Last Updated on September 28, 2023
The 108th Association for the Study of African American Life and History national conference was held in Jacksonville September 19-23, 2023. Jacksonville and Northeast Florida don’t jump to mind with Charleston, Harlem and Birmingham when thinking about Black history, but they should.
American Beach on Amelia Island 35 miles north of Jacksonville was a famous Black-owned resort during the Jim Crow era offering “recreation and relaxation without humiliation,” one of the few places in the South where African Americans were welcomed into the ocean. It was also a major port of entry for the transatlantic slave trade.
St. Augustine, 40 miles south of Jacksonville, was one of only three places where Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested. It is an essential site to understanding the Civil Rights Movement – as much so as Montgomery, AL or Jackson, MS.
Jacksonville was home base for the nation’s most popular Black movie studio in the early 20th century and hometown of the Weldon brothers, authors and composers of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem.
ASALH led day-long Black history trips to each of these destinations – Amelia Island, Jacksonville and St. Augustine – during its conference. I’m sharing highlights of the itineraries so you can follow in their footsteps.
I have lived on Amelia Island since 2012. I took the Amelia Island tour with ASALAH and have visited, written about and recorded podcast episodes on many of these locales. I’m adding a few of my recommendations along with theirs.
My understanding of American history and Black history has increased tremendously as a result of visiting these places.
I’d recommend one full day each for exploring the Black history sites in Amelia Island, Jacksonville and St. Augustine.
- Amelia Island / Fernandina Beach / North of Jacksonville
- St. Augustine
Amelia Island / Fernandina Beach / North of Jacksonville
Fernandina Beach is the municipality on Amelia Island and the names are often interchanged. This barrier island in the extreme northeast corner of Florida is located directly across the St. Mary’s River from Georgia and Cumberland Island.
Important to remember when thinking about early African American history in Florida is that this was a Spanish territory until 1821 before becoming a U.S. state. As such, it’s history with enslavement varies greatly from Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and the Southern U.S. colonies.
Part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Kinsley Plantation is a former sea island cotton, indigo and sugar plantation owned by Zephaniah Kingsley. Most interestingly about Kingsley Plantation is Anna Madgigine Jai, a Senegalese princess kidnapped by slave traders and purchased by Kingsley in Havana at age 13. She was pregnant with his child before reaching America.
Slavers, let it not be forgotten, were often rapists, as well.
Anna would go on to actively participate in plantation management, acquiring her own land and slaves when freed by Kingsley in 1811.
Ranger tours are offered daily of the grounds, which include cabins for the enslaved.
Many sites of African American history are sites of terror and tragedy, American Beach is a site of joy. Here, in 1935, Florida’s first Black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, established a beachside resort welcoming Black people from around the nation.
The American Beach community today is quiet, covering only a few blocks, perfect for a self-guided walking tour. Be sure to stop at Evans Rendezvous, an iconic location along the Chitlin Circuit of Southern, Black music venues, and put your feet in the sand on the beach.
Visit the A.L. Lewis Museum a few blocks from the beach for a great introduction to the area and its significance.
My “Welcome to Florida” podcast featured a full episode about American Beach with American Beach resident and historian Marsha Dean Phelts. Give it a listen on your way into town.
I recommend this American Beach history tour.
Peck High School
Peck was the “Black” high school on Amelia Island for generations and today remains a community center with a nice little museum inside sharing this history.
Middle Passage Port Marker
In “Old Town” Fernandina (715 San Fernando Street), a historical marker stands nearby where thousands of enslaved people from Africa would have been disembarked during Spanish rule over Florida. The site is part of the national Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, a UNESCO Site of Memory, a Site of Conscious, and a part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Giants of Black history from Eartha White, A.L. Lewis, Augusta Savage and the Weldon Brothers to “Bullet” Bob Hayes and Johnetta Betsch Cole called Jacksonville home.
ASALH’s day-long bus tour included 20 stops including Rutledge Pearson Elementary School, Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, the AKA House, the Sugar Hill Neighborhood, Myrtle Avenue Ballpark, the Rutledge Pearson House, the Pearson Post Office, the Ashley Street – Black business district, the Masonic Temple, the old Afro American Life Insurance Company, Snyder Memorial Church, Matthew William Gilbert School, Florida Baptist Academy and Edward Waters University.
Visiting them all would be tough for an individual to pull off as not all the sites are open to the public, many of those that are have irregular hours, and what is often found on those locations today bears little resemblance to the places of Black history they once were.
Visit Jacksonville has developed this visitors guide to Black History which includes Black-owned restaurants, shops, tours and attractions across the city.
For African American history in Jacksonville, these are my high spots:
Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing Park
Under construction as of fall 2023, the park named in honor of the Weldon Brothers’ Black National Anthem located in the historic African American La Villa neighborhood should be open by early 2024.
James Weldon Johnson Park
Named for a Confederate soldier and featuring a Confederate monument until 2020, this is Jacksonville’s oldest city park located smack dab in the heart of downtown. It was in this area where Jacksonville’s most notorious episode of racist violence, Ax Handle Saturday, took place.
A powerful mural recalling the event, the Hope and History Mural, a.k.a. The Ax Handle Saturday Mural, can be found just over a mile away at 915 A. Phillip Randolph Blvd.
Adjacent to James Weldon Johnson Park is a mural recalling Harlem Renaissance titan Augusta Savage’s most famous sculpture, The Harp, also inspired by “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
Three blocks from the park is the Jessie Ball duPont Center. Along one of the exterior walls, a series of vibrant mosaic murals memorialize important figures in Jacksonville’s and the nation’s African American history.
Ritz Theatre and Museum
The mission of the Ritz Theatre and Museum is to research, record, and preserve the material and artistic culture of African American life in Northeast Florida and the African Diaspora, and present it in an educational or entertaining format, showcasing the many facets that make up the historical and cultural legacy of this community.
In addition to the museum, a full schedule of musical, comedy and theatrical performances along with special exhibitions are continually taking place here.
St. Augustine is best known for its Spanish Colonial history. It was here where the first permanent settlement of European colonizers was established in North America. Its African American history is at least as important and much less recognized. That’s on purpose. Florida’s efforts to obscure its Black history isn’t only a new thing.
Prior to visiting St. Augustine, I would strongly suggest listening to my “Welcome to Florida” podcast episode with Flager College history professor and St. Augustine resident Michael Butler. He makes an air-tight argument for St. Augustine’s centrality to the Civil Rights Movement and knowing this will serve as rich background for your visit.
Ft. Mose Historic State Park
It was here, in 1738, where the first settlement of free Black people in what would become the United States was established. How come so few people know this or visit?
Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center
If you visit only one Black History site in Northeast Florida, this is the one I’d recommend.
Lincolnville was the African American neighborhood in St. Augustine. The Best Richardson African Diaspora Literature and Culture Museum is two blocks away, as is the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum and last remaining slave cabin.
NOTE: Visitors to Northeast Florida from outside of Florida should be aware that the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for the state noting, and warning, that under its current governor, Ron DeSantis, Florida has “engaged in an all-out attack on Black Americans, accurate Black history, voting rights, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, women’s reproductive rights, and free speech, while simultaneously embracing a culture of fear, bullying, and intimidation by public officials.”