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Green Cove Springs Using History To Build A Future

Credit Ryan Benk / WJCT News
A banner announcing the 14th Annual Soul Food Festival hangs above the entrance of Green Cove Springs City Hall.

This weekend the City of Green Cove Springs is holding its 14th annual Soul Food Festival celebrating African-American culture.

The event began as a way to connect residents to the city’s rich history, one that community leaders are trying to reawaken.

Green Cove Springs Mayor Van Royal stood on the edge of the city’s namesake — a deep, freshwater spring next to the St. Johns River. He said the spring has always been a cornerstone of the city.

Credit Ryan Benk / WJCT News
The spring the City of Green Cove Springs is named after. It feeds into a pool, currently closed for repairs.

“This is what was here 125 years ago,” Royal said. “This is what we were all about. So, we’re very, very fortunate and blessed.”

Like the town as a whole, the park and pool fell into disrepair over the years.

But local historian Eugene Francis remembers when Green Cove was a bustling destination. Quoting African-American author Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Francis reminisced about Green Cove’s once hulking stature.

“As she reached the end of the road there stood Joe with a hired rig. He helped her in it and it set like a high ruling chair. ‘Green Cove Springs!’ he told the driver,” Francis said.

During segregation, Green Cove Springs’ Middleburg Avenue was a center of commerce, art and culture. Dubbed the “black Wall Street,” its shops, hotels and cafes were frequented by some of the most consummate authors and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Francis said.

But integration’s double-edged sword fell swiftly upon the town, and many black business owners relocated — taking customers with them.

City Councilwoman Felecia Hampshire said the area struggled for years thereafter.

“I didn’t really want to take away from the history that it has, but there was a stigma associated with it because of a lot of illegal things going on at that time in certain portions of the city,” Hampshire said.

Despite its checkered recent past, Hampshire says Middleburg Avenue deserves historic recognition. In the early 2000s, she went to every resident along Middleburg Avenue and asked for permission to change the street’s name to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

After that, Francis worked to convert a former city dump into the community park they stood in. Vera Francis Park is where the city will hold its 14th annual Soul Food Festival this weekend, expected to bring millions of dollars to the area.

And city officials are asking for the state’s help to keep the revitalization momentum going. They’re requesting money to refurbish the springs park, build a museum for African American sculptor Augusta Savage and reopen the city’s historic theater. All of which could cost more than $1 million.

The Legislature approved some of that money this year, but Florida Governor Rick Scott vetoed it, along with many other local projects. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.