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The Great Black Way

Here’s a group that used to light up LaVilla at night, the Four Inkspots — better known today as simply The Ink Spots.  These pioneers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.  The group’s biggest hit, “If I Didn’t Care,” came in 1939, with over 19 million copies eventually sold!  The photo dates from the 1940s and was probably not taken in Jacksonville.

YESTERYEAR’S NIGHTLIFE — During the mid-1900s, Jacksonville’s “Great White Way” ran along Forsyth Street, drawing crowds to movie houses between the Florida Theater and Main Street. At the same time, Jacksonville also offered “The Great Black Way.” This hotspot was composed of nightclubs & theaters in the vicinity of Ashley Street in LaVilla. Located east of downtown Jax, LaVilla may be the oldest African American community in Florida. During the 1930s, ’40s, & ’50s, it was well known for offering a glittering nightlife for African Americans.

After dark, Ashley Street shook & shined with such jazz and big band greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. They performed in LaVilla’s clubs and stayed at its hotels. Prior to his stardom, the singer Ray Charles even lived in the Ashley Street area during the mid-1940s.

African American residents could also choose between films, concerts, and vaudeville productions in LaVilla. Its theaters & movie houses included the Strand, the Frolic, and the Ritz.

Helping to keep spirits high among some partiers were such beverages as ”bumpers,” shots of red or white moonshine. Other treats could be bought at ice cream shops and at eateries like the Boston Chop House, a soul food restaurant known for its ”trotters & switches,” that is, pigs’ feet & tails.

Ashley Street’s nightlife emerged because of segregation. African Americans couldn’t frequent white hot spots, so they often built & operated their own. Racial segregation, though, began to wane during the 1960s. Competition from white businesses increased, and many African American establishments closed in LaVilla, as well as elsewhere across the nation.

La Villa began to decline, like a number of other African American neighborhoods. Besides white business competition, several factors contributed to this. The highway system expanded and sliced many communities in half. And due to integration, African Americans also had more choices of where to live. Some relocated to formerly all-white neighborhoods.

To make a long story short, much of old LaVilla has been leveled in recent years. The Great Black Way is no more. However, the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum does offer one bright spot that reflects the best of the old days.


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