Located just west of the Downtown Core, LaVilla is one of Jacksonville’s oldest historically African-American neighborhoods. The parking craters and empty lots of today belie a rich and vibrant history. In honor of Black History Month, here’s a look at six stories from LaVilla’s past that deserve to be better known.
The first published account of blues singing on a public stage
In 1909, Lionel D. Joel and Mr. Glickstein opened the Colored Airdome Theater at 601 W. Ashley St. With a seating capacity of 800, the Airdome was said to be the largest theater exclusively for Black people in the South. The popular theater quickly became known for its nightly standing room only audiences. Popular acts included Petrona Lazzo, the “Cuban soubrette,” “Chinese impersonator” Coy Herndon, and comedian Slim Henderson. Other performances included “Mr. Joplin’s Ragtime Dance” and the “Jacksonville Rounder’s Dance.” Renamed the Black Bottom Dance, this became the nation’s No. 1 social dance after it was performed on Broadway in 1926.
In 1910, the Airdome was the site of the first recorded instance of blues singing performed on a public stage anywhere in the world. Professor Johnnie Woods was a versatile entertainer who worked as a ventriloquist, tap dancer and “female impersonator,” or drag performer. In a piece published on April 16, 1910, the Indianapolis Freeman wrote about one of Woods’s ventriloquism performances that had taken place at the Airdome in Jacksonville earlier that week featuring his dummy “Little Henry.” According to the Freeman, Woods “set the Airdome wild by making Little Henry drunk… he uses the ‘blues’ for Little Henry in this drunken act.” It may seem odd that the first written record of blues being sung on stage came from a drunken ventriloquist dummy, but it’s unsurprising that it happened in the growing cultural hub that was LaVilla.
The end of the Colored Airdome came after the women’s clubs of Jacksonville persuaded the mayor to ban all theaters, vaudeville shows and movies from opening on Sundays. By 1915, the Colored Airdome was no more, and it was subsequently demolished. The popular Hollywood Music Store was then constructed on the site. In addition to selling records, it carried on the Airdome’s legacy by hosting performances from Nat King Cole, Count Basie and Earl “Fatha” Hines. In 2002, the Clara White Mission expanded its facility with a transitional housing and vocational training complex on the site of the former Hollywood Music Store. The new building was designed to include a replica facade of the historic building that once stood at that location.
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Birthplace of the Chitlin’ Circuit
LaVilla emerged as Florida’s premier Chitlin’ Circuit destination during the formative years of vaudeville, ragtime, jazz and blues. The Chitlin’ Circuit was the collective name given to a series of black-owned nightclubs, dance halls, juke joints and theaters that were safe and acceptable for African American entertainers to perform in during segregation. Notable venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit were the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Fox Theatre in Detroit and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Chitlins are a dish made from pig intestines that date back to slavery, when the enslaved were forced to nurture themselves with the less desirable parts of animals provided by the planter class. What was provided in a demeaning manner was turned into a soul food delicacy that remains popular in African American communities throughout the country today. Like chitlins, the circuit was established to nurture African American performers during a time when they were not allowed in most white-owned venues.
Walter Barnes, a Chicago jazz musician born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, is credited as being an early originator of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”. Following the collapse of the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), a vaudeville circuit for African-American performers, Barnes successfully established a network of venues across the American South during the 1930s where it was safe, acceptable and successful for African-American entertainers to perform.
“The telephone lines started buzzing, taxis started running, the tailors, the restaurants, and in fact, the whole stroll turned out on West Ashley Street in this city’s young Harlem… All in all, Jacksonville is a very fly town.”Bandleader Walter Barnes describing LaVilla in 1938, Chicago Defender
Establishing a winter headquarters in Jacksonville to conduct annual late-fall-to-spring Southern tours, contracts and routes created and promoted through Barnes’ position at the Chicago Defender soon became the Chitlin’ Circuit. Despite his death in 1940, his success in touring across the South encouraged numerous acts to follow the circuit during segregation.
While much of this history has been ignored, lost, and systematically destroyed since desegregation, vestiges of the Chitlin’ Circuit era remain all around us if we’re willing to get out, explore, and experience a part of our southern heritage that has not been given its proper due.
The South’s largest passenger railroad station
During its heyday, the Jacksonville Terminal was the largest passenger railroad station in the South. It served as an official gateway to Florida for worldwide travelers, handling as many as 200 trains each day, including all trains going to or coming from South Florida. Millions of railroad passengers passed through the LaVilla station’s concourse or platforms each year, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1941 and every president between Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon. Traffic peaked in 1944 when nearly 40,000 trains passed through the terminal, carrying nearly 10 million passengers.
