The city of Jacksonville has seen dark times in the past. It’s seen Civil War battles, it’s seen the entirety of its downtown district wiped out by a fire, it’s seen another tragic fire in an overcrowded hotel, and so on.
But nothing quite compares to the sheer ugliness and shamefulness of the events that happened here on August 27, 1960 – now better known as Ax Handle Saturday.
Around the middle of August, the youth council of the local NAACP chapter – led by Rodney L. Hurst – began organizing sit-ins at department store lunch counters surrounding James Weldon Johnson Park – then known as Hemming Park, in honor of a former Confederate soldier – in downtown Jacksonville. Sit-ins had become a trend among non-violent Black protestors, with the basic formula being repeated successfully – and without violence – in several other cities. Progressive white residents often joined or supported the sit-ins as well.
The young protestors were denied service – as was customary at the time – and were subjected to plenty of verbal abuse from onlookers, but for about two weeks, the protests went on without major incident.
On the 27th, that would change dramatically, very quickly.
Hurst and his group of around three dozen protestors were conducting sit-ins at lunch counters at Woolworth’s and Grant’s when a group of around two-hundred white men – some of whom were thought to have affiliations to the Ku Klux Klan – surrounded them.
Wielding ax handles and baseball bats, the mob of angry white men began beating the protestors – and any Black people they happened to come across on their rampage.
The city’s police force, which at the time was inundated with KKK sympathizers, more or less sat back and watched the violence, telling Black residents that asked for help to leave Jax and not come back.
The police would finally get involved when a local Black gang stepped in to protect the victims. They launched into action to arrest the Black gang members and other Black residents who were trying to help.
The victims successfully sought shelter inside the nearby Snyder Memorial Church, which was also home to subsequent meetings between city officials and civil rights leaders.
The whole spectacle was chronicled by several major news outlets including Life magazine. Jacksonville briefly became the face of racial violence, earning the city a national reputation for ignorance and backward thinking that it’s still struggling to shake to this day.
In the aftermath of Ax Handle Saturday, the city and local activists worked together to end the practice of segregation at local counters, bringing about the end of a boycott on downtown businesses that had been enacted following the riot.
A placard stands in James W. Johnson Park commemorating the moment as a major civil rights era event.