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‘This Is Our Last Stand’: Advocates Push For History-Centered Development In LaVilla

A few weeks after a special Jacksonville committee on civil rights history turned in its final report, the body’s most ambitious goals still seem like far-flung dreams.

But some are holding out hope the recommendations could spur a revival in one of the city’s most storied black neighborhoods.

Cars whizzed by what looks at first like a vacant city block off Lee Street in downtown’s LaVilla neighborhood. Lloyd Washington approached a set of historic markers cordoned off with chains and posts.

“We’re working on it. Hopefully we want to make this into a place [that] when you come to Jacksonville, you want to stop here,” he said.

It may not look like much right now, but this is the birthplace of James Weldon Johnson.

Washington, who heads the Durkeeville Historical Society and was a member of the city’s task force on civil rights history, said Johnson and his brother John Rosamond’s contributions to American history haven’t always been given their proper due. Washington said, certainly not in their hometown of Jacksonville.

“For some reason here in Jacksonville it’s a blank,” he said.

Forgotten History

The Johnson brothers are perhaps best known best for penning and setting to music what became known as the Black National Anthem — Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. Three years ago, Washington helped get the birth site of the Johnson brothers designated as a park bearing the song’s name. Almost 150 years before that, in a small frame house not much less modest than the park that’s there now, Johnson was born.

Washington wants $3 million to expand the park space to the entire city block, build a replica of the Johnson brothers’ home and erect statues in their honor.  

He’s in a race against time. “Unfortunately, all of our other thriving colored neighborhoods have been forgotten and replaced. So, hopefully — this is our last stand and hopefully, we can bring this to fruition,” he said.

The story of what happened to the Johnson brothers’ home is the story of what happened to LaVilla. What started as an encampment for the first all-black regiment in the Civil War blossomed into a population of 3,000, complete with markets, jazz clubs, a busy railroad station and more. But from the early 20th century to the 1990s, what’s locally known as the Harlem of the South was replaced with a highway and factories, and eventually empty space. Only a handful of historic buildings remain.

Rodney Hurst, an organizer of local lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s and a member of Jacksonville’s recent city task force on civil rights history, said the city hasn’t done a good job of acknowledging those black contributions and he’s wary of a recent push to redevelop LaVilla.

“It’s unconscionable that the Downtown Investment Authority would develop, or work on development, and not have a strategy or not have some understanding of historic preservation. That is not something that just goes by the wayside,” he said. “We’ve done that too often in Jacksonville.”

Redevelopment Plans ‘Ongoing’

Hurst and Washington, along with 25 other members on the task force, recommended the city designate a portion of LaVilla as a Civil Rights Historic District. But that could bump up against plans already in the works. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is building a new $57 million transit center and hundreds of apartments are planned or being constructed with help from the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA).

At the last meeting of the task force on civil rights history, DIA CEO Aundra Wallace said new development made more economic sense than remodeling what old structures remain, but that his the organization is crafting a historic preservation plan. Hurst is worried that strategy would result in development that lacked historic historic awareness.

In an email exchange with WJCT, Wallace said historic preservation is important to “maintaining the rich history of the community,” but that the “real estate development currently underway in LaVilla is market driven.”

“The market has determined that new construction development is more feasible than historic restoration of existing buildings.  Historic preservation/restoration is more costly and often requires tiered levels of public funds to assist the projects,” he wrote. “Presently, the DIA doesn’t have the funds to assist with a robust historic preservation initiative in downtown.”

Wallace said a draft of a forthcoming LaVilla development and historic preservation plan isn’t yet available. He added that DIA looks to “work with developers on historic restoration projects when funding is available and the projects can have a catalytic impact on the surrounding area.”

Wallace said no new agreements have been executed by DIA or JTA in LaVilla for city-owned properties, but DIA is getting outside help with crafting the master plan. The redevelopment entity is currently getting input from “lead consultant[s]” developers Peter Rummell and Michael Munz, along with “sub-consultants” engineering firm GAI Consultants, Inc. and Acuity Design Group.

Ennis Davis is an urban planner and the Editor in Chief of The Jaxson, which is partnership between Modern Cities and WJCT.

“The danger of not taking a neighborhood’s history into account is you lose what really makes Jacksonville special. Today, we’re a city where we keep coming up with crazy slogans. Now, [it’s] ‘it’s easier here.’ At one point it was ‘where Florida begins,’” he said.

Davis said since LaVilla has been mostly demolished, there’s ample opportunity to develop without running afoul of historic preservation. Only “a few places… escaped the wrecking ball 20 years ago” because they had already been designated historic, he said. But, he added, successful development pays homage to the area’s past. Something Jacksonville development hasn’t been known for.

Read more about Davis' thoughts on LaVilla development in his editorial from our news partner the Florida Times-Union

“People really don't understand what that true identity of the city is. And a part of that reason is because the city has always been majority black for most of its history and black history [has] never really been respected,” he said.

While Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood historically had a black majority, African-Americans make up 30.7% of the city’s overall population today, according to the latest U.S. Census population estimates available.

Task Force Puts Jacksonville On The National Civil Rights Map

It’s unclear if the Jacksonville Task Force on Civil Rights History will be revived in some form in the near future, but the temporary 27-member body made up of Civil Rights Era icons, artists and historians accomplished it’s most crucial goal — getting Florida featured on the recently-established U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

Former Jacksonville City Council President Anna Lopez Brosche created the committee after reading aFlorida Times-Union editorial lamenting the city’s exclusion. At the time, Brosche told WJCT she had heard from constituents who perceived it as a snub.

“One of those callers suggested I create a task force, that it was really a travesty and disappointing that we aren’t on it,” Brosche said.

The task force discovered the U.S. trail was the creation of a consortium of southern tourism agencies and required an annual subscription fee from states wanting to participate. After three months of meetings, Visit Florida announced it would pay the $15,000 a year subscription to be a part of it. VF CEO Ken Lawson said the marketing of Florida’s trail, and by extension Jacksonville’s, should be a state priority.

“It’s very important to recognize our heritage and the civil rights movement and the various museums and locations. I met with leaders from Travel South, explained our interest and made a commitment that Visit Florida would like to participate and assist our various locations to apply,” Lawson said.

Each city would have to foot the bill for the $3,500 application fee associated with specific sites.  It’s still unclear from Travel South whether cities would have to pay that fee for each individual site, or just as a city.

Travel South “is still building out its criteria,” Lawson added at the time.

Among the task force’s slew of final recommendations, members called on Visit Jacksonville, the city’s tourism arm, to use county Tourism Development Council funds to pay for site application fees.

Washington and his fellow task force members are hopeful places in LaVilla like Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, the Ritz Museum and other historical places will get the nod. Hurst and Washington, along with other task force members, are hopeful the city’s inclusion on the national trail will help developers see the tourism value of Jacksonville’s black history. It could make it easier to win extra historical designations and draw down various national preservation grants to fill in gaps in city funding.

Meanwhile, Wallace said DIA’s development strategy is a work in progress, but that Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park will feature prominently.

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.