To support operations of such a large facility, the Jacksonville Terminal Company employed more than 2,000 two thousand people, making it the second-largest employer in the city at the time. In the 1930s, porters from the Jacksonville Terminal formed the Jacksonville Red Caps, an all-Black baseball team named after the red hats the porters wore. The Red Caps went on to play in the Negro Major Leagues, making them the first major league sports team in Florida history.
With the decline of rail travel, Jacksonville abandoned its large, aging Downtown station in 1974 in favor of the current “Amshack” in Northwest Jacksonville. The old station is now the Prime Osborn Convention Center, though Downtown advocates hope to one day return it to its former glory as a passenger rail station.
Zora Neale Hurston and the Florida Writers Project
Renowned author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston lived and worked in Jacksonville during several periods in her life. In 1938, she returned to Jacksonville to participate in the Federal Writers Project, an initiative of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The project established offices in every state with the intention of providing work to struggling writers while creating a unique “self-portrait of America.” Headed by historian Carita Doggett Corse, the Florida Writers Project had its headquarters in Jacksonville. While white staff worked out of Downtown’s Dyal-Upchurch Building, due to the state’s Jim Crow laws, offices for African American staff were at the Clara White Mission in LaVilla.
Hurston, an expert on Black folklore and traditions, worked with the project’s folklore wing under Jacksonville native Stetson Kennedy. The best known figure employed by the Florida Writers Project, Hurston traveled the state to collect and record stories, songs and traditions. She put particular emphasis on rural Black communities and turpentine camps, making an invaluable and authoritative record of material that would otherwise be lost. In 1939, she invited African American storytellers and singers to a recording session at the Clara White Mission, even singing 18 songs herself.
Are we really the Harlem of the South?
Almost everyone has heard of The Harlem Renaissance, a period of artistic work without precedent in the American Black community during the 1920s and 1930s. If you have not heard of it, at the very least you’re probably familiar with Harlem’s Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. Even today, several cities across the South, from Atlanta to Jacksonville and Tampa, are quick to label a formerly vibrant Black neighborhood in their community as the “Harlem of the South.” What most tend to overlook is that the Harlem Renaissance is largely a result of the first Great Migration. Between 1910 and 1930, 1.6 million migrants left mostly Southern, oppressive urban communities, to migrate to northern, industrial cities in search of a better life and economic opportunity.
As early as 1870, Jacksonville’s LaVilla was having its own “renaissance” with a 70% Black population attracted to jobs in the area’s booming hotel, lumber, port, building, and railroad industries. While New York City’s Harlem was still a Jewish and Italian community, LaVilla had become the home to Excelsior Hall, the first Black-owned theatre in the South, and a Black owned streetcar company (more on that in a minute). In addition, during this time, Jaxson Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company dominated the entertainment scene throughout the Southeast. LaVilla also served as a brief haven for Joe Robichaux, a “legitimate” musician during this period after the elimination of the relative privilege of the Creole racial distinction in New Orleans and just before the implementation of Florida’s most restrictive segregation laws.
During the second decade of the 20th century, recruiters from the Pennsylvania and the New York Central railroads were successfully drawing Black workers away from Jacksonville. Due to economic conditions, white militancy, and Jim Crow laws, thousands of African Americans left Jacksonville between 1916 and 1917 as a part of the first Great Migration. Artists with Jacksonville ties including James Weldon Johnson, John Rosamond Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston and Augusta Savage all moved to New York, where they became significant figures in the Harlem Renaissance.
By 1930, the end of the first Great Migration, African-Americans accounted for 70% of Harlem’s population and it had become associated with the New Negro movement. Jacksonville’s loss became Harlem’s gain. The zenith of this “flowering of Negro literature,” as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, took place between 1924 and 1929. The cultural activities that made the Harlem Renaissance had been common in places like LaVilla for decades. However, being in Harlem introduced the Southern Black experience within the corpus of American cultural history, redefining how the world viewed African Americans.
The Colored Man’s Railroad
Railroading in early Jacksonville was a lot more than Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. On August 22, 1903, the North Jacksonville Street Railway, Town and Improvement Co. began streetcar service for Jacksonville’s Black population. Organized by several prominent members of Jacksonville’s Black community (R. R. Robinson, H. Mason, F. C. Eleves, Walter P. Mucklow, George E. Ross and Frank P. McDermott), the streetcar system became known as “The Colored Man’s Railroad.” Hundreds came out for the system’s grand opening ceremony to ride on cars operated with Black motormen and conductors. Initially, the North Jacksonville Street Railway ran from Downtown’s Bay Street north on Clay to State and Kings Road before heading north on Myrtle Avenue. It returned to Downtown via Moncrief Road through Hansontown. Black ownership ended a few years later when the system was acquired by Telfair Stockton, allowing it to be extended to the Eastside and Talleyrand. Stockton then sold the system to the Jacksonville Electric Company. Despite the change in ownership, the Colored Man’s Railroad was heavily utilized by the Black community and was among the last routes to be abandoned in December 1936.