The Best Books About Jacksonville

The Jaxson's list of 36 of the best nonfiction books ever written about Jacksonville and the people who made it what it is today.

It was Never about a Hot Dog and a Coke!: A Personal Account of the 1960 Sit-in Demonstrations in Jacksonville, Florida and Ax Handle Saturday

Rodney L. Hurst, Wingspan Press, 2008

In 1960, a 16-year-old Rodney L. Hurst led the NAACP’s Jacksonville Youth Council as they organized sit-in protests at whites-only lunch counters in Downtown Jacksonville. Hurst personally experienced Ax Handle Saturday, the dark day when a group of white racists bludgeoned the demonstrators and then turned their attacks on every black person they came across. This book serves as Hurst’s personal account of events that pushed Jacksonville from Jim Crow into the modern era.

Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography

Zora Neale Hurston, J. B. Lippincott, 1942 (first edition, reprinted several times)

Multifaceted novelist, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston came to Jacksonville in 1904 at the age of 13 to attend boarding school. Largely cut off by her father after her mother’s death, Hurston wrote of the ordeal, “that hour began my wanderings.” She spent the next decade living with family members in Jacksonville and elsewhere before throwing herself into her academic and literary career. She traveled widely but frequently returned to the First Coast, and her experiences in Florida shaped much of her work. First published in 1942, her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road features many sections on Hurston’s time in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, offering a picture of African American life in the region in the early 20th century.

Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson, Viking Press, 1933 (first edition; reprinted several times)

James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938) is one of the most celebrated people ever to come from Jacksonville or Florida. The pioneering author, lawyer, educator, diplomat, civil rights leader and songwriter left his mark with such contributions as the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and the groundbreaking novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Johnson’s autobiography - not to be confused with his fictional novel - contains much valuable information on life in Jacksonville during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period in which the city Johnson considered “a good town for Negroes” devolved into “a one hundred percent cracker town” that obliterated the progress African-Americans had made during Reconstruction.

World’s Finest Beach: A Brief History of the Jacksonville Beaches

Donald J. Mabry, Arcadia Publishing, 2010

Donald Mabry, a Beaches native and Mississippi State University emeritus professor, offers an excellent account of the development of the Jacksonville Beaches. The Beaches communities - Mayport, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Jacksonville Beach, and Ponte Vedra Beach - have pasts just as eclectic as their presents. Mabry describes how these communities grew from summer resorts for the Jacksonville elite into thriving communities and tourist attractions, and the many changes they’ve faced along the way.

A Quiet Revolution: The Consolidation of Jacksonville-Duval County and the Dynamics of Urban Political Reform

Richard Martin & Chris Hand, Jacksonville Historical Society, 2019 (first edition 1968)

Journalist Richard Martin, who reported extensively on the movement to consolidate the Jacksonville and Duval County governments in the 1960s and later served the city as Chief of Public Relations, was the perfect choice to pen this landmark account of the events back in 1968. The book has been periodically updated to cover the years since. For the 50th anniversary, Chris Hand, a writer and former Chief of Staff for Mayor Alvin Brown, edited the modern version with material covering the last decade. A Quiet Revolution provides a thorough and incisive look at the past, present and future of Jacksonville’s government.

The Timucua

Jerald T. Milanich, Blackwell Publications, 1996

Long before Jacksonville was founded, the Timucua lived across north Florida and southern Georgia for thousands of years. Among the first North American natives to encounter Europeans, they allied with the French and were later incorporated into the Spanish mission system. Greatly affected by European disease, slavery, and warfare, they declined severely by the 18th century, and the few remaining Timucua left for Cuba with the Spanish in 1763. Milanich’s book is a great overview of the millennia-long story of the North Florida’s indigenous people. It’s a great place to start for anyone wanting to know more about the Timucua and the earliest history of the Jacksonville area.

Almost Hollywood: The Forgotten Story of Jacksonville, Florida

Blair Miller, Hamilton Books, 2013

Another account of filmmaking in Jacksonville during the silent era, Blair Miller’s work explores the over 30 studios that called Jacksonville home in the 1910s and the changing cultural and political tides that ultimately saw the industry uprooting for Hollywood by the 1920s.

Pioneer Family: Life on Florida’s Twentieth-Century Frontier

Michel Oesterreicher, University of Alabama Press, 1996

Pioneer Family is Michel Oesterreicher’s account of her hardworking rural family - and a lifestyle that has vanished from the Jacksonville area. Her parents, Hugie and Oleta Oesterreicher, grew up on farms in what was then the wild area between Jacksonville and St. Augustine in the early 20th century. It is a valuable, personal portrait of what it was like to live in this region in the not so distant past.

