On my last visit to Jacksonville to explore the city and give several talks at the library, I got time to sit down with Jim Crooks. We talked about the history of Jacksonville and its transformation over the past century. Jim is a thoughtful and interesting scholar, and I knew I wanted to talk with him about his second book on the city, “Jacksonville After the Fire, 1901-1919: A New South City”.
I put a few questions to Jim about the book via email, and he was kind enough to respond.
I loved the first line of your book: “How do we look at an American southern city like Jacksonville, Florida?” Your work describes a city that has been vastly transformed over the past 90 years. Can you offer the curious traveler a quick thumbnail sketch of the city of Jacksonville in the period in which your book takes place?
Jacksonville in 1900 was a city of 28,000 folk, slightly more than half of whom were African American. It was the largest city in Florida, but smaller than Savannah, Charleston, Augusta, Birmingham, Mobile and Atlanta. It was a small provincial city in a state that in 1900 had the smallest population of any of the former Confederate states. Physically, Jacksonville was bordered on the east and south by the St. Johns River. The river was the reason for Jacksonville’s founding, providing an avenue to the sea to the east, and beyond to other American cities and abroad. The river also was the life line to interior Florida’s agricultural settlements. Jacksonville thus became the commercial center and gateway to Florida. For much of the time since the end of the Civil War, Jacksonville had been the winter tourist capital of the state with fine hotels and restaurants. Like other cities, Jacksonville, though small, had a thriving downtown, affluent suburbs and impoverished slums. It had its parades and festivals, country club and baseball teams. Hemming Park in the center of downtown was the focus for prominent speakers visiting from across the country. Racially segregated for the most part, a small African American middle class had emerged in business, the professions and education. One-third of adult women worked, mostly in low paying jobs. Middle class women had begun to organize themselves, especially in support of public schools which were under funded and poorly performing. Politically white Jacksonville voted Democratic like other Southern whites. Most black Jacksonians were disfranchised, but the few who voted supported Republican candidates.
As you looked into how Jacksonville was transformed after the 1901 fire were there any similarities between how the city rebuilt itself and say a Chicago or even a Seattle after its own devastating conflagration?
The similarities are many. In an era before city planning existed, fire-ravaged cities were re-built much as they had been before. The one exception being that brick frequently replaced wood in construction and some effort was made to insure new buildings were fire-proof. The private sector did most of the re-building and profitting. In Jacksonville and elsewhere, new building was more “modern.” For example the first ten-story sky scrapers were built in the years following the Jacksonville fire. The fires in many cases prompted a new energy in the city. Facing the challenge ahead, locals assisted by newcomers stimulated economic development, suburban growth and downtown vitalization. Clearly a decade after their fires, Jacksonville, Chicago, Baltimore, et. al were bustling cities, greater perhaps than if their fires had not happened at all.
Your book also focuses on the question of race relations and the opportunities (or lack thereof) that Jacksonville presented for its African-American residents. What led James Weldon Johnson to remark that in the 19th century Jacksonville was “a good town for Negroes”, while later it became a “one hundred percent Cracker town”?
In the 1880s when Johnson made the first statement, “a good town for Negroes”, the city had just annexed the predominantly black suburb of LaVilla and blacks with organized labor had elected a Republican city council with 5 black council members, plus a black magistrate. There were black police and fire fighters. Segregation and discrimination existed, but whites generally had a sense of nobless oblige toward blacks, seen in their sponsoring Johnson to pass the bar and become the first African American member in the state. By 1907 when Johnson made the second remark about a “one hundred percent cracker town,” the state had suspended local government replacing black representatives with whites; and passed the white primary and poll tax laws. Blacks were squeezed out of municipal goverment by gerrymandering and simply dismissing fire fighters and police. This shift in attitude reflected similar shifts across the South of voter disfranchisement, the segregation of public accomodations and Jim Crow. The shift reflected a hardening of attitudes by whites influenced by Populist efforts to organized poor white and black voters in the depression 1890s, the manipulation of poor white voters, and the violent attacks against blacks who attempted to vote.
As someone who is keenly interested in transit issues and history how did the average Jacksonville resident get around in this period? Was there an interurban trolley system to nearby towns? And how would you characterize river crossings and the local trolley lines?
River crossing was by ferry or private boat, but few people lived south of the river. South Jacksonville was incorporated separately in 1907 with but 2000 residents. In the city itself, trolley transit existed to the suburbs north, west and southwest. Eventually they were consolidated under the ownership of a Boston trust. For awhile there was an African American owned trolley serving the black community. Jacksonville also in the early years of the 20th century become a rail gateway to Florida with major rail lines connecting the city with Savannah, Atlanta, Pensacola (and west), Gainesville, Tampa and eventually Miami. Men walked (many lived downtown) to work; wealthy men might be driven in a carriage (autos still were a novelty); others took the trolley as did suburban women who travelled downtown to shop. Trolleys were also popular on weekend for outings to parks on the outskirts of the city, often developed by company owners at the end of trolley lines.
Chambers of commerce and other “boosters” (i.e. local officials, etc) have played such a key role in place promotion in American history. How would describe the priorities of Jacksonville’s Chamber of Commerce during this period?
The Chamber, known as the Board of Trade until 1914, played a major role in economic development. For example, it was able to persuade the state legislature to convene for a special session in 1910 to authorize a bond issue for construction of new municipal docks for Jacksonville. The Board/Chamber also led the re-building of the city after the Great Fire of 1901 calling together community leaders (including the mayor and two city council members) to organized the relief and reconstruction. It mediated strikes, supported public education improvements, new hospitals, park development and public health in addition to its support for banking, railroads, insurance and new industry. In my history I call it the premier economic and civic organization of the city.
One often thinks about prominent sports teams defining the character of any city, particularly in the early 21st century. Were there any sports teams (professional or otherwise) in Jacksonville that the citizenry rallied around?
In the early 20th century, major league baseball was in its infancy, pro football barely existed and basketball also had only just begun (for example, Fenway Park in Boston,was built in 1912). Jacksonville high school teams played football and baseball again teams from Gainesville, Tallahassee, Savannah. Major league baseball had just begun spring training, and though Jacksonville was not a site used for spring training, teams played exhibition games locally on the trips north before beginning the season. And these games were quite popular. Tourism had been the major attraction that Jacksonville had for northerners, but the development of resorts further south beginning in the 1890s changed that. During the Florida boom of the 1920s in which Jacksonville participated only marginally, the city was known as the “working city” of Florida, not a tourist attraction.
What sites/places/locales would you recommend to the visitor who would like to see the legacy of the events and transformations that took place in Jacksonville from 1901-1919?
Downtown, a visitor should start at city hall on Hemming Plaza, the building constructed before the First World War as the major department story south of Richmond. It still has some of that grandeur. Downtown has a number of handsome churches built after the Great Fire and a handful of early skyscrapers at the corner of Forsyth and Laura Streets. The original Carnegie Library, now a law office is also worth seeing. Moving west of downtown, is the Ritz Theater, Masonic Temple home to African American business and professional people in that era, the old Stanton High School and Edward Waters College. The southwesterly suburb of Riverside has many handsome old homes from the pre-World War I era, as well as from the interwar era. For specific directions, one might contact the Jacksonville Historical Society whose director organizes tours, or the Riverside Avondale Preservation organization, which was created in 1974.