Jacksonville is a city with a rich collection of history, so it’s only natural that the city has given birth to some fairly important people over the years.
We’ve compiled short biographies about five people from Jacksonville who played pretty important roles in local – and even American – history.
A PHILIP RANDOLPH (1889 – 1979)
Civil rights activist A Philip Randolph was technically born just outside of Jax, in Crescent City, FL. Two years later, in 1891, his family would move into Jacksonville.
Randolph was raised in the hostile environment of the post-Civil War South, but defied the odds to graduate high school as class valedictorian.
After graduation he moved north to New York and became active in politics, working as a union organizer defending Black shipyard workers. He successfully negotiated increased wages and shorter workweeks for thousands of employees.
Randolph soon became known as one of the country’s most prominent Black activists. Like many of his fellow activists, he believed in organized, nonviolent civil disobedience as a primary agent of change.
A movement led in part by Randolph was largely credited with bringing about the Fair Employment Act that barred racial discrimination within the defense industry, and he later played a role in President Truman’s executive order barring segregation within the armed forces.
Later in his career, Randolph and his allies partnered with fellow civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize rallies in several key cities. This ultimately culminated in the 1963 March on Washington, a plan Randolph had proposed as early as 1941.
The work done by Randolph and his fellow activists would lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
Because of his impact on the civil rights movement, Randolph has several memorials honoring him in his hometown. A. Philip Randolph Boulevard is named for him, as well as A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology.
ALAN STEPHENSON BOYD (1922 – )
Our country’s first Secretary of Transportation began his life in Jacksonville, FL.
Alan Stephenson Boyd was born in Jax on July 20, 1922. He attended the University of Florida prior to joining the Air Forces, and would later receive a law degree from University of Virginia.
Boyd’s area of expertise was transportation, and he quickly climbed the ranks of the country’s top transportation officials. He served on the Civil Aeronautics Board under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, working to aide advancement in air travel.
Boyd served on a committee that lobbied for the creation of the Department of Transportation as a unified department overseeing all of the country’s transportation operations. This included the Interstate Highway System, which was still in its infancy at the time.
The department established by Congress in 1966, and Boyd was named the first-ever Secretary of Transportation.
Boyd’s passion project was the advancement of commuter rail. Following his two years at DOT, he went on to a successful private-sector career in the railroad industry, including a stint as the president of Amtrak.
Boyd released an autobiography in 2016, and now lives in Washington as the oldest surviving former U.S. Cabinet member.
PHILIP DON ESTRIDGE (1937 – 1985)
Philip Don Estridge, the father of the IBM PC, was born in Jacksonville and even graduated from Bishop Kenny.
Estridge began his work with computers in the Army, where he designed a computer-based radar system. He was then hired by IBM, a business computer corporation. There, Estridge was first tasked with leading the development of the IBM Series/1, a mini-computer intended for industrial use. While the machine was used by several prominent organizations, including the U.S. government, it was internally regarded as a failure.
Estridge would get a second chance, though, as he was placed in charge of the development of a new IBM personal computer. It was the company’s first attempt at a consumer product. While rivals like Apple had developed consumer-level computers, they were regarded as expensive and difficult to use.
The IBM PC, under the direction of Estridge, was developed in just 12 months. In a major reversal of usual IBM production, Estridge brought third-party hardware and software producers into the fold, allowing for compatible products to be made easily and thus allowing for a better user experience.
The PC was an overwhelming success – although still not quite affordable for middle-class families. The base model of the original IBM PC sold for just over $1,500, and featured 16kB of RAM but no floppy-disc drives or monitor. The full-featured model went for $3,000 and included a floppy drive and monitor, plus 64kB of RAM.
It would set the standard for the PC market, which was then in its infancy. And Estridge quickly became a legend in the technology world, with Apple’s Steve Jobs even trying to poach him away from IBM with a giant contract.
Estridge stayed on at IBM and was promoted to vice-president of the company’s manufacturing division before his tragic death in an airplane crash.
His impact, however, lives on today as PCs have become a multi-billion dollar industry based on the example his project set.
EARTHA M. M. WHITE (1876 – 1974)
Eartha Mary Magdalene White was one of the most important figures in helping Jacksonville’s poor and homeless populations – but you’d probably recognize her mom’s name before you’d recognize hers.
Eartha was born in Jacksonville as the daughter of a former slave, but would later be adopted by a kindhearted woman named Clara White.
Eartha White would go on to graduate from Stanton High School, then joined a music conservatory in New York. However, she found herself back in Jax soon and was driven by the desire to help those in need – something she learned from her adoptive mother.
White’s first project involved successfully convincing a local donor to provide land and supplies for the construction of a public school for Black children in the Bayard neighborhood of Jacksonville. White served as a teacher at the school, then went on to teach at Stanton as well. An active local political figure, White also protested alongside fellow Jax resident A. Philip Randolph when Randolph was fighting racial discrimination by employers.
But this was just the beginning of White’s work to help those in need.
In the early 1900s, White began the process of establishing the Clara White Mission. White’s adoptive mother had been feeding her disadvantaged neighbors for years, but under Eartha’s leadership the operation grew into a full-fledged agency aimed at providing for those in need.
When Clara White died in 1920, Eartha continued to grow the organization, providing aide and job training to homeless residents as well as residents who had just been released from jail.
Over the years, White was responsible for several community initiatives, such as the establishment of Oakland Park as Jacksonville’s first public park for Black residents.
She also operated an assisted-living home for elderly Black residents and collected photographs and historical documents that are still displayed in the mission’s building to this day.
White passed away in 1974, but Clara White Mission continues as one of Jacksonville’s most crucial organizations for helping homeless and disadvantaged residents.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN LEWIS (1865 – 1947)
While A. Philip Randolph fought for the working rights of African-Americans, fellow Jax resident Abraham Lincoln Lewis fought for another important African-American cause: the right to relax.
Lewis accrued a fortune as one of the co-founders of Afro-American Life Insurance Company, which helped provide life insurance policies to Black residents who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Under his leadership, the company grew rapidly and even expanded into Georgia. Lewis became the state’s first Black millionaire.
Lewis wanted to use his fortune to improve the lives of Black residents. He first founded a country club for Black residents, before opting to undertake a much larger project.
Lewis bought up 200 acres of land along the Atlantic Ocean in Nassau County. By 1935, this land became American Beach, an ocean-side vacation spot for African-Americans. Due to Jim Crow laws, it was essentially the only beach where Black residents were allowed, and thus it became a massively popular vacation destination for Black families. The surrounding area became a lively collection of restaurants and nightclubs.
It was pitched as a place where Black residents could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” Families came from all around the country to vacation at American Beach.
Lewis passed away in 1947, and traffic at the beach eventually declined once Jim Crow laws were finally done away with for good. However, thanks to the efforts of Lewis’s own great-granddaughter MaVynee Betsch, American Beach is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.