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Descendants Of Slaves Work To Preserve Jacksonville Community Heritage

Ryan Benk

New historical markers along Fort Caroline Road in Arlington are commemorating an all but forgotten African-American community in Jacksonville.

A group of committed volunteers refuse to lose hope in a renaissance for the area previously called Cosmo.

On the side of the road that runs along the St. Johns River, historian Eugene Francis admired a new sign decorated with a multi-colored, trisected circle. The three sections are stamped with the words “Educate, Preserve and Develop.”

“This is specific to Cosmo,” Francis said.

More than a century ago, freed slaves known as the Gullah Geechee people settled here and up the East Coast. Their communities, like Cosmo, retained a traditional African culture.

But today’s neighborhood, Fort Caroline, is barely recognizable to Gullah descendants.

Between two townhome developments a few hundred feet away from the Cosmo welcome signs, the Rev. Ethel Delores Demps sat on the front porch of her ranch-style house.

“The properties that were down there — I don't want to say, "taken," but, you know, they were taken advantage of. They were older people. They didn't know,” Demps said.

She says after a few decades of building their community, the Gullahs attracted the gaze of developers, who saw prime riverfront real estate.

Credit Ryan Benk / WJCT News
One of four signs welcoming people to what was once the freed slave community of Cosmo, Florida off Fort Caroline Road.

“Back in the day, you know, you didn’t make much wages. You didn’t have much wages hardly, and whatever they gave them, that’s what they took,” she said.

Behind Demps’s home, down a dirt road, nestled between a wooded area and more housing developments, sits the Palm Springs Cemetery.

Demps and Francis walked there, taking care not to step on graves.

“All these people we knew,” Demps said.

“Yep. I’m familiar with that one,” Francis said, pointing to a grave of a WWII veteran. “I’ll have one one day.”

“Yeah, we all will. Hopefully,” Demps said.

At the cemetery, generations of Cosmo residents are buried.

But there’re generations more they can't pay their respects to because their final resting places are now private property. Demps says it’s just another cultural casualty of the area.

“We were talking about in our organization trying to hire an attorney to check that out and give us a right to go and visit our loved ones down there,” Demps said. “But we don’t know how to start doing that, and we know it would be very expensive to even try.”

Demps is part of the Jacksonville Gullah Geechee Cultural Development Council, the group behind the new historical markers. 

She says technically, families of the deceased can still visit their graves, but historian Eugene Francis says you have to prove you’re related, and that can be difficult with the often incomplete genealogical records of former slaves.

“This story plays out several times throughout the region all the way from Jacksonville to North Carolina to St. Augustine,” Francis said.

Still, Francis and Demps say they haven't stopped fighting. For their next project, they’re working on striking a deal with city officials to build a museum here in Cosmo. 

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.