While it may not look like much, the 1.5-acre James Weldon Johnson Park has a lengthy history as Jacksonville’s oldest park.
The park has been in existence as long as the city of Jacksonville, having been designated as City Park in founder Isaiah Hart’s plans. His family officially transferred ownership of the park to the city in 1866.
In 1869, it was renamed as St. James Park in honor of the newly-constructed St. James Hotel. That name would last almost exactly thirty years as more hotels popped up in the surrounding area.
In 1898, a massive Confederate monument was installed in the middle of the park by Civil War veteran Charles Hemming. As a result, the park was renamed in his honor the following year.
That monument would famously survive the Great Fire of 1901, while almost everything else around it burned to a crisp. The park and its surrounding area gradually retook shape, with a rebuild of the Windsor Hotel and the iconic St. James Building popping up within a decade.
As the city rebuilt itself, Hemming Park became surrounded by retail – at a time before suburban malls when retail thrived downtown. Shoppers would cross through the park to visit stores like May Cohens, Sears, and more.
All was well with Hemming Park for a while – until it became the backdrop for perhaps the ugliest incident in Jacksonville history.
Over a period of a few weeks in August 1960, racial tensions flared as Black students and activists held sit-ins at lunch counters in the department stores surrounding the park. It all culminated on one horrible day of violence, now known as Ax Handle Saturday.
A crowd of over 100 older white men – some members of the local KKK chapter – attacked students and activists during one of their sit-ins, wielding axe handles and baseball bats. Police officers sat back and watched, jumping in only when Black residents began fighting back.
The hideous display was broadcast across America, and even racial integration at the park a few years later couldn’t help it shake the incident.
It didn’t help that foot traffic was declining significantly in downtown due to department stores moving elsewhere as well as “white flight” in response to Black residents becoming integrated.
In the early ‘70s, the city came up with a master plan for reviving downtown that would’ve seen elaborate new features such as elevated pedestrian walkways added to Hemming Park. With this vision in mind, and accelerated by a bird infestation that made its trees problematic, the park was renovated to remove all “park” aspects from it, turning it into the mix of brick and concrete that it is today.
To reflect the major change, it was renamed Hemming Plaza.
But the rest of the master plan never came to fruition, including the additional upgrades to Hemming Plaza. Instead, the area continued to decay, and the growing number of empty storefronts began to attract vagrants.
The plaza was given very little attention for the next decade or two. A Skyway stop was added in the ‘90s, but it was mostly as a means to extend the system out to FSCJ’s downtown campus.
Finally, in the early- to mid-2000s, the historic properties surrounding Hemming were restored. The St. James Building became the new city hall building, and MOCA and a new Main Library opened up as well. The plaza also got a second monument, this time dedicated to U.S. Representative Charles E. Bennett who represented the Jacksonville area in Congress for over 40 years.
The 2010s saw the plaza re-designated as Hemming Park, and a nonprofit group called Friends of Hemming Park being formed to help revive it.
So far, the organization has struggled with mismanagement and funding issues but has found some success in bringing events to the park. It also began Charlie’s Café, a weekday rotating food truck café providing lunch options for downtown workers.
In June 2020, the Confederate monument donated by Charles Hemming was removed by the city after years of discussion over its presence in a major city square. Two months later, city council voted to rename the park in honor of civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, one of the most well-known historic Jacksonville residents.
As downtown Jax continues to evolve and come back to life, Hemming Park will surely become a bigger priority. As a centrally-located square, it holds a vast amount of potential.
And one day, it may once again become something that could actually be described as a park.