Five Well-known African-Americans Who Spent Time In Jax

In honor of Black History Month, here's five internationally known African-American individuals who spent some time in Jacksonville.

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. During the civil rights era, she became a significant figure in the fight for minority artists to overcome racial prejudice, singing to 75,000 on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and becoming the first black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1955. In February 1952, Marian Anderson made civil rights history in Jacksonville. In town for a performance, Anderson refused to sing in front of a segregated seating arrangement at the Duval County Armory. As a result, Jim Crow took a night off with the famed contralto singer putting on a show for an interracial crowd of 2,200, making it the first concert in modern Florida history performed in front of an integrated audience. Anderson would go on to sing at the March on Washington in 1963 and be the recipient of several awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.

Mary McLeod Bethune

One of 17 children born to a sharecropping family, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 - 1955) grew to eventually become a pioneering educator, civil rights leader, and adviser to U.S. presidents long before African-Americans were given equal rights. In 1904, she opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for African-American girls with just five students.

In 1923, Bethune merged her school with Jacksonville’s Cookman Institute to form what would officially become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Founded in 1872 by Rev. S.B. Darnell, the Cookman Institute was the first institution of higher education for African-Americans in the state of Florida, specializing in the religious and academic preparation of teachers.

During the 1930s, Bethune was appointed as the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, managing the National Youth Administration, providing programs to promote relife and employment for young people. The NYA was a federal agency created under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Leading the NYA, Bethune was instrumental in the construction of Mixon Town’s Forest Park Center community center on Forest Street. In 2018, Bethune became the first African-American woman honored by a state in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

Frederick Douglass

“We have always learned in our schools that the one who gave liberty to our country was George Washington. The one who will always be known as the savior of his country is Ulysses S. Grant. But we have one of our own race who…is as great as the greatest–one who carved his way from darkness into light. This man is Honorable Frederick Douglass!”

This is what Joseph E. Lee had to say about Frederick Douglass right before he spoke in Springfield in August 1889. Born in 1818, Frederick Douglass rose from slavery to become an abolitionist leader and one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing to thousands on a range of causes, including women’s rights and civil liberties in general.

The guest of honor at the Sub-Tropical Exposition, a band played at every station and at every stop that Douglass made on his train ride to Jacksonville. By the time he arrived in town, over twenty thousand gathered to hear the inspiring orator speak, dwarfing the eight thousand in attendance at the confederate veterans union that would take place across the street in 1914, leading to the renaming of that space to Confederate Park. According to the Florida Times-Union, Douglass was “the most historic character” in the “checkered history” of black Americans.

Despite the local media’s view and fear of the large African-American crowd that came out, James Weldon Johnson was one person in attendance and in total awe of seeing Douglass in person. What stood out to Johnson, who was a teenager at the time, was Douglass’ powerful presence and supreme eloquence when addressing criticisms regarding his marriage to Helen Pitts, who was white.