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Davis Street Time Warp

Let’s go back to December 1941, the month during which the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This was when a photographer snapped the first photo to the left. It shows a scene just north of today’s Ritz Theatre & La Villa Museum on Davis Street. We’re looking north up Davis, from its intersection with Kings Road. Notice how Kings Road, a highway leading out of town, was paved. Bricks still made up the surface of Davis, though.

Davis Street used to hum with activity, a thriving commercial district mostly oriented toward African Americans. Take another look at the photo: Sixty years ago, many La Villa residents visited the structure with the iron balcony. Dr. Lincoln B. Childs is someone well remembered today as maintaining a medical office there. (The physician and his wife Theodosia made their home at 132 Magnolia.) The building also offered a variety of businesses, including the D & B Cafe, a shoe store owned by Joseph Bahnan, a barbershop owned by William M. Davis (an African American), a clothing cleaner owned by George W. Parker (African American), the OK Furniture Company, an A & P grocery store (which later changed to a Daylight Supermarket), and Ossi Abdelrahim’s food store. Several residents lived on the floor above these establishments.

What’s in the spot of the structure today? A field next to one of the buildings on the FCCJ Downtown Campus.

The structure with the iron balcony stood cattycornered from the Witschen Building. Until a few years ago, the Witschen was the largest remaining commercial structure along Davis Street. Dating from 1912 (the year the Titanic sank), the Witschen looked somewhat similar to the structure above. On the first floor were stores for shoes, groceries, drugs, and hardware. On the second level were residences with iron-railed balconies. During the 1980s & ’90s, though, bulldozers flattened the Witschen Building and its neighboring commercial structures of comparable vintage. This added to the gradual decline of the once-bustling area. (In the spot of the Witschen Building today is the Urban League Building. It contained the well-known La Villa Grill, which has since closed.)

Especially during the 1960s, it was integration that brought about the demise of many black-owned businesses. African Americans began to visit white-owned enterprises that had formerly been off limits. The new competition killed a number of black ventures, which often didn’t have the financial reserves of their white counterparts.

Photo 2: In 1941, this photo was taken on the same day as the other view of Davis Street & Kings Road. Notice how the black car is parked in the identical spot in both scenes. Clearly visible under the vehicle are the bricks in Davis Street.

Several black residents can be seen walking past, for La Villa had traditionally been an African American neighborhood.

Photo 3: Here’s St. Stephens AME Church in 1941. This traditionally African American institution sits near the corner of Davis & 5th streets in Springfield. St. Stephens was founded in 1905. The sanctuary above has been torn down, and the present church building dates from 1958.

Photo 4: Was America at war yet? Had the Japanese already bombed Pearl Harbor on the Seventh? This Jacksonville photo was snapped in December 1941. The brick thoroughfare is Davis Street, either in La Villa or West Springfield. In front of one of the stores appears to be a white-aproned proprietor.

Photo 5: You might think that you are looking at a country road. Actually, this is Davis Street in Springfield in 1942. The photo was snapped at a railroad crossing near its intersection with 12th Street. The rails are now gone, and local residents use the right-of-way as a walkway and driveway. On the left sits a little, tin-roofed restaurant owned by an African American, Pearle H. Douglas. Called “Miss Pearle” by her patrons, she lived at her place of business. Occupying the structure today is a neighborhood grocery store. Davis Street may have been brick until the 1960s, according to the storeowner. Now paved, the road is still rather narrow, running between small, older homes north of the 8th Street intersection. Davis is located several hundred yards east of I-95.

The tall chimney on the right belonged to the Davis Street School, an African American institution established in 1917. It was later renamed Isaiah Blocker Junior High School. Today, the old auditorium/gymnasium building at the school contains the Christ Tabernacle Missionary Church, founded in 1986. Three wooden crosses stand in front. Just north of the church is Roosevelt Gardens, which opened in May 1950. Not considering public housing developments, Roosevelt Gardens once ranked as the city’s largest apartment complex for African Americans, according to a longtime Jax resident who is writing about local black history. With its one- and two-story selections, Roosevelt Gardens was considered among Jacksonville’s premier places for middle-class African Americans to live.

Photo 6:
From this angle, Davis Street looks like a wide river of bricks. The business to the left was a grocery store. According to the 1942 city directory, “Brown’s Supermarket” stood at 1400 Davis Street, near its intersection with West 4th. The establishment was owned by Morris M. Brown, who lived on Boulevard Avenue near West 16th. By 1956, the structure housed Young’s Confectionary, presided over by Mrs. Gertrude L. Young.

The old building is gone, and an abandoned grocery store occupies the spot today. Located nearby are Darnell-Cookman Middle School and St. Stephens AME Church. Interstate 95 runs just to the west.

LEADER LIVED HERE — The scene above would’ve been familiar to George E. Ross, who resided in the dark two-story house with the squared gable. Ross made local history: He was the last African American to serve on the Jacksonville city council prior to the modern era. Ross sat on the council long ago, from 1901 to 1907.

Born in 1869, Ross hailed from Gainesville, Florida, but he grew up in Cedar Key and Key West. At age fifteen he came to Jacksonville to enroll in Cookman Institute, which later became part of Bethune-Cookman College. Ross remained a strong ally of the city’s African American educational institutions.

Ross earned a living as a lawyer, a businessman, and a cigar maker, eventually opening the George Ross Cigar Factory. After the Great Fire of 1901, he worked hard as a member of the city council’s committee for rebuilding Jacksonville. Consequently, Ross earned widespread praise for his work. He also became active in another issue: the weeding of African Americans from the city’s fire department during the early 1900s. In spite of his efforts, however, race became a determinant in the hiring and firing of staff. The fire department turned lily white for many years to come.

Racial prejudice eventually cost Ross his own council position. After another African American councilman, J. Douglas Wetmore, was defeated in a 1903 election, Ross had remained as that body’s only black member. In 1907, though, his white enemies had his council district gerrymandered. In other words, it was redrawn so that it included many voters not favorable to Ross. His had been the last African American district in the city. Black residents had little opportunity to elect another African American from their community until the 1960s.

After his departure from the council, Ross continued to serve black Jacksonville for five more decades. He became very involved in the Prince Hall Lodge, Free Accepted Mason, and as a member of nearby St. Stephens’s AME Church.

written by Glenn Emery

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