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Great Fire’s Impact On Jacksonville’s James Weldon Johnson

Tuesday marks 115 years since a fire destroyed 146 blocks of Jacksonville. The inferno began at a LaVilla mattress factory on the corner of Beaver and Davis Streets.

The fire not only destroyed the city, but marked a turning point for one of the city’s African-American leaders, James Weldon Johnson.

Credit Florida Memory
Jacksonville's James Weldon Johnson

Ritz Theatre and Museum historian AdonnicaToler said before the Great Fire, Jacksonville was a mecca, “the” metropolitan city in Florida.

The train station, now the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, saw 122 trains a day, Toler said.

She described Jacksonville as diverse.

“In James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography ‘Along This Way’ he talks about as a little boy people from different countries that were on his street, you know Dutchmen, Germans,” Toler said.

Johnson was a well-known leader of the Harlem Renaissance and an advocate for equal rights. But Toler said few know he began his work in his hometown of Jacksonville.

Johnson was a lawyer, the first black man to pass the Florida Bar and later helped Stanton High School become Florida’s first for African Americans, as its president. But then the Great Fire of 1901 swept through Jacksonville's streets. Stanton was destroyed. 

An animatronic version of Johnson tells his story at the Ritz Museum. It said, soon after the fire, Johnson moved to New York. He was having problems getting an adequate building constructed to replace Stanton. Toler said the fire brought out the worst in people. Racial tensions were high.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
Today, an animatronic version of James Weldon Johnson tells his story at the Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville.

“He was almost lynched,” she said. “The militia thought he was sitting in the park with a white woman. It was a woman from New York, very light-skin black woman. So it didn’t matter that he was the principal of Stanton or that he was a lawyer.”

And if it weren’t for the fire, she says Johnson might have stayed.

Eventually Stanton was rebuilt, a red brick building stands on the corner of Ashley and Broad Streets marked with a James Weldon Johnson plaque.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
Today, "The Old Stanton building” stands on the corner of Ashley and Broad Streets.

Today, that building is known as “The Old Stanton building.” Stanton College Preparatory School now resides on 13th Street. 

Historical photos courtesy of Florida Memory

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.