Black History Matters: Mural Project Brings Awareness to Jacksonville’s Historic Eastside

THE HOPE & HISTORY MURAL located at Eastside Brotherhood Club, 915 A Philip Randolph Blvd, Jacksonville, FL

This article was originally published April 5, 2018


Public Art Week, an annual event hosted by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, is an opportunity for the city to celebrate local art and to reassert the ‘public’ aspect of public art. Not only a moment to celebrate Jacksonville’s arts scene, it also invites locals to be a part of it–and not just by passive appreciation. ‘The Hope and History Mural Project,’ an initiative by the University of North Florida’s Center for Urban Education and Policy (CUEP), embodies this spirit, as a fusion of historical preservation and the creation of public art that is completely reliant on the active participation of the community.

The project chronicles events from the Historic Eastside, the neighborhood east of Springfield and Downtown Jacksonville, through a months-long project between students in conversation with local residents, and guidance from Jacksonville-based artists Roosevelt Watson III, Nicole Holderbaum, and Suzanne Pickett. The cumulation of the project will be a mural created by the participants located at 915 A. Philip Randolph Blvd on the Eastside Brotherhood Building.

Before I sat down to interview two of the coordinators behind the project, Dr. Chris Janson and Dr. Rudy Jamison of UNF’s CUEP, I was shocked to see how little I knew of the Historic Eastside despite spending much of my childhood there. As a student of Duval County Public Schools’ Magnet program for most of my K-12 education, many of the formative years of my life were in these neighborhoods. Yet, when I was at R. L. Brown Elementary, sitting in traffic on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard, or ran the Bob Hayes Track Invitational, I never thought twice about their namesakes, all of whom were residents of the area and groundbreaking historical figures.

The mural project is an attempt to make sure that Jacksonville’s younger generations don’t live in the same historical ignorance as I did. Working with schools such as Stanton College Preparatory, Paxon School for Advanced Studies, Ed White and Atlantic Coast High Schools, Darnell Cookman Middle/High, and LaVilla Middle School, the program brings students into the local community to discuss its history, particularly in regards to Jacksonville’s Civil Rights past and what role youth played in it.

“We are looking at how do we look back and honor what happened by retelling history in honest ways,” says Janson. “In this case, the students are retelling it through their vision and translation, visually, of this powerful account of what happens when youth and adults work in partnerships, sometimes through the container of public schools. It’s an effort to seek out a healthier, more vibrant, just community.”

Rodney Hurst Lunch Counter, Ax Handle Saturday
Rodney Hurst (middle) at the lunch counter in the events leading up to Ax Handle Saturday

Working closely with Janson and Jamison is Rodney Hurst, who was the President of the Jacksonville NAACP Youth Council during the 1960 sit-ins and Ax Handle Saturday, an event that saw African American youth participating in a non-violent protest, brutally beaten by a white mob in the middle of Downtown. Hurst has written an account of his experiences during this time in the book, ‘It Was Never about a Hot Dog and a Coke,’ which is a reading requirement for the students in the program. Unfortunately, as I experienced firsthand, much of this history has been skipped in local curriculum.

Janson and Jamison have found learning about this history can be a transformative experience for the students. According to Janson, after discussing events such as Ax Handle Saturday, they will say, “I’m angry, I’m frustrated that this not taught in the schools or anywhere else. How come I haven’t ever heard about this before? What else am I not being taught?”

Figures like Hurst have dedicated their life to preserving the memory of the local Civil Rights movement. Yet, this project doesn’t only want to honor those such as Hurst, but also to create another generation instilled with civic responsibility. “There’s one sense about empowerment and agency, another sense of anger, and then there’s a sense of responsibility,” explains Jamison. “Rodney was was 16 when he [led the protests]. It’s the idea, if not me, then who?”

The students have not disappointed. When I heard that students at Paxon have done their Senior IB Art projects on the historical events or that Stanton students were planning a club for preserving local history, my heart swelled with pride. Full disclosure, I myself was a graduate of Stanton, so I am perhaps partial. Yet their courage to reckon with such a messy part of our history, is something I can’t imagine happening when I attended the school ten years ago. You could say that today’s high schoolers ‘stay woke,’ whereas we were more ‘chill out.’ Whatever the reason may be for this change in just a decade, I’m confident that educational experiences such as the mural project are playing a role.

The mural, slated to be complete before summer, will be featured during the Public Art Week Friday, April 6 from 5:00-6:30pm at the mural’s future site, 915 A Philip Randolph Blvd. There, the public can meet with the directors, students, artists, and local residents involved with the project. For more information, follow the UNF Center for Urban Education and Policy online.

About Morgan Henley