The Jaxson On WJCT: Mandarin Museum Strives To Tell A More Inclusive Story

Oct 23, 2019

A few years back, Jacksonville’s Mandarin Museum and Historical Society acquired an old African American schoolhouse and opened it to the public. 

For the volunteer-led museum, it was a big first step toward better reflecting what was, in the past, a majority-black community.

The Jaxson's Kelsi Hasden visits the Mandarin Museum. The historic African American school house is behind her.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WJCT News

The Jaxson’s Kelsi Hasden and her husband just bought a historic house nearby — the Read House, on what used to be an orange grove. 

Census records from 1850 show the Read family owned slaves, but Kelsi isn’t sure whether they were on her exact property. She’ll be doing some digging to find out. 

“I think it's also a way to connect with a history that, you know, runs parallel to my family's history," she said. "My granny can trace the good hair back to slavery."

She said she plans to share anything that seems historically significant with the museum. 

Kelsi Hasden said the original portion of the Read house dates back to before the Civil War. She and her family will move into the home after it's restored.
Credit Kelsi Hasden / The Jaxson

Museum board President Sandy Arpen is thrilled to potentially fill in more of the blanks in Mandarin’s recorded history – which, until recently, she said, was massively incomplete. 

“If you were an African American and you walked into the museum, you know, five years ago, you would not see yourself in there because our museum really developed from people bringing us objects and documents and photographs and saying, ‘Would you like to have these things?’” she said.

That lack of representation is an issue in a community that was about three-quarters black in the decades following the Civil War, gradually shifting to the majority-white area it is today. 

Acquiring a historic one-room African-American school house was how the museum started to become more inclusive when it opened in 2016, Arpen said.

“When we had the grand opening, it was one of the most emotionally uplifting events I've ever attended in my life anywhere. And we had about 400 people here. Totally mixed. African Americans came, whites came,” she said.

The museum's signature painted frogs, donated by a local artist, have helped raise a significant portion of the cost of expanding, Sandy Arpen said.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WJCT News

Since then, she said the museum has attracted three African-American board members. It’s also trying to fund an archaeological dig to find out whether a shed on the property was once the home of an enslaved woman. If it is, Arpen said she’s been in contact with The Slave Dwelling Project about creating special programming, including a potential overnight experience for visitors.

And several black community members have come back to record video taped oral histories, which the museum plans to archive. Theirs is a shared past that Sandy Arpen remembers, growing up in Mandarin during segregation  — her family was white  —  and she said people were happy to intermingle in this little community that, at the time, seemed so remote from Downtown. 

“Everybody could go to Hiram’s and buy barbecue,” she said. “I mean, my mother talks about going up there with her empty pot and getting a pot full of greens for her dinner because Mrs. Jenkins made the best greens.”

When the museum is expanded, it will make room for an African American exhibit, Sandy Arpen said.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WJCT News

In the main museum building, the blueprints for an upcoming expansion stand on an easel by the front door.

Among the plans, Arpen said: “We’ll be able to have the African American history exhibit, expand Harriet Beecher Stowe.”

Stowe spent nearly 20 winters on an orange grove along the St. Johns River in Mandarin. After she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she was dubbed the lady who started the Civil War because she described what it was like to be enslaved, Arpen said, “making people feel it on an emotional level, to where they got to say, finally, ‘We're not going to own people in America. It's not right. We're not going to do it.”  

But it happened. In Mandarin. And Arpen said the museum is committed to making sure we don’t forget. 

For more on Mandarin's history, including historic and present-day photos, visit The Jaxson

Contact WJCT News Director Jessica Palombo at jpalombo@wjct.org or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.