Friday, October 20, 2023

Jacksonville struggles to overcome a racism ‘baked into our culture’. (Lori Rozsa, WaPo)

Good investigation of racism in Jacksonville, our neighbor to the north. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called St. Augustine "the most lawless" place in America.  From The Washington Post:

Jacksonville struggles to overcome a racism ‘baked into our culture’

A man heads down Myrtle Avenue in Jacksonville, Fla., where a racially motivated triple killing in late August was a wrenching reminder of the city's racist past. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The massive, columned monument still sits in a downtown park just off Confederate Street, a mother and the two small children she’s embracing high atop a pedestal at its center. Calls for its removal nearly prevailed two years ago, until the cost hit $1.3 million. The city instead wrapped “The Women of the Southland” in a tarp.

The plastic has long since fallen off, leaving the bronze figures honoring the “Lost Cause” visible to anyone passing by. Like so many aspects of Jacksonville, they symbolize the challenges that Florida’s biggest city continues to face in reckoning with its racist past.

Past and present keep colliding in wrenching ways here. In late August, three Black people were fatally shot by a White man with a swastika-decorated assault rifle who had targeted a Dollar General store in a Black neighborhood. The attack came a day shy of the 63rd anniversary of the violence known as Ax Handle Saturday, when a local White mob beat Black residents protesting segregation.

Seven weeks after the fatal shooting outside Dollar General in Jacksonville, memorials remain for the three Black residents who died. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Debra Cotton is a lifelong resident of Jacksonville. She runs The Hub, which offers classes and other activities for children. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Then in late September, White police officers were recorded punching and slamming a 24-year-old Black man to the ground after a traffic stop. Detectives said he was being surveilled as part of a drug investigation and resisted arrest; his attorneys said the tactics used to subdue him were like a “ground-and-pound beatdown.”

“I wish that I could say that as a community we are better than the actions of one racist individual — except it’s not just one individual, this is unfortunately baked into our culture,” said Kimberly Allen, who leads 904ward, a group focused on racial healing and equity.

“The good news is that we don’t have to stay this kind of Jacksonville,” added Allen, who is Black. “There is hope and redemption if we are willing to be honest with ourselves and take a hard look in the mirror.”

Doing so has been complicated given moves by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other conservative politicians since last year, from restricting what Black history is taught to the state’s schoolchildren to eliminating the congressional district in which Jacksonville helped elect a Black representative.

In a city where nearly a third of residents are Black, impatience and anger are competing with the hope that many have for change. They blame DeSantis in particular for dividing rather than uniting; despite his saying that what the shooter did was “totally unacceptable,” he was booed and shouted down at a local vigil the day after the triple killing.

Sunrise reveals the Jacksonville skyline. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Many here view the governor’s attack on “wokeness” in deeply personal terms. Black history has been closely intertwined with Jacksonville and north Florida’s history for centuries. The city is home to Edward Waters University, a historically Black institution founded in 1866, and has one of the largest concentrations of Gullah Geechee descendants in the country. Last year it dedicated a public marker honoring a community built by formerly enslaved Gullah Geechee people in the 1870s.

David Jamison, a Black professor at the university, said the governor’s response to racially targeted violence rings hollow. “He says, ‘Florida is where woke goes to die.’ And if you see wokeness as a dog whistle for people who are Black, what does that tell the people who follow him?”

Seven weeks after the shooting at the Dollar General store, the handwritten notes of remembrance and sympathy left by family, friends and strangers have faded in the strong Florida sun, as have the photos ofthose killed — Jerrald De’Shaun Gallion, Angela Michelle Carr and Anolt Joseph “A.J.” Laguerre Jr.

Yet someone still leaves fresh flowers at the site a couple of times a week, which Debra Cotton watches from her business across the street.

“People are still visiting. It shows how [the tragedy] affected the city,” said Cotton, who is Black. “The people of Jacksonville have been shaken by it.”

She’s a lifelong resident and believes the city can fight racism by bringing better jobs and more job training to neighborhoods such as hers, plus fixing roads and attracting new businesses. She ran a summer school this year out of The Hub, as she calls her venture, which offers various programs to youth, and she thinks investment in education should be a priority as well.

Predominantly Black areas on Jacksonville’s north side grapple with decades of neglect and disinvestment. Cracked sidewalks or streets without any sidewalks and aging septic systems that regularly overflow into yards. No grocery stores.

Redlining has deepened the economic woes, and on Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland traveled to Jacksonville to announce a $9 million settlement with a local bank accused of discriminating against residents in the city’s Black and Hispanic communities — as recently as 2021 — by denying or discouraging credit and home loan applications.

The Justice Department complaint alleged that Ameris Bank located its branches to cater to majority-white neighborhoods and to avoid serving Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. If approved by the court, Garland said the settlement would go toward expanding “access to credit opportunities” for the latter.

Edward Waters University, a historically black college, was founded in Jacksonville more than 150 years ago. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Benjamin Clark, who leads the Abundant Life Christian Center 2, is clear-eyed about the actions and decisions that have divided Jacksonville along racial lines. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Pastor Benjamin Clark knows about other opportunities that were blocked and promises never kept.

A 1968 measure to merge the government structures of Jacksonville and Duval County won voter approval in part because of the touted benefit to Black residents. The consolidation created the largest city in the Lower 48 states, one covering nearly 840 square miles, and leaders said the result would be more investment in historically Black areas, away from the beaches and riverfront. That didn’t happen.

