Did you know that Jacksonville was the hometown of key figures from the American civil rights movement, including A. Philip Randolph, Eartha M. M. White, and James Weldon Johnson? Or that it’s home to the oldest historically Black university in Florida? Did you know about Norman Studios, or that LaVilla used to be so much more than the Ritz Theatre and a bunch of empty fields?
If you didn’t know any of this, you’re not alone. Jacksonville has, for many years, done a very poor job of highlighting its own role in the country’s decades-long civil rights movement that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Monuments to the movement – and the city’s Black history in general – are few and far between, with many only coming about as a result of continued lobbying efforts by local activists. A street is named for A. Philip Randolph, but few locals understand the significance of that name. A park in LaVilla dedicated to James Weldon Johnson sits amidst a sea of empty lots from when the city decimated what was left of the historic neighborhood.
Given the relatively extensive relationship between Jacksonville and the civil rights movement, it would make sense for the city to have its own civil rights museum – a tribute to the local men, women, and organizations that advanced the cause of equality, to be appreciated both by visitors to our city looking to gain cultural context as well as locals who may have otherwise never known these stories.
And there would certainly be no shortage of potential exhibits for such a museum.
As mentioned, Randolph, Johnson, and Eartha M. M. White all spent their formative years here in Jacksonville before going on to play a role in the growing local and national civil rights movements. Randolph’s chief accomplishment was leading the 1963 March on Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital to protest racial discrimination and segregation – and at which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Johnson wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” referred to as the “Black national anthem,” and was the first Black man admitted to the Florida Bar; he also advocated in favor of anti-lynching legislation on a national level. White founded the Clara White Mission and the Colored Citizens Protective League and also aided in the establishment of local hospitals and schools for Black residents. All three would be worthy of extensive exhibits detailing their accomplishments and their time in Jax.
Exhibits that model both Hemming Park and the Eastside could chronicle the story and context behind the city’s racial riots in the ‘60s. The efforts of Brewster Hospital, Stanton High School, Norman Studios, Ed Waters College, and the many other local organizations who worked to provide Black residents with services that they were otherwise denied.
And there’s an almost endless number of local figures who would deserve a mention – if not more – within such a museum. People like Joseph E. Lee, Rodney Hurst, Dr. Arnett Girardeau, Sallye B. Mathis, Mary L. Singleton, Rutledge Pearson, and Nat Glover could be fully honored for their place in the city’s civil rights history.
Where would this museum be located? Well, one of the aforementioned local activists, Rodney Hurst, already has a place in mind: the old Snyder Memorial Church building next to Hemming Park which was utilized as a safe space during the violence of Ax Handle Saturday. Using the old church building would be a win-win for the city, as it has long struggled to figure out how to reutilize the property and it would allow for the creation of a museum without financing a new structure.
The involvement of local activists in the national civil rights movement should be a source of civic pride for Jax residents; instead, the majority of the city’s population only has pieces of the full story. Adding a civil rights museum could be a great first step in changing that reality.