(Pictured above is the Strand Theatre)
By Jennifer Graham
As the heart of Jacksonville’s black culture in the early 1900s, LaVilla was a neighborhood that burst with entertainment and the arts.
Here the blues were born. Jazz was played on every corner. Musical greats visited the community’s hotels and clubs.
Pedestrians and revelers plied the streets at all hours in a community where some businesses stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It was also a densely packed residential neighborhood.
Intellectuals who would later contribute to the nation’s civil rights movement were born and prospered here. Authors and artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs all contributed to the scene.
It was a vibrant mecca for blacks that might have remained the city’s most dazzling neighborhood had not Jim Crow laws forced the migration of blacks to the North before World War I, according to Ennis Davis, an urban planner and local historian.
Without such blatant racism “it’s possible there never would have been a Harlem Renaissance,” Ennis said.
It’s entirely possible the literary, artistic and social explosion that took place in Harlem might have been centered where much of the energy originated – Jacksonville’s LaVilla.
In fact, Ennis said he doesn’t agree with those who call LaVilla the Harlem of the South.
“I prefer to think of Harlem as the LaVilla of the North.”
But beginning after World War II, LaVilla had been emptied of much of its vital energy and the area began to decline.
The birth of LaVilla
Although LaVilla was at one time one of the nation’s most inspired black communities, it wasn’t born as a cultural mecca.
It began in 1801 as a Spanish land grant to white colonist Isaac Hendricks that eventually developed into a black community after the Civil War. It existed for many years an independent city just outside Jacksonville until 1887 when it was annexed by its larger neighbor.
“Jacksonville was the most important city in the state of Florida at that time, because of the river, there was a lot of industry here,” said Pat Bell, director of the Eartha M.M. White Museum located in LaVilla.
Although 70 percent of its residents were black by the time it was annexed, LaVilla was also home to a remarkably diverse population. Here also lived Greeks, Cubans, Syrians, Chinese and Orthodox Jews.
LaVilla was a tightly knit community in which people lived, worked and held a common goal — to build a thriving economy where all the neighborhood’s diverse residents could live in harmony.
Steamships and paddle steamers would travel up and down the St. Johns River, stopping along the way in Jacksonville. The advent of train travel to Jacksonville in after the Civil War brought even more people.
LaVilla’s prominence as a black cultural center was enhanced by its direct link to the music and artistry of New Orleans. Performers would often travel back and forth to play in both cities.
As the area grew, Ashley and Broad streets became its heart. The neighborhood – originally bounded by McCoys Creek to the south; West State Street and the Old Kings Road to the north; North Myrtle Avenue to the west; and Clay Street to the east– thrived with banks, jewelry stores, hotels, restaurants, shoe shops, tailors, grocery stores, saloons and pharmacies.
The economic growth set the foundation for the entertainment seed to sprout. And although LaVilla was the site where the “Great Fire of 1901” began, the neighborhood was largely spared from the flames.
Clubs and theaters opened. Restaurants and related businesses prospered. Live performances, such as those provided by the Jacksonville-affiliated Rabbit’s Foot Company, were held at theaters throughout LaVilla – known at the time as “The Great Black Way.”
The first advertised blues performance in the nation occurred in Jacksonville in 1910 when a ventriloquist, professor John W. F. Woods, was performing at the Colored Airdome, an 800-seat theater on West Ashley Street. Woods manipulated a doll named Henry that would “sing” the blues while the audience roared with laughter.
Top names in Jacksonville
For a time, LaVilla hosted the best black entertainers in the nation.
Ma Rainey, the “mother of the blues,” often performed in LaVilla, as did “Jelly Roll” Morton, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and others.
Patrick Chappelle, who created the largest all-black traveling vaudeville show, the Rabbit’s Foot Company, got his start here.
The Hollywood Music Store was located on Ashley Street, part of the present-day Clara White Mission, which sold sheet music and albums. In its building the area’s growing music industry held meetings to form a musicians’ union, later housed in the Clara White Mission.
Black musicians and entertainers flocked to LaVilla, a place where they felt safe and welcomed during a time when segregation kept them out of many spots. Black-owned hotels and other establishments catered to the visitors.
The area was also the hometown of many notable people and institutions.
Among them were James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, brothers born in LaVilla, who went on to not only pen what’s called the black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” but became nationally known as performers, authors, educators, poets and civil rights activists.
Eartha M.M. White and her mother Clara White were other notables who made their homes in LaVilla. Both were nationally known as humanitarians and Eartha White eventually founded the Clara White Mission, which still operates in LaVilla.
Cookman Institute, one of the nation’s first universities for blacks, was founded in 1872 in Sugar Town on the current site of Darnell-Cookman School. Brewster Hospital, which opened in 1901, was the city’s first hospital for blacks. Stanton High School, which opened in 1868, became the first high school for blacks in Florida.
Black-owned insurance companies, streetcar companies, housing complexes, hotels, funeral homes, cab companies, pharmacies, auto repair shops and cab companies were examples of the relative freedoms offered for blacks in LaVilla.
The decline begins
But in the 1960s, the area began its decline.
“There were a lot of people who moved into new suburban areas like Durkeeville because they wanted a brand-new house and to have more land, so they could have barbecues,” Bell explained.
As residents began to move away from LaVilla to other areas of Jacksonville, the once booming neighborhood began to fray around the edges. The construction of Interstate-95 nearby, which destroyed other historically black neighborhoods, hastened its decline.
The end of segregation in Jacksonville also played a major role in the decline of black neighborhoods such as LaVilla as residents no longer needed a separate, self-contained neighborhood. They could now live in whatever neighborhood they desired.
Instead of revitalizing and repairing LaVilla, the city of Jacksonville embarked on a plan of urban renewal designed to change the image of Jacksonville.
The nail was hammered into LaVilla’s coffin with a plan proposed by then-Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin called the River City Renaissance in 1993.
It was anything but a renaissance for LaVilla.
In the 1980s, LaVilla began to crumble and many buildings were torn down with the idea that a burst of rebuilding would reinvigorate the area. That never happened and by the 1990s, wholesale urban destruction had extinguished what was a dense bustling neighborhood.
Joel McEachin, who served as Jacksonville’s historic preservationist from 1988 to 2018, remembers when there were still enough remaining buildings in LaVilla to envision a renaissance. He promoted the idea to save the area, but those plans never came to pass.
It they had, it would be easy to imagine LaVilla becoming a Beale-Street-like section of Jacksonville that could have developed into a popular tourist attraction.
“Although LaVilla as a thriving historic black community has been destroyed, its memory will remain alive as being Jacksonville’s most intriguing neighborhood,” McEachin said.