Jacksonville’s Unique Place in Black History

During this Black History Month of 2024, the Brentwood branch of the Jacksonville Public Library is displaying a traveling poster exhibition titled “A Place for All People,” provided by the Smithsonian Institution. This poster series is an invitation to Americans to visit the newest of the Smithsonian’s museums, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. The title of the poster exhibit evokes the theme of the new museum, that it is a space for learning for everyone. It also suggests the basic idea of the United States as a place for all people.

Bringing this exhibition to Jacksonville has been the work of an extraordinary volunteer organization, the Friends of the Brentwood Library. A diverse group animated by the indomitable Ms. Sharon Coon devotes itself to supporting one of the small, vital gems of this City’s public library system. The Brentwood branch is housed in the former Brentwood Theatre, designed in the “Art Moderne” style by the prolific Jacksonville architect Roy Benjamin,

who also designed the Florida Theater and many other movie houses statewide. Seating 540 viewers before a single screen, the Brentwood Theatre opened in 1941, at 3725 North Pearl Street. It operated until approximately 1956, then in 1961 was adapted by the City of Jacksonville to a new purpose as a neighborhood public library. Today it is instantly recognizable from the street with its streamlined theater-style marquee and deserves a visit even if for no reason other than its success as an adaptive reuse of an historic commercial building.

The Brentwood branch is one of 21 distinctive public libraries serving all of Jacksonville. The exhibit ongoing at Brentwood this month, “A Place for All People,” might also serve as the motto for this and Jacksonville’s other public libraries. The resources and activities of Jacksonville’s Public Library System are about far more than books, and the Smithsonian poster display is just one example of how our libraries connect citizens to each other in their neighborhoods, and connect us to the world beyond Jacksonville.

The exhibit is on display during Black History Month at the Brentwood branch library, and its implicit invitation to visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, are reminders of Jacksonville’s unique place in American Black history. Two of the most noted figures in 20th century American life were Black men from Jacksonville. James Weldon Johnson, a native of this city, was an author, educator, civil rights leader and perhaps best known as the lyricist of the hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” A. Philip Randolph grew up in Jacksonville from the age of 2 until he left at 22, after which he became the single most important civil rights leader in the United States. Their names are recognizable far beyond the boundaries of the city where they experienced their most formative years. Learning their stories, we hope, leads Jacksonville’s children in the 21st century, who are in their own formative years, to be thoughtful about their future in the city of their youth and in the world beyond.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville History Center / Jacksonville Historical Society