By Jennifer Graham
Long ago the elegant two-story brick home at 1011 W. Eighth St. was only one of many large residences that housed the wealthiest of Jacksonville’s black residents.
This home and many others represented the prosperous center of black life in the city – a community known as Sugar Hill.
From the massive white-columned porches of the brick home, Bishop Henry Y. Tookes and his wife, Maggie, would have looked out onto a community that teamed with life. In the 1940s, well-dressed residents could be seen strolling along Sugar Hill’s wide sidewalks while expensive automobiles and streetcars plied its streets.
Today, the Tookes’ house is one of only a very few left in the community, an area ravaged by urban renewal and urban expansion. It’s now occupied by the local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority.
Nearby, the drivers and passengers in vehicles traveling Interstate-95 whizz by Sugar Hill, mostly ignorant of the once-fashionable neighborhood bisected by the concrete roadway.
The ever-expanding campuses of the Duval Hospital, Methodist Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital also had eaten into the neighborhood, decimating and paving over much of what once was. St. Luke’s Hospital has since moved to the south side of Jacksonville with Duval and Methodist Hospitals merging into UF Health Jacksonville.
By the 1960s, the elegant neighborhood had been largely destroyed.
Community a signal of wealth
But early in its life, Sugar Hill was a glittering jewel of a community.
“When you get to Sugar Hill, you would just go ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ at the houses — they were big houses,” remembers Marsha Dean Phelts, a Jacksonville historian and an author who has written several books on American Beach.
In addition to Tookes, Jacksonville homebuilder Joseph H. Blodgett lived here. The large 22 room house next to his was owned by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company.
“When I was coming home from my school, the bus would drive us straight up Eighth Street and we would just marvel at their houses,” said Phelts, who lived on Ninth Street about a mile from Sugar Hill.
Just down the street were the large homes of other well-known residents, including physician William Redmond and druggist Robert Butler. William Raines, former high school principal, and Sara Blocker, who taught school in Duval County and fought for equal teacher pay, were also notable residents of Sugar Hill.
Although it had begun years earlier, in the late 1800s, by the 1900s the Sugar Hill neighborhood was the place to live for Jacksonville’s most prominent black residents.
To the south of Sugar Hill was the community’s major park, a 30-acre plot of land that was Jacksonville’s third black park — Wilder Park. It contained a playground, track and a baseball diamond.
It also housed the Wilder Park Library, which opened in 1927 as the city’s first branch library and once boasted one of the largest circulation of books in the city.
“It was my first library. I can still see it now,” Phelts said. “I just enjoyed going to the library. That was a black library for people of color.”
At the intersection of West Third and Mt. Herman streets, Wilder Park was the center of social life for Sugar Hill residents, hosting dances and other activities.
In the blocks surrounding Wilder Park, large two-story homes lined the streets, often built on land elevated land above the sidewalks. Some homes had garages while others had living quarters for the owners’ help.
There were many other prominent men and women who made their homes here.
Charles Anderson was a Sugar Hill resident and the owner of Anderson Bank. Another builder, S. A. Brookins, who built over 500 homes in Jacksonville, also lived here.
Also well-known was Charlie “Hoss” Singleton, a 1939 graduate of Old Stanton High School and prolific songwriter who most famously co-wrote the lyrics for “Strangers in the Night.” He built a house for his mother in Sugar Hill.
Although the community was fairly large – stretching from Springfield to North Myrtle Avenue along both sides of West 8th Street — its residents were close-knit. Everyone knew and cared for one another.
“We visited each other and we knew what was happening in everybody’s home,” long-time Sugar Hill resident then-85-year-old Olivia Forest told the Florida Times-Union in 1999. “If they needed help and somebody got sick, the older people would go in an assist the family, take care of the kids and everything.
“If I wanted something to eat and I didn’t like what my mother cooked, I could go across the street to the Goldens’ and eat with them. We didn’t have to close doors, we didn’t have to do nothing because everybody watched after everybody.”
Cecilia Washington Carr, an artist who still lives in Sugar Hill, was also born in the neighborhood. She graduated in 1963 from Stanton High School. Her house, another of those located on Sugar Hill’s heart – West Eighth Street – is listed as a City of Jacksonville landmark..
Her father, a physician by the name of Dr. Emmett Washington whose office was across the street from the Ritz Theatre, had the house built for Carr’s mother, Inez, in 1938 when the two married.
Carr grew up in the house “and I’m going to die here,” she said.
The Washington, like other Sugar Hill families, spent their lives in relative luxury in Jacksonville.
“We had a chauffeur, we had a butler, we had a gardener and we had two ladies who worked in the house for over 40 years,” Carr said.
“It was a very upscale community. Most of the homes were mansions,” she said.
Development kills community
While Sugar Hill was a vibrant community for many decades, it fell victim to development in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was then that the neighborhood was deemed ripe for re-development by the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. Much of Sugar Hill was taken for both highway development and for the construction of what is now known as UF Health Jacksonville.
More than 75 families were relocated and their homes bulldozed for various projects.
“The developers had all the black families move and give up their property,” Carr remembered.
Once a tree-lined street every bit as impressive as Riverside Avenue in the Jacksonville neighborhood of the same name, West Eighth Street is now a six-lane road lined with parking lots, a McDonald’s drive-through and other commercial buildings.
There’s little left of the once-prosperous neighborhood, said Phelts.
“When you ride down Eighth Street you see no signs that there ever was a Sugar Hill.”