own Blacks, and to ensure that slavery would be legal in the new western territories. But in Jacksonville, a prosperous seaport town with a cosmopolitan population, support for secession was mixed. Discrete pro-Union sentiment lingered through the war, when U.S. forces, seeking to control the St. Johns River, occupied the city during four separate periods, the last ending in June 1864.
In the decades that followed, transportation and immigration fueled Jacksonville growth anew and continued to make it ethnically and racially diverse, particularly compared to other places in the former Confederacy. Increasing tourism introduced Northern visitors to Jacksonville, and vice-versa. In 1898 U.S. troops returned to Jacksonville enroute to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. While bivouacked here, some 2000 “federals” attended the dedication of a Confederate war memorial, which speakers interpreted as proof of final reconciliation between the two regions. Meanwhile, the city was home to luminaries such as Judge Joseph E. Lee, the brothers James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, Eartha White, Abraham Lincoln Lewis and a young Asa Philip Randolph. In 1900, all of those extraordinary Black Americans called Jacksonville home.
The Great Fire of 1901 led to a wholesale reinvention of Jacksonville, fostered by an influx of talented, innovative architects and builders eager to make their mark on what the fire had left as a blank urban canvas. Within a decade the city became modern, and those sophisticated designs and construction techniques remain visible today throughout Jacksonville’s downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods. Their work, and that of later generations, made architectural creativity a lasting part of Jacksonville’s identity.
Jacksonville’s experience of the early decades of the 20th century began to more closely resemble that of other southern cities, but the Great War ignited a surge of growth as workers poured into the city from the surrounding rural counties of northeast Florida and southeast Georgia. Shipbuilding became Jacksonville’s principal industrial employment. Housing shortages and crowded transportation increased even as wealth and population soared. The strains affected Jacksonville’s political culture, resulting in the expulsion of its nascent film industry and the criminalization of alcohol a year prior to nationwide Prohibition. Meanwhile, as everywhere in the South, voter suppression and segregation of Blacks in every aspect of life had become legalized. Predictably, racial conflict escalated in the late teens and early 1920s, with the resurgence of a second Ku Klux Klan throughout much of the United States. Jacksonville’s Community Remembrance Project has documented Duval County’s racial terror lynchings, of which there were, between 1909 and 1925, six occurrences with eight victims. Rising social and political tensions over race continued into the second half of the century, exploding in the summer of 1960 in what became known as Jacksonville’s Ax Handle Saturday.
The Roaring Twenties also saw Jacksonville spread out across surrounding Duval County, with new automobile suburbs such as Venetia and San Jose mimicking the land boom underway in South Florida. Banking and insurance headquarters joined with maritime and rail transportation to cement the Jacksonville as the state’s commercial center and Florida’s most important city – the place that leaders in places such as Tampa and Miami wished theirs could be. In 1924, Henry Ford chose Jacksonville as the site of a 160,00- square-foot vehicle assembly plant for the Ford Model T, employing hundreds of workers at the riverfront factory just east of downtown (which stands today, though now threatened with demolition). Jacksonville’s people built new churches, civic organizations, schools, and highways, plus a new municipal airport, where aeronautical hero Charles Lindbergh landed in 1927 on his victory lap around America.
That is a ridiculously superficial outline of Jacksonville’s first century in six paragraphs. Describing its second century will have to wait for the next edition of “Jacksonville History Matters.” The point is that understanding our past is the only thing that gives us roots, in time or place. The generations who came before us made choices whose consequences we live with every day. Some of us are in Jacksonville today because of those choices, while some are here despite them. Either way, in 2022, the city’s future is ours to shape. That is why its Bicentennial moment matters, and it’s why there is a Jacksonville Historical Society.
To attend June 11’s Bicentennial day activities downtown, you do not have to register ahead of time, but doing so helps ensure that there will be enough volunteers on hand to make you welcome. We hope to see you!
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society