An American Beach for African Americans

Marsha Dean Phelts, University Press of Florida, 1997 (first edition)

Best known as a vacation resort, American Beach in Nassau County has a storied African-American history dataing back to the 18th century. Initially part of the Harrison plantation, the area was granted to formerly enslaved Gullah-Geechee freedmen after the Civil War. In 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of Jacksonville’s Afro-American Life Insurance Company, developed American Beach as the region’s prime oceanfront resort for African Americans during the days of segregation. Phelts’ book explores the history and continuing significance of American Beach, one of Northeast Florida’s cultural treasures.

A Yankee in a Confederate Town: The Journal of Calvin L. Robinson

Calvin L. Robinson (author), Anne Robinson Clancy (editor), Pineapple Press, 2002

Calvin L. Robinson was a prominent businessman and ardent Unionist living in Jacksonville at the time of the Civil War. Living in exile for much of the war, he later returned and reestablished himself in business and Reconstruction causes. His personal journal, edited and published by one of his descendants, offers insight into the events of the day from a perspective often overlooked in earlier writing on the Civil War.

Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Slaveowner

Daniel L. Schafer, University Press of Florida, 2010

Anna Madgigine Jai was an enslaved 13-year-old Wolof princess when she married Zepheniah Kingsley, a plantation owner and slave trader in Spanish Florida. The couple became two of the most unusual slave owners in the South, with Anna going on to manage plantations on her own, including the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island. When Florida became a U.S. territory and laws became unfavorable for free blacks and mixed raced individuals, they relocated to Haiti. After Zephaniah’s death, Anna returned to Florida where she successfully disputed her husband’s relatives’ claims on her property. This book by University of North Florida emeritus professor of history Daniel L. Schafer uncovers Anna Kingsley’s improbable life, from the Wolof court to the plantations of Florida to a quiet life in the free black community of present-day Arlington.

Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida

Daniel L. Schafer, University Press of Florida, 2010.

This book on the First Coast before, during and after the American Civil War is a greatly expanded update on Schafer’s previous book Jacksonville’s Ordeal By Fire: A Civil War History. At the time, Florida was the most remote and least populated state, but Northeast Florida saw its fair share of action and political intrigue during the war. Though largely ignored in later public memory, Jacksonville was home to a sizeable Unionist contingent and the staging ground for campaigns like the Battle of Olustee and the Battle at Horse Creek.

William Bartram and the Ghost Plantations of British East Florida

Daniel L. Schafer, University Press of Florida, 2010

In this book, Schafer discusses William Bartram’s exploration of Florida in the 1770s, finding a discrepancy between the untouched wilderness that Bartram described and the increasingly developed state of the area under British control.

Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. and the Atlantic World

Daniel L. Schafer, University Press of Florida, 2013

Here, Schafer provides a detailed account of the life and times of unorthodox slaveholder Zephaniah Kingsley. Kingsley, a polygamist with nine children by four African wives, including Anna Kingsley, relied upon the Spanish system of slavery to guarantee rights to his children. When the new American government started implementing more oppressive laws, Kingsley became an advocate for reform, and ultimately moved with his family and freed slaves to the free black nation of Haiti. Schafer’s book puts Kingsley in the context of his times, and covers his transition from slave trader to planter to emancipator.

Palmetto Leaves

Harriet Beecher Stowe, James R. Osgood and Company, 1873 (various reprintings)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the 1851 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, came to Northeast Florida in 1867, ultimately settling in Mandarin, where she founded a church and a school that taught black and white citizens alike. There she wrote Palmetto Leaves, a travel memoir that is perhaps the first promotional work about Florida. It describes the region’s exotic scenery and Stowe’s activities, and calls on white Americans to ensure African-Americans have a place in reconstructing Florida. The book inspired many others to visit and invest in Florida and has been republished many times, and can be read online here.

Old Hickory’s Town : An Illustrated History of Jacksonville

James Robertson Ward, Florida Publishing Company, 1985

Though it can be hard to find today, this beautifully illustrated coffee table book by Jacksonville writer James R. Ward contains a wealth of information about the River City, from the earliest days into the 1970s. The book was the brainchild of Florida Times-Union publisher J.J. Daniels, who recruited Ward to write the text and John S. Walters to edit.

Historic Photos of Jacksonville

Carolyn Williams, Turner, 2006

For this attractive coffee table book, late UNF history professor Carolyn Williams scoured local, state, and national archives for photographs that could provide special insight into Jacksonville’s past. With a particular focus on the parts of history less frequently explored, the book arranges pictures by era, ranging from some of the earliest photos taken in Jacksonville into the 1960s.

Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage

Wayne Wood, University Press of Florida, 1989 (first edition; republished several times)

Written by Jacksonville historian Wayne Wood with Joel McEachin and Steve Tool, Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage is one of the best and most popular books ever written about the city. The book includes historical sketches of many Jacksonville neighborhoods and regions, and photos and blurbs covering hundreds of the city’s architecturally and historically significant buildings. It is an invaluable resource for exploring the city and seeing how it has grown over time.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.