Rita Reagan shows the unrestored building of the Norman Studios complex on Arlington Road, before its renovation into a museum.Rita Reagan shows the unrestored building of the Norman Studios complex on Arlington Road, before its renovation into a museum.
Rita Reagan shows the unrestored building of the Norman Studios complex on Arlington Road, before its renovation into a museum. | Norma Studios Silent Film Museum

‘Urban pioneer’ Rita Reagan dies at 83

Published on September 1, 2023 at 12:01 pm

Rita F. Reagan was a volunteer and a teacher, a preserver of Jacksonville’s historic communities as well as a historic silent film studio in Arlington.

But just weeks after she attended the opening of Norman Studios’ renovated museum to the public, Reagan died Wednesday at age 83, according to her family.

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Her daughter wrote of the death on Facebook, saying her mother set out to do many things — and accomplished them.

“I will try to remember her this way — full of energy for the causes she cared so passionately about, always climbing toward the next goal,” Denise Reagan wrote. “Sadly, she never felt like she accomplished much, but we all know that wasn’t true.”

City Council President Ron Salem, a fellow Arlington resident who also attended the Norman Studios opening, remembered Reagan in a memorial also posted on Facebook. In it, he said the city “lost another champion,” a reference to the death earlier this week of former City Councilwoman E. Denise Lee.

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“Rita Reagan worked tirelessly for decades of her life for the Arlington area, and the legacy she built across our city if quite remarkable,” Salem wrote. “She made a difference in so many lives, and I was honored to know her and work with her on several projects including Norman Studios. … Her exceptional leadership and dogged determination will be missed.”

Born July 24, 1940, in Cynthiana, Kentucky, Reagan worked on her father’s tobacco farm throughout her childhood and into college, Denise Reagan wrote. Graduating from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in education, Reagan earned a master’s degree from the University of North Florida and a specialist degree from the University of Florida.

She met her future husband, Harry Reagan, when he was a public information officer at Fort McClellan, Alabama. They married in 1962.

She taught at public schools in Broward County and at a military base in Germany, then at multiple schools throughout Jacksonville. Her resume on the Norman Studios website shows she spent seven years in district administration at the Duval County school district and 22 years as grant writer, projects director, English teacher and more.

She started the first peer counseling program in Duval County. And during part of her career, she served as the student activities director for Duval County Public Schools, taking her to every school in Jacksonville, her daughter wrote.

Her community activities included board membership and archivist for the Springfield Improvement Association, as well as founder and director of the Springfield Heritage Museum and Education Center. She was on the executive board for Springfield Preservation and Restoration from 1994 to 1997.

“She was an urban pioneer who lived in Springfield for about 25 years,” Denise Reagan wrote. “As the volunteer head of SPAR, she was responsible for getting the organization’s headquarters building on Main Street donated to SPAR. She almost single-handedly saved the Klutho apartments on Main Street from destruction”

Rita Reagan, left, attended the grand opening of the Norman Studios museum on Aug. 19, 2023. She is shown with Property Appraiser and former Arlington City Councilwoman Joyce Morgan.
Rita Reagan, left, attended the grand opening of the Norman Studios museum on Aug. 19, 2023. She is shown with Property Appraiser and former Arlington City Councilwoman Joyce Morgan. | Dan Scanlan WJCT News 89.9

Reagan also was on the executive board for The Bridge and a member of the WJCT-TV Community Advisory Board. She continued her community activities by becoming a founding member of Old Arlington Inc. in 1994. Then she helped start the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum to help preserve what is called “the only surviving race film studio in America.”

The 111-year-old facility on Arlington Road is now a National Historic Landmark, beginning as Eagle Films from 1916 to 1920, then as Richard Norman’s high-quality silent “race films” studio, which produced films specifically for Black audiences.

The city bought the studio site, minus the original studio on Commerce Street, in 2002. Reagan’s museum group formed in 2007 to preserve the facility, raising funds to further restore the entire facility and do educational outreach. With $1 million in city funding secured in 2019, improvements including air conditioning, a handicap-accessible ramp, and new flooring and lighting were unveiled as the new museum opened Aug. 19.

Denise Reagan said her mother had heart surgery in early January, then had complications as she went through rehabilitation. She went into home hospice care for three months.

A celebration of life ceremony for Reagan is set for 1 p.m. Sept. 16 at Patterson Cremation and Funeral Home, 6615 Arlington Expressway.


author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 email Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.

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