Exposing Jacksonville's Gullah Geechee Heritage
Historically associated with the Lowcountry region that stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida, the Gullah Geechee are descendants of Central and West African ancestors who arrived in America through the transatlantic slave trade. They've had a major impact on the local culture of Jacksonville that continues to be largely overlooked and misunderstood. Prepared for the federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, this brief article is intended to serve as a general, high level overview and introduction of Jacksonville's Gullah Geechee story.
No matter where one will look locally, a link to the past can be found. For example, take a look at Mandarin, the city’s southernmost neighborhood. For example, did you know that Georgia’s Julianton Plantation near Sapelo Island was not the first? Named after wife Julia, Frances Levett’s first Julianton Plantation was established along the St. Johns River in 1767 during Florida’s British Period. Jacksonville’s Julianton and other nearby rice and indigo plantations eventually gave way to the community of Mandarin and East Mandarin where the former enslaved established new homesteads. As for the Levetts, the family left the area when Florida returned to Spanish rule, relocating briefly to the Bahamas before establishing a new Sea Island plantation in Georgia’s McIntosh County. For those more familiar with modern day Jacksonville, this is where Julington Creek gets its name from.
While much of Mandarin’s rural landscape has been lost to modern development, vestiges of its Gullah Geechee heritage include Lofton’s Cemetery, the Maple Leaf National Historic Landmark and Duval County’s last standing one-room African-American school house. Today, the Mandarin Museum and Historic Society is working to make their exhibits more inclusive to share the community’s Gullah Geechee story.
Now recognized as a part of downtown, the Gullah Geechee neighborhoods of LaVilla and Brooklyn are both in the midst of rapid gentrification and displacement of the few long time residents and businesses that still remain.
Despite already suffering from significant loss of culture and heritage to urban renewal and gentrification, efforts are underway by a number of groups, organizations and individuals to save what remains, in order to allow a significant part of the city’s past to contribute to its future. This includes a recent successful effort by Campbell Hill’s Allen Chapel AME to be recognized as a local historic landmark, providing the 114 year old congregation the opportunity to survive on amongst surrounding redevelopment projects such as the Emerald Trail, Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, Brooklyn and the Rail Yard District.
Platted in 1869 the Eastside developed at the southern terminus of the railroad that connected 19th century Jacksonville with the rest of the Lowcountry. As such, it became the primary entry point for the former enslaved seeking a new life away from the plantations they had previously known.
Now located near an area where significant new development is planned, several community organizations are working to ensure the Eastside becomes the “go-to” place for the African-American experience in Jacksonville. With its history, heritage, architecture and cultural identity still in place, the Eastside is uniquely positioned to become an urban core destination where one can learn about the Gullah Geechee transition of a rural culture into an urban setting.
Last but not least, while Jacksonville’s rapid growth has resulted in a loss of certain aspects of Gullah Geechee heritage and tradition, foodways are an important part of the culture that has been strengthened through family tradition and the density that urbanism brings.
Dishes featuring foods locally caught, grown and rationed during slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow, can be found in restaurants, fish camps, garlic crab houses and street corners all over the city. However, despite being accepted into mainstream society, many do not know or understand the historical link between these dishes and Jacksonville’s Gullah Geechee heritage. This should be viewed as an opportunity to work with an existing social network and businesses to expose culture and heritage in a manner that also promotes preservation, while stimulating inclusive economic opportunity.
Presentation by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org