Writing Unwritten History

At first glance, Mary F. Mungen Jameson’s book on the history of several historically black Jacksonville neighborhoods looks like a disjointed collection of stories but, viewed as a whole, it’s more like a patchwork quilt showing the vibrant history and culture of the city’s African-American community.

Jameson, a retired Duval County elementary schoolteacher, has crammed more than 400 pages of history, photographs, cemetery layouts, maps and interesting stories into her book, “Remembering Neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Florida: Oakland, Campbell’s Addition, East Jacksonville and Fairfield. The African-American Influence.”

“This project was not a weight on my shoulders, but an engine at my back,” Jameson said of her work that spanned 13 years. “I was not given this mission. I was inspired most by the people who came before me.”

In the foreword of her book, she wrote how it came about: “This book could be called a book of conversations on porches, over fences, at storefronts, on curbs, at kitchen tables, on backyard and front steps, on sidewalks, streets and lanes.”

Jameson’s work contains stories about the famous and the unknown. Zora Neale Hurston, Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, Little Richardson, Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes and shop owners, an ice delivery man, growers, lawyers, City Council members and teachers share space in the volume.

“The lives of ‘ordinary’ people are seldom recorded in public arenas,” she wrote. “Through this journal, the reader may trace the roles of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles and surrogate parents.”

She tells stories ranging from a tale of the whimsical Ostrich Farm to more serious issues of race riots and unrest.

“If she had not done it, nobody would have, and an important part of the history of Jacksonville would have been lost forever,” said James B. Crooks, a University of North Florida professor emeritus of history.

Jameson dug through old records and archives, combed through church directories, and tiptoed through snake-infested cemeteries to ferret out stories of what it was like to grow up black in 20th-century Jacksonville.

“Historically, the book is important,” Crooks said. “The author was strong in passionate impulse as much as knowledge, who did this as a labor of love for the community.”

David Nolan, a writer and historian in St. Augustine, is quoted several times in her book.

“I hope she inspires others. There is so much unwritten history,” he said. “It is a history that is in danger of being lost.”

Jameson quoted Mildred Murrell, a Jacksonville woman who was a cousin of Zora Neale Hurston. She was best known for writing for the Works Progress Administration and lived in Jacksonville for a time. “She was a person that glowed on receiving attention. She was a snappy dresser, quite unconventional and what, in her day, was called a flapper.”

Hurston lived off and on in St. Augustine several times, teaching at Florida Normal College, one of the many ties in the book between Jacksonville and the nation’s oldest city.

“It’s not just the unwritten history of Jacksonville; a lot of it is the unwritten history of St. Augustine as well,” said Nolan, who was instrumental in getting a Florida State Historical Marker placed in front of Hurston’s former home at 791 King St. in St. Augustine, where she lived in 1942.

Jameson’s book noted that Hurston was one of the early writers on Fort Mose, which was established in 1738 for black slaves, who fled to the Spanish fort to escape from the English colonies to the north in the Carolinas. The site, just north of St. Augustine, was designated as a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While in St. Augustine, Hurston developed a friendship with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek.”

Jameson also has a section on “Bullet” Bob Hayes, a Jacksonville native who is thought by some to be the world’s greatest athlete. He won both an Olympic gold medal as a sprinter and a Super Bowl ring as a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. Hayes was inducted into the team’s “Ring of Honor” and inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

Jameson visited Hayes shortly before his death from prostate cancer in 2002.

He said his greatest moment was when he won an Olympic gold medal and looked up in the stands to see “his mother stand to her feet with tears in her eyes and streaking her face. Beside her standing and jumping from joy were Jesse Owens and his wife Ruth.” Owens was an Olympian who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Singer Marian Anderson was not from Jacksonville, but she performed to an integrated audience on Jan. 23, 1952.

“The attendees paid no attention to skin color and sat side by side to enjoy a tremendous concert. The auditorium was filled to capacity. That night the color line was broken,” Jameson wrote.

After performing all over Europe, Anderson was best known for singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on April 13, 1939, for an audience of 75,000 people.

Jameson also discusses the civil rights protests of Martin Luther King Jr. in 
St. Augustine.

She called the actions that led to his arrest on June 11, 1964, “his last great campaign. It resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” She reported that King, for safety reasons, could not spend more than one night at a single location.

Jameson also recalled baseball great Jackie Robinson joining the march in St. Augustine.

“Jackie Robinson was always outraged by injustice and was in St. Augustine to stand up for his rights and the rights of others. He was the grandson of a slave and the son of 
a sharecropper.”

Among the more touching stories in the book details the rape and murder of Marie Theresa Chase, a young woman who worked as a servant for several white families. She was Jameson’s cousin.

Her naked body was found alongside a railroad track. Leaves had been stuffed in her mouth, asphyxiating her. The crime was never solved. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.

“May God and man unite in running down all such fiends who are capable of committing such a crime as that which was done late Tuesday night,” reported a Dec. 5, 1907 story in the Evening Metropolis.

“I truly feel that people matter. I found everyday people most fascinating; most heroic,” Jameson said of writing about residents of the communities near the current EverBank Field. “I paid attention to individual lives and personal stories. It was all about preservation of history.”

Jameson is already working on her next book, a history of Manhattan Beach, a former black beach located near the present site of Mayport Naval Station and Hanna Park.

Jameson, who retired in 1990, received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and her master’s degree in education from Tallahassee’s Florida A&M.

She is a life member of the Fort Mose Historical Society and NAACP and volunteered with a study and research group during the planning stages of the renovation of the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum, earning its Honored Historian Award in 1990.

“The book will serve to remind us of people who have gone.”

Jameson said she doesn’t have a favorite story in the book.

“This whole book was interesting and fun. They all intrigued me.”

Crooks said he views Jameson’s book as a kind of encyclopedia of the black community.

“It is a reference piece about the Eastside and the people who lived there,” he said.