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The only known photograph of Dr. A.H. Darnes. Photo courtesy of a private collection.

Alexander Darnes: Jacksonville’s First Black Physician

A.H. Darnes and Kirby Smith were born at the same St. Augustine home and spent a portion of their lives working side by side. In 1880, Darnes moved to Jacksonville to practice medicine. A unique statue reunites the two men.

On November 8th, 2004, the St. Augustine Historical Society dedicated a monument to two of the city’s favorite sons, Dr. Alexander H. Darnes and General Edmund Kirby Smith. The men were born and grew up within the same St. Augustine household, although Darnes was approximately 16 years younger. Darnes was son of black slave Violet Pinkney who was a servant in the Smith household.

In 1855, Darnes left St. Augustine and headed to the western frontier to serve as valet to Edmund Kirby Smith, then a captain in the U.S. Army, according to Charles Tingley, Reference Librarian for the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. Darnes continued to serve Smith after Smith joined the army of the Confederate States of America. Tingley says that Darnes is the only African American private servant in either “the U.S. or Confederate Armies to leave an autobiographical account of his experiences…”

After the war, Darnes left the service of the Smiths to attend Lincoln University. In 1880, he received a medical degree from Howard University and soon opened a practice in downtown Jacksonville. He was the first Black physician in Jacksonville —the second in Florida — and a highly respected member of the local community. In fact, one Jacksonville newspaper account at the time of his 1894 death said more people gathered for Darnes’ funeral than any funeral in the city’s history.

Obituary for Dr. A.H. Darnes Reveals Respect of the City’s Citizens

Excerpted from the newspaper, The Evening Telegram (Jacksonville, Florida), Tuesday, February 13, 1894

The largest number of people ever gathered within the walls of any church in this city was at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church yesterday to attend the funeral of Dr. A. H. Darnes, deceased. Long before the appointed time for the ceremonies to begin, people could be seen coming from every direction wending their way towards the church, and by 1 o’clock p.m. the church was already crowded.” The deceased stood high in the estimation of the people of the city, both white and colored, and was one of the most prominent colored masons in America. The procession started from the parlors of undertaker Clark on Forsyth Street and was led by the Union Coronet [sic] and Excelsior bands, both of which played sacred music. The Knights of Archer and other masons were…attired in full regalia and made a credible appearance much admired by everybody. … The body was enclosed in …in a beautiful rosewood casket… Rev. J.E. Lee officiated, and eloquently did he speak from the first chapter of Joshua, and said that he wished he had time to explain the possibilities of men of our race such as Darnes… The Rev. J.R. Scott read the ritual services. Just at this time, two pigeons flew to the top of the church and remained there. Some of the people present said that t’was angels that came to guard the soul home to heaven. Dr. Darnes, the deceased, was about 48 years of age, and had been a popular practicing physician in this city for about 16 years, and rendered valuable services during the smallpox and yellow fever epidemics. … The internment was in the old city cemetery [sic], and the body was followed there by a procession of people. … At least 3,000 people attended the funeral.

James Weldon Johnson’s memories of City’s first Black physician:

A goldmine of early Jacksonville history, James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography, Along This Way, offers the following fond account of Dr. Alexander Darnes:

When I was perhaps ten years old, a strange being came to Jacksonville, the first colored doctor. He practiced…a number of years and made a success, but he had a hard uphill fight. Few were the colored people at the time who had the faith to believe that one of their own knew how to make those…marks on a piece of paper that would bring from the drugstore something to stand between them and death. Dr. Darnes made himself a big chum to Rosamond [brother of James Weldon Johnson] and me, and we liked him tremendously. He constantly brought us some of the odds and ends so much prized by boys. He once gave us fifty cents apiece for learning the deaf and dumb alphabet within a given time. …. But best of all, Dr. Darnes was an enthusiastic fisherman, and he opened up a new world of fun and sport by teaching us how to fish.

In April 1884, The New York Globe reported that A.H. Darnes was becoming one of the sound businessmen of Jacksonville and that he had a large and handsome residence in an upper class section of the city. The home and office were located in the same structure on Ocean Street.

The Florida Times Union offered a short tribute to Dr. Darnes after his death stating he was “universally esteemed by all who knew him” and noted his valuable services during the 1888 yellow fever epidemic. The article also observed Dr. Darnes’ prominence in the Masonic order; Darnes was the Florida Deputy Grand Master and High Priest of the Royal Arch Chapter of Washington, D.C. at the time of his death.

A monument to Smith and Darnes was unveiled in St. Augustine on November 8, 2004, depicting the two men together in a lifesized bronze sculpture. The sculptor is Maria Kirby-Smith who is the General’s great granddaughter.

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