Words by Molly Britt
The constant news headlines reporting brutality aimed at the Black community is a reminder that the past can and will repeat if we do not actively try to stop it. As we step into 2023, let us not forget it.
February is Black History Month, and the theme this year is “resistance.” We need to take time to acknowledge those among the Black community who have resisted the status quo and continue to stand up to the leaders of our country in order to fight for what is right … racial equality and civil justice.
As a city with a prominent Black community and a rich history, it is not hard to see what this community has gone through in the fight for basic civil rights throughout the years. As mentioned many times, we cannot repeat the past, or we are doomed for the future. In order to do so, we need to examine what happened in the past.
In 1866, the oldest historically Black college in Florida was founded in Jacksonville and named Edward Waters College. This is where Major League Baseball’s first African-American manager Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Jr. attended school after leaving Sarasota to get a quality education. It was one of only four high schools to exist in Florida that allowed Black students to attend. O’Neil’s baseball career jumped off here. Jacksonville was a jumping-off point for many who wanted to fight for their rights.
Jacksonville is where James Weldon Johnson heard Frederick Douglass’ speech and became inspired by his passion and perseverance. Johnson went on to teach at Stanton Elementary School before expanding the school to a high school after being named principal. He studied law and became the first Black man admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. He is widely known as a singer, songwriter, poet, educator, lawyer, and civil rights leader but probably best known for writing the lyrics to“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (aka “the Black National Anthem”) with his brother John Rosamond Johson providing the music.
In 1904 Eartha White funded the Clara White Mission we know today. The organization initially offered services not otherwise available to Black residents and is now a 100+ year old organization dedicated to serving the needs of the less fortunate. Eartha White later became the director of the National Anti-Lynching Committee for Florida in 1922. She pushed to eradicate lynching and push for legislation prohibiting it. Since then, the mission Wite founded has grown exponentially to help and protect more and more local residents in need of their services.
Many others have made their historical marks in Jacksonville in the fight for civil rights. In 1952, celebrated musician Marian Anderson became the first musician in Florida’s modern history to perform in front of an interracial audience after refusing to sing in a theater with segregated seating.
It wasn’t just major political and educational historic moments that occurred during Jacksonville’s fight for racial justice. Did you know the curly fry is said to have been invented in Moncrief? Wendy Holley’s uncle Leroy made the machine that curled fries. Moncrief’s Holley’s BBQ has been around since 1937 and is rumored to have been the start of curly fries. It’s said by his niece that he couldn’t get a patent on the machine because he was unable to read and write. So now you know…we can thank Moncrief for the invention of the best fry ever.
So, while we get through the month and happen along the hidden and not so hidden corners of Jacksonville, let’s not forget the historic steps that those in Jacksonville’s Black community took and continue to take to be heard and seen.