The Strand Theatre, photo courtesy: Metro Jacksonville

BEFORE THE MUSIC DIED: LaVilla – ”The Great Black Way”

“West Ashley Street,” sang the Jacksonville Harmony Trio in 1927, was the only place you could “ever lose these awful Jacksonville Blues.” That same year, Paramount “Race” Records recorded a mysterious ragtime blues guitarist named Blind Blake playing “Ashley Street Blues,” with Leola Wilson singing, “I’m a heartbroken woman with the Ashley Street Blues.” Nellie Florence recorded another version of “Jacksonville Blues” in 1928. She Blind_Blakewas “red hot” in Atlanta, she sang, “But the man I love lives down in Jacksonville.”

West Ashley was the central thoroughfare for LaVilla, a mostly black town after the Civil War, a slave plantation earlier in the 19th century, and during Jacksonville’s brutal Jim Crow years, one of the most culturally vibrant black districts in the South.

Richard McKissick, who managed the Roosevelt and Strand Theatres on West Ashley Street in the 1960s, refers to West Ashley as “the Great Black Way,” in counterpoint to Broadway being “Great White Way,” because of its lights.

Mayor Ed Austin’s 1993 River City Renaissance plan demolished all but a handful of significant old buildings in LaVilla. The neighborhood was seen as an ugly “front door” to Downtown from Interstate-95, which had sliced across western LaVilla three decades before.

Broad Street photo: Metro Jacksonville
Broad Street, photo: Metro Jacksonville

The previous several decades had not been kind to LaVilla. Suburban flight hit inner-city neighborhoods like LaVilla hard in the 1950s and ’60s. Though the phrase “white flight” captures the racist fears of the majority, whites weren’t the only citizens to desert inner-city neighborhoods.

DeLoach FurnFor what Terry DeLoach says about the Richmond Hotel on LaVilla’s eastern border applies to LaVilla as a whole. For decades, the DeLoaches ran their furniture business in a ground-floor storefront beneath the premium hotel where black musicians and athletes and entertainers stayed when they came to Jacksonville. But the Richmond Hotel became a cheap boarding house sometime in the 1960s. “During segregation,” DeLoach says, “it had always been an all-black hotel, but successful black people didn’t want to stay in an all-black hotel anymore.”

And Richard McKissick warns against romanticizing LaVilla’s former glory. “You have to understand that LaVilla as I remember it was a result of segregation,” McKissick says.

the-Central-Hotel-at-the-intersection-of-Broad-and-Beaver-Streets.-Courtesy-of-the-City-of-Jacksonville-Historic-Preservation-Office
The Central Hotel at the intersection of Broad and Beaver Streets. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office

In the 19-teens, Ashley Street clubs and theaters like the Bijou and the Colored Airdome Theater featured blues and ragtime musicians, but also blatantly racist Vaudeville acts. “Jim Crow,” the name allocated to the whole code of racist legislation the South enacted after the Civil War, was a stock blackface character in Vaudeville theatre. Jim Crow stole chickens and watermelons and blubbered idiotically when confronted by whites. The awful irony is that whites weren’t the only audiences for such stereotypes.

The Bijou showed locally shot silent Shakespeare adaptations, but when it also showed Vaudeville acrobats and contortionists, the Colored Airdome featured tap dancing, “coon shouting,” and minstrel acts like the “Two Zulus.”

Manuel's Tap Room was located at 626 W. Ashley Street
Manuel’s Tap Room was located at 626 W. Ashley Street

Both theaters popularized a song and dance called “The Jacksonville Rounders’ Dance,” though protests against the title, “rounders” meaning “pimps,” resulted in the song becoming “The Original Black Bottom Dance” and the accompanying dance, the “Pimp’s Walk.”

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

In 1920, a minstrel blues musician named Franklin “Baby” Seals played the Globe for two months, singing his song “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” 44 years before the white rock ‘n’ roll band Bill Haley and the Comets recorded their version. Entertainers like the tap dancer Bojangles Robinson and “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, then booked as a “coon shouter,” played the Globe as well.

Sometime after the Globe went bankrupt, the great humanitarian leader Eartha White purchased the building and headquartered the Clara White Mission there. Eartha White helped bring the Silas Green from New Orleans variety show,

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

which starred big names like “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith, Nipsy Russell, and Gatemouth Brown, back to LaVilla, where it had toured since 1904.

Most of the jazz giants who played LaVilla stayed at the Richmond Hotel at 420 Broad Street, people like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. The Hollywood Music Store at the corner of West Ashley and Broad sold records and helped bring to town Earl “Fatha” Hines, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole.

Louis Armstrong preferred the Wynn Hotel, at the corner of Jefferson and West Ashley, since it was right in the heart of the music, and he usually played across the street, one block west, at the Knights of Pythias Hall.

Wynn Hotel, LaVilla Jacksonville
What’s left of the Wynn Hotel, photo courtesy of Metro Jacksonville

Today, there’s little left of LaVilla. The building that once housed the Wynn Hotel upstairs above the Lenape Tavern and Manuel’s Taproom, stands as an empty hull across from LaVilla School of the Arts. Across the street and down the block, the Clara White Mission, now 111 years old, operates as the oldest local humanitarian institution, though Austin’s “renaissance” nearly took the Mission out with the rest of LaVilla.

The stories remain, but they’re harder to find than they used to be. Like how J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson played music on the street corners of LaVilla near their childhood home on Houston Street and visited their father at the magnificent Victorian St. James Hotel on Hemming Park where he was headwaiter. Later, of course, the two wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “Black National Anthem” and James Weldon Johnson intersected black literature and music in such works as God’s Trombones and The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

Like when Jelly Roll Morton confronted the man who stole his girlfriend Stella at Nick’s Pool Parlor on Davis Street, hustled him for some money, and bought himself a trombone.

Like when Blind Blake sang about his love troubles around the corner on Stonewall Street in “Stonewall Street Blues.”

Katie Abraham, a performer with the Silas Green Variety Show, remembered playing LaVilla every Christmas Eve from the late ’20s to the early ’30s. It was her favorite night of the year. After the show every other night, she said, “we went straight back to the car, every night except once a year.” Christmas Eve on West Ashley Street “was the one night we got to go to the dance.”

About Tim Gilmore

Tim Gilmore is the author of several books, including In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People and Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic. He's the creator of www.jaxpsychogeo.com, which features nearly 250 stories about significant places across Jacksonville, Florida. He teaches Literature and Composition at Florida State College at Jacksonville.
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