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Paula Findlay was among the hundreds who attended a prayer vigil on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023 following a mass shooting fueled by racial animus toward Black people at a Dollar General in the Grand Park neighborhood. Findlay is a lifelong Jaxon who is the principal at Arlington Elementary. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Dollar General shooting aligns with anniversary of racist violence of Ax Handle Saturday

Published on August 28, 2023 at 12:34 am

Angela Carr, A.J. Laguerre Jr. and Jerrald Gallion are dead because a Clay County man traveled to Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon and killed them because they are Black.

Their deaths shocked Jaxons of all races, ethnicities, political backgrounds and ZIP codes. It was not lost on many of the mourners that Sunday’s vigils and remembrances occurred on the 63rd anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday.

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Hundreds attend a prayer vigil in Jacksonville’s Grand Park neighborhood on Sunday, Aug. 27, including Gov Ron DeSantis and U.S. Rep. Aaron Bean. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

The gunman, whom police identified as 21-year-old Orange Park resident Ryan Christopher Palmeter, wrote racist manifestos that detailed – in the words of Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters – Palmeter’s desire to “kill n***ers.” 

At St. Paul AME Church on Kings Road, nearby, the typical Sunday service transitioned into a vigil to remember the victims, who at that point had not yet been named. Churchgoers expressed unease at being in a mass gathering with Black people because of the previous day’s targeted shooting. 

Four Edward Waters students attended the service, sitting on the right of the sanctuary and not saying much. When other congregants saw the young men, they hugged them, rubbed their backs and expressed thanks that they could attend the worship service.

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Afterward, Edward Waters University Professor David Jamison consoled two former students who were near the Dollar General on Kings Road near the time Palmeter entered and started shooting.

“It does not surprise me, just not as a Jacksonville thing, but nationwide,” Jamison says. “We are going through an epidemic and it’s something that we need to stop. The rhetoric that is coming out of the government is encouraging people in their negative, and I believe, racist beliefs.”

Duval County School Board member Darryl Willie, state Rep. Angie Nixon, state Sen. Tracie Davis and Jacksonville City Council member Terrence Freeman gather at the pulpit at St. Paul AME Church in Jacksonville on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

This Sunday was not the first time that St. Paul AME Church was asked to soothe the souls of Jaxons on a solemn August 27th.

In 1960, following the assault in Downtown Jacksonville on Ax Handle Saturday, people returned to St. Paul when the church was located at the corner of 13th Street and Myrtle Avenue in Durkeeville.

St. Paul moved further from Downtown decades ago but remained committed to social justice.

This Sunday morning, its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Willie Nathaniel Barnes, Jr., said Saturday’s shooting spree is a call to action.

“We’re starting a movement today. A movement that has room for Republicans, Democrats, nonpartisan affiliated (people),” Barnes said. “The movement that has room for Muslims and Jews and Christians and Buddhists and Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals and non-denominational. A movement focused on righteousness, peace and joy.

Barnes preached from the first chapter of the New Testament. He didn’t focus on the verses that demanded an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but of receiving the treasures in heaven here on Earth.

“Righteousness is coming. Peace is coming,” Barnes preached. “Joy is coming, not just for the Southside but for the Northside. Not just for St. Johns Town Center, but Edward Waters.”

Throughout the day, Barnes and others prayed for elected officials but challenged them to cultivate a community of love, inclusiveness and an understanding of others.

Shelton Chappell knows the importance of love in a time of racial terror. His mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell, was lynched in March 1964 near Kings Road when she went to purchase ice cream. Sunday morning, Chappell sat in his car and prayed for Carr, Laguerre and Gallion.

He didn’t know their names. He knew their pain.

“I heard about this racial killing and it brought all the tragedy that me and my family had to deal with 60 years ago,” Chappell said while wearing a Black T-shirt that remembered Emmett Till. “I wanted to be sure that I prayed for this family and gave as much support as I could. And, I am hoping the community can do the same.”

Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan decried the racial violence that led to a mass shooting in Jacksonville’s Grand Park neighborhood during a vigil on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Sunday’s service at the church was supposed to be a celebration of the progress Jacksonville made in acknowledging civil rights since Ax Handle Saturday. In what’s believed to be a first for a Jacksonville mayor, Donna Deegan attended and spoke. 

Deegan said only togetherness will relieve the animus in the air. 

“When we look around us and we see what is happening because of our policies, because we don’t see each other, because we don’t believe symbols matter, when we see all of this, we have to understand that common sense tells us we have to do something different,” Deegan said.

Over the last 12 months, Jacksonville has seen a series of anti-Semitic propaganda projected onto buildings and banners supporting the Confederate States of America fly over Downtown. Earlier this year, Jacksonville Jewish Federation CEO Miriam Feist told Jacksonville Today that people have felt emboldened to move to Florida and showcase racist and anti-Semitic beliefs because of the political climate that has been cultivated here.

On the day Deegan was inaugurated, a group flew a banner with the Confederate Battle Flag that asked her to engage with them.

She has refused.

Rodney Hurst listens to a commemoration of the 63rd anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday on Aug. 27, 2023. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Instead, Deegan has aligned herself with people like Rodney Hurst, the activist who organized Ax Handle Saturday as a 16-year-old member of the NAACP Youth Council. On Aug. 27, 1960, a gang of men beat Black teenagers and activists with ax handles in what is now known as James Weldon Johnson Park.

On Sunday, as Hurst reflected on that day 63 years ago, he lamented that while times have changed, there is still plenty of progress ahead of his hometown.

“It’s not lost that we have exchanged the ax handles for other things,” Hurst said.


author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.
author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.

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