Jacksonville History Matters

“Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.”

That catchy little quote is ascribed to author and artist Mary Engelbreit. It suggests that thinking about the past is a waste of time, because what’s in the past is beyond our ability to affect. That sounds sensible enough. Lamenting what might have been, or wishing to change the past is indeed futile. Of course we are not going backward. But that’s not what history is about.

History neither blames nor praises anyone for what they have done or left undone. History is about understanding those people and their choices. In the light of the present, the choices made by those who came before us will always be more clear.

Looking back at the context of events in the past is really the only tool we have for recognizing the context of our lives in the present. Without history, we would be like sailors out at sea, or hikers in the deep forest, with no idea which way to go because they have no idea how they got to where they are. In a world where it’s impossible to peer into the future and see what’s ahead, the evidence of the past is our only source of clues. History is how we make sense out of the clues of the past.

Knowing something about how Jacksonville has weathered past economic recessions or depressions tells us where we came from. That suggests policy ideas for the future. Knowing, for example, that shipbuilding caused Jacksonville to grow quickly in the 1910s and again the 1940s tells us that maritime industries can help make a city sustainable. Appreciating that the once-new technologies of railroads, automobiles and aircraft brought swift and immense changes to Jacksonville should tell us how influential today’s emerging transportation technologies may be to our future, even though they may seem doubtful in the present.

Knowing that it took 189 years for Jacksonville to elect its first Black mayor, and 201 years to elect its first woman to that office, does not mean that the city has been a place of exceptional racism or sexism. But it does signal that it is a changing city, which is worth remembering as we imagine its future. Knowing that the greatest American civil rights leader of the twentieth century grew up in Jacksonville and then left it for want of opportunity tells us that creating opportunities for the children and youth of this city matters a lot. That’s true of any city, but here we are lucky to have that story with a famous name attached, Asa Philip Randolph, to bring the message home in our neighborhoods and schools.

In 1878, Jacksonville became the site of the first building in Florida designed and constructed for use as a hospital. In 2024, it’s the home of four major health systems with hospitals and clinics that attract patients from the region and across the country. Given that trajectory, it takes little imagination to foresee the importance of medicine and health care to this city’s future.

Many of the buildings of Jacksonville’s past stand today serving productive, economically sustainable uses in the 21st century. They also help tell the stories of those who designed and built them, and those who lived and worked in them. The message they send down through generations is that Jacksonville is a distinctive place like no other. That unique legacy reminds us that this 202-year-old city has centuries of stories yet to be created, and that today, we are the authors of those stories, and the custodians of Jacksonville’s future.

Knowing something about our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools, or our city strengthens our sense of investment in those places. When we connect to our past, we become citizens in full. That is why Jacksonville History Matters, and that is why there is a Jacksonville History Center.

Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville History Center