By Brett Raynor
Hannah Park, The Naval Base and Mayport Poles are some of its names, but 110 years ago this area in Jacksonville Beach was known as Manhattan Beach, Jacksonville’s first all-black beach during segregation.
But its history has been all but forgotten.
“It’s a great piece of African-American history that is being left out of Jacksonville’s history,” said Brittany Cohill of the Jacksonville Beach Historical Museum. “A lot of people know about Henry Flagler and his railroad when they think about Jacksonville’s history, but not many people know about how significant Manhattan Beach was.
Just after the turn of the last century and for decades thereafter, however, Manhattan Beach was a well-known piece of Jacksonville real estate.
Manhattan Beach was founded around 1901 when Flagler’s East Coast Railroad and his Continental Hotel were being constructed. The vast majority of his workers were black and Flagler set aside some property in between Pablo Beach and Mayport for these workers. This became Manhattan Beach.
According to Cohill, Manhattan Beach really took off in 1907 when the Florida East Coast Railroad had constructed a station there. This station enabled the residents of Jacksonville’s downtown area, around 60,000 people – a majority of whom were black, to take a train to the beach for a 60-cent round-trip ticket.
“This was expensive at the time and it was likely that the ticket price was something that families saved up for to go to the beach for special occasions,” Cohill said.
According to Cohill, Manhattan Beach was used for a lot of church gatherings and other special occasions, but Cohill believes one of the more interesting things that took place at Manhattan Beach was its involvement with the Eartha White Mission.
Eartha White was a powerful member of Jacksonville’s black community at the time and, according to Cohill, White used to bring children with tuberculosis to Manhattan Beach and called it her “Fresh Air Camp.” Salt air was widely believed to be a good treatment for tuberculosis at the time.
Manhattan Beach was also a place where Jacksonville’s black residents could get together and experience something they couldn’t at the other whites-only beaches — simply enjoying a day on the water.
“I think it was great for the community to come together and really take their mind off a lot of the hardships that they were experiencing at the time with segregation in full swing,” said Adonnica Toler, museum director at Jacksonville’s Ritz Theatre and Museum.
However, Manhattan Beach did not last too long. It began to change in the 1930s when black residents who had settled nearby were forced out of the beaches. That black exodus came because of a combination of things including the influx of wealthy white residents to the area.
In addition, the railway station that had brought so many blacks to the beach from Downtown was closed, making it hard for the black community to visit.
According to Cohill, Jacksonville residents today don’t know much about Manhattan Beach and she and museum staff are working hard to make the beach a more well known part of local history.
“Our goal is to try and get a more accurate description of Manhattan Beach and accurately tell a story that has been lost over the years,” she said. “There are still a lot of families that are decedents of the families that used to call Manhattan Beach home. We would really like to get their stories, or get as much information as we can.”