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Jacksonville Civil Rights History Task Force Will Ask For Permanence

Ryan Benk
Members of the task force convening Wednesday.

The work of Jacksonville’s Task Force on Civil Rights History is an ever expanding universe of rich experiences, many of which have never been relayed to a broad city audience, certainly not in an organized fashion, according to co-chair Warren Jones.

That’s why Jones called on city council Wednesday to make the body a permanent fixture in City Hall through legislation.

“I think the history is ongoing and I’m amazed at some of the timeline items that have been brought forth. I grew up here and I didn’t realize some of the history that has happened in Jacksonville. So, I think having a task force that will work on a regular basis — once a month, maybe once a quarter — to make sure that timeline is maintained and that funding is maintained,” he said. “I think that’s critically important.”

Jones said he intends to meet with Council President Anna Lopez Brosche about filing the bill.

After an editorial in The Florida Times-Union lamented Jacksonville’s exclusion from the National Civil Rights Trail, Brosche formed the 27-member committee to figure out how Jacksonville could be added to the list of participating cities and states.

At its first meeting the committee learned from fellow member, and Visit Jacksonville representative, Monica Smith that for Jacksonville to be included, the state would have to pay the regional tourism agency that organized the trail — Travel South. Only then could Jacksonville apply for its sites to be included.

According to Smith, Florida’s tourism agency was one of the cofounders of the regional consortium of tourism agencies, along with Georgia. After some time, the Sunshine State bowed out.

Since that first meeting, task force members agreed to move forward with the collation of a local historical timeline and creation of some kind of Jacksonville civil rights trail. Jones said the committee isn’t necessarily opposed to asking the state of Florida to reenter the tourism group, but that his first priority is finishing the local work before him and his colleagues.

“We decided consciously that our goal is to develop the timeline, develop… how do you finance that? If at some point in time, because there’s a cost involved in becoming part of that civil rights trail, that’s something we can address at a later point,” he said.

The National Civil Rights Trail includes places and events that were significant between the 1940s and 1960s, but Jacksonville’s timeline is far broader — stretching all the way to the city’s founding by Isaiah D. Hart in the early 1800s.

The wide breadth of history the task force intends to include is a heavy lift for a body that has to have a report published and presented to the council president by June 25. It won’t be cheap to pull together, said Rahman Johnson, co-chair of the task force’s Repository Subcommittee.

“Right now our subcommittee has estimated, and I think liberally estimated, the number to be about a quarter of a million dollars,” he said. “Just for the repository.”

The repository subcommittee is in charge of creating a website (through the library’s main site or the city’s) for the timeline to be posted, finding civil rights artifacts to display at either a newly-constructed museum or the Ritz Theatre and Museum in LaVilla and possibly the creation and management of a smartphone application.

Johnson said he doubts the repository alone will need $250,000, but he believes it is an appropriate first ask. Still, that doesn’t include the cost of marketing — all of which the committee would find difficult to procure on an annual basis from the city.

Johnson, who is a media studies professor at Edward Waters College, said he wants to leverage existing partnerships and technology to have more than a blueprint in place before the committee’s existing deadline.

“The thought that we would take all that information from all those people and everything we’ve done in all these meetings and it would just sit somewhere that no one may never see bothered me,” he said. “I thought it was important that we find a way or a place that we can pull it together… I used [this] tongue in cheek, but I said we need to become a parasite. A parasite is part of the city, part of that host organism.”

Local Civil Rights figure, Rodney Hurst, eschewed grand plans and instead argued the committee should be most concerned with the historical timeline and its distribution to schools and colleges. He and his history subcommittee co-chair Tim Gilmore have asked that the web form of the timeline include footnotes of academic references and addresses where people could visit event locations.

Chris Hand, co-chair of the task force’s finance committee, is currently trying to take stock of what local, state and federal grants may be available to fund the ambitious project, including possible National Parks funding.

A so-called subcommittee of the whole — including members of finance, marketing and repository — is scheduled to meet in two weeks.

Meanwhile, calls to Anna Lopez Brosche and her expected successor Aaron Bowman were not returned before publishing.

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.