Former State Senator Arnett Girardeau passed away Thursday at the age of 88. The Jacksonville native was one of the first African-Americans to serve in the Florida Senate since reconstruction.
Many Jacksonville elected officials, including school board member and former city councilman Warren Jones, say Girardeau was instrumental in paving the way for minority representation in the city.
“Girardeau grew up in a time when there were no black elected officials in Jacksonville,” Jones said.
Girardeau served in the House and Senate in the 1970s and 1980’s, but Girardeau was involved in politics long before that.
Although Girardeau was a dentist, Jones said it was obvious his heart was in the Civil Rights movement and being a community organizer. You could see it on his office walls which were covered in district maps, Jones said.
“He’d leave a patient in a chair and sit down and talk with you about strategies and issues that confront the black community,” according to Jones.
Jones was 28 years old when he was first elected to a Jacksonville city council minority district in 1979, after losing an election in 1974. Jones ended up serving a total of 28 years as a council member. He said he doesn’t know if that would have happened if Girardeau hadn’t taken him under his wing.
“We made the yard signs by hand and laid them out to dry,” Jones said. “It was a very grassroots type of campaign.”
Jones said he won a seven-way race that year only having raised $1,800, but he knocked on doors all day long.
“I wore out two pairs of shoes,” he said.
Girardeau’s political help extended to many others, including Betty Holzendorf.
“I was the first female senator from Jacksonville,” she said.
She was also a state representative. But before holding state office, she was a school teacher. She said Girardeau got her fired up over Civil Rights. He was a mentor and she called him Doc.
“Doc would meet with us and talk about the importance of not sitting back, being quiet and getting things done,” she said.
She said he had a way of gathering people for marches and protests. This was around the time African Americans were fighting to integrate restaurants downtown and protesting colored and white water fountains.
“I did my first march with him where we marched down to Hemming Plaza,” Holzendorf said. ”I was scared to death. He provided comfort that everything was going to be fine.”
She said he encouraged her to take a position as the Affirmative Action Officer with the city, then she was elected into the legislature and she said he taught her how to read and understand bills.
Arnett Girardeau would go on to be elected to the state senate, where he became president pro Tempore in 1988 - the second highest ranking official in the upper chamber.
Holzendorf says he was instrumental in getting Martin Luther King Day recognized. Jones says if Girardeau hadn’t fought for the renumbering of City Council districts, there probably wouldn't be two minorities on the Duval County School Board today. School Board members each represent two council districts.
“Senator Girardeau’s commitment to serving the people of Jacksonville, and the state of Florida, is unparalleled,” U.S. Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.) said.
A visitation will be held at the Ebenezer United Methodist Church from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM on November 3, 2017.
In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be made to the Howard University School of Dentistry Scholarship Fund.
Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.