Clark’s church, the Abundant Life Christian Center 2, is also within eyesight of the Dollar General store. Barely two miles away along the St. Johns River, gleaming downtown office buildings house the banking, insurance and health care companies that are the city’s economic foundation.

“There’s some divide here that needs to be changed, and a lot of that comes from the mentality of power and control that gave us zoning laws and things that divided us even more,” said Clark, who is Black. “Those have been roadblocks in the past, but that may be changing.”

He sees one bright spot on the horizon: Jacksonville’s new mayor, Donna Deegan. “It’s a big job, but she’s embraced it,” he said. “She seems to have kind of a kindred spirit, and that’s what’s necessary for us to move ahead.”

A mural in Jacksonville depicts the 1960 attack known as Ax Handle Saturday, when hundreds of White men equipped with ax handles and baseball bats went after a group of young Black residents protesting segregation. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Deegan’s victory in May surprised and shook the Jacksonville political establishment. She’s a Democrat in a city that had turned from purple to red in recent years — Joe Biden claimed Duval County in 2020, but DeSantis won it by a wide margin in 2022. Six months later, voters elected Deegan, a longtime local TV anchor, as Jacksonville’s first female mayor.

Her success in beating a DeSantis-endorsed opponent came in part through strong support in the Black community. Deegan campaigned on promises of greater investment in infrastructure in majority-Black neighborhoods and in social programs that address food insecurity and poverty.

She also vowed to fight crime, and a recent spate of homicides, which left two children dead, heightened concerns. The top law enforcement official for Jacksonville is Duval Sheriff T.K. Waters, a veteran officer and a conservative Black Republican whom DeSantis endorsed. He was elected shortly before Deegan, promising to be “forward facing” and transparent, though his defense of the officers accused of excessive force in the arrest of Le’Keian Woods has come under harsh criticism from many Black residents.

A banned book readout in Jacksonville, organized by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, drew more than 200 residents in late September. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Florida leaders' moves to limit how Black history is taught have been met with anger in Jacksonville, where a city mural depicts an African American girl engrossed in a book. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

The City Council approved Deegan’s $1.7 billion budget last month, the largest in Jacksonville’s history. It will help pay for sidewalk and crosswalk improvements, mowing and landscape maintenance, septic tank removal, and programs to address housing affordability and homelessness.

In addition, the budget includes $7.8 million for more police officers and $500,000 for the removal of Confederate markers — an issue that Deegan acknowledges still splits the community.

By and large we have a good, loving city, but there are still a lot of simmering issues from the past,” she said in an interview. “We’re dealing with a system that still has some systemic racism in it. We should do better, and we can.”

She added, “We have to make good on promises that have been broken for the last 50 years since we consolidated this city, and those promises have never been kept.”

Like the mayor, Tim Gilmore is White who has lived here his entire life. He has chronicled the city’s race relations for decades, both as an author and a professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville, and he thinks Deegan’s election is a positive sign.

“Jacksonville is a complicated place, and all the forces at work nationally are at work here,” he noted. “But it’s changing.”

Dollar General employee A.J. Laguerre Jr. was one of three people killed during the shooting there this summer. The Black community in Jacksonville continues to heal. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

A group called Take Em Down Jax rallies weekly at city hall, demanding the removal of the 10 remaining Confederate markers and monuments around town. A recent poll showed that support for leaving them in place had dropped to 42 percent.

Officials pulled down one statue in 2020 — the Confederate soldier topped a spire across the street from city hall — and renamed the park there for James Weldon Johnson, a Black civil rights leader, teacher, poet and attorney in Jacksonville in the early 20th century.

The following year, the Duval County School Board renamed six schools that originally had honored Confederate army officers. Confederate Parkalso became Springfield Park.

Despite many calls for its removal, a statue erected in 1915 to commemorate women of the confederacy is still a centerpiece of Jacksonville's Springfield Park. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Tia Hartley works on her laptop in Springfield Park, which until two years ago was called Confederate Park. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

“I think that the difficulty Jacksonville has had in figuring out what to do with the monuments that were built to praise the defense of slavery is as much a symbol of how the city is dealing with its history as the monuments themselves,” Gilmore said.

He expects “The Women of the Southland” will come down because the new mayor wants it down. “I would be really surprised if it survived her first term,” he said.

Across town, Cotton sees the monument issue as a distraction and hopes Deegan will follow through on substantive promises to the Black community, including bringing better-paying jobs to neighborhoods such as hers.

So far, she’s optimistic. “In a state where they’re trying to erase our history, I think Jacksonville is going to fight back against that,” she said. “I think it’s headed in the right direction.”

Lori Rozsa is a reporter based in Florida who covers the state for The Washington Post. She is a former correspondent for People magazine and a former reporter and bureau chief for the Miami Herald. Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Where woke goes to die" is just a slogan. He can't really forbid the teaching of social studies. This is just something to amuse his base. Only ignoramuses would be amused by such stunts when he's got more important things to take care of and he's not taking care of those things. Problem is, his base doesn't see any issues in need of attendance. So these GOP people can just about sit on their asses and entertain people for a living. Long term solutions require bold action and they will not take certain steps. That's not the way they swing it politically.