The Pearson Brothers: A Jacksonville Civil Rights Story
In honor of the contributions and sacrifices that the Pearson family has made in the effort to make Jacksonville a more inclusive and equitable environment for all, the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission unanimously approved a recommendation to pursue the designation of the 106-year-old Pearson residence as a local historic landmark. Prepared by the Jacksonville Planning and Development Department Historic Preservation Office staff, here is a narrative detailing the local civil rights contributions of Lloyd Nash Pearson, Jr. and Rutledge Henry Pearson.
1478 McConihe Street
Continuously owned and occupied by the Pearson family from the early 1920s to the present, the residence at 1478 McConihe Street has the longest and strongest association with two significant civil rights activists in Jacksonville, Rutledge Henry Pearson and Lloyd Nash Pearson, Jr. Sons of Lloyd Sr. and Ruth Pearson, both were raised in the McConihe Street residence and as adults lived there at different times.
The significant roles played by Rutledge and Lloyd Pearson, Jr. in the Jacksonville Civil Rights movement of the 1960s are explained in a lengthy and sometimes complex overview of the events, timelines and people important in the movement. This overview establishes the historical context in which both men functioned which in turns establishes and explains their significance in the Civil Rights movement.
One of the names most associated with the Civil Rights movement in Jacksonville is that of Rutledge Henry Pearson. A teacher by profession, he is well known for his leadership of the NAACP Youth Council during their attempts to integrate downtown lunch counters. They were met with a violent response on Axe Handle Saturday (August 27, 1960) by white men in opposition to integration that to them would threaten long established and strong Southern traditions related to race relations.
As a leader of the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, he was involved in all aspects of the Civil Rights movement and was committed to non-violent actions. In addition to equal access to public and private facilities and businesses, Rutledge Pearson was involved in the desegregation of public schools in Duval Country, as well as expanding employment opportunities for blacks.
Lloyd N. Pearson Jr. was also a noted civil rights activist in Jacksonville, particularly in the critical area of voter registration. It was his strong belief that voting was the most significant route to bring social change and improve the lives of African Americans. Through the encouragement of Sallye Mathis, chair of the NAACP’s Political Actions Committee, Lloyd headed up numerous voter registration drives over many decades.
Rutledge Henry Pearson
Rutledge Pearson, center, with Black ministers who helped integrate Morrison’s Cafeteria. The photograph was taken in front of Bethel Baptist Church, Downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Images from the Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Sr. Papers.
The residence at 1478 McConihe Street has significance for its direct association with two key Civil Rights activists who contributed to end segregation and inequalities in Jacksonville. One of the names most associated with the Civil Rights movement in Jacksonville during the 1960s was that of Rutledge Henry Pearson, the youngest son of Lloyd Sr. and Ruth Pearson. Born in 1929, Rutledge Pearson attended local schools graduating from Stanton High School in 1947. While at Stanton, he was involved in many activities, especially using his talents in music and sports. In addition to singing in the school choir, he also played baseball. As a first baseman, Pearson was part of the 1947 undefeated Stanton team that won the state championship.
Because of his baseball skills, he was awarded a full scholarship to Tillotson College, a historic black college founded in 1877 and located in Austin, Texas. In addition to baseball, Pearson was also a charter member of the Student Christian Association and a student representative to the World Religious Ecumenical Conference at the University of Kansas. With his wonderful baritone voice, he was a member of the college quartet and choir, as well as president of the 1951 graduating class. At Tillotson College, he received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology. While at Tillotson College Pearson met and married his wife, Mary Johnson, from Waco, Texas in 1951.
After graduation, Pearson played semi-professional baseball, first with the Chicago American Giants in the Negro American League and latter with the Harlem Globetrotters Team in 1952 where he excelled with a 310 batting average. In 1953, he was selected to be one of the black players to integrate semi-professional baseball in Florida. However, when he showed up for spring practice with the Jacksonville Sea Birds, a minor league team associated with the Milwaukee Braves, he was barred from taking the field because of his race. This experience was a signature event in his life that changed him into a dedicated fighter for equality and justice for blacks, a commitment he carried forward into his new life, as an educator.
Rutledge Pearson was employed as a teacher at Isaiah Blocker Jr. High School. Now partially demolished, the school opened its doors in 1917 at 2335 Davis Street. Source: Negro Schools of Duval County 1955-1956 archived digitally by the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
His fourteen year career as a teacher in Duval County started at Isaiah Blocker Jr. High School and later at Darnell Cookman Jr. High School where he served for five years as head of the social studies department. As a teacher of American history and civics, Pearson did not follow traditional methods of teaching, but focused on students initiating their own research and analysis of American history and politics to discover how it has impacted their lives and that of the black community. During this time he also served as vice-president of the Social Studies Teachers Council of Duval County, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, director of the Westminster (Young Adult) Choir at the Laura Street Presbyterian Church and coached the Stanton High School baseball team that twice went to the state finals. Becoming a strong support of her husband’s civil rights activities, Mary Johnson Pearson worked for the State of Florida Employment Board and later as a librarian with the City of Jacksonville retiring after 35 years. After Rutledge’s death, Mary went on to serve on the executive board of the state NAACP, as well as the board of the Eartha White Nursing Home.
At great peril to his teaching career, Rutledge became involved in the Jacksonville Chapter of the NAACP becoming an advisor to the Youth Council where he mentored them in the use of non-violent protest to bring about social change. It was his work with the Youth Council that led to his active involvement in the fight for civil rights. Thirty-five African Americans, mostly from the Youth Council of the NAACP under the leadership of Pearson, began staging demonstrations in Downtown Jacksonville seeking access to “whites only” lunch counters at F.W. Woolworth, W.T. Grant, Kress, McCrory’s and Cohen Brothers. The focus of the sit-ins was more about respect, human dignity, and equal rights than necessarily about obtaining service at white lunch counters. But it was also a dangerous challenge to an established system of racial segregation and discrimination.
Reporters talk with Alton Yates and Rodney Hurst during the first sit-in demonstration, August 13, 1960. Images from the Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Sr. Papers.
The first sit-in on August 13, 1960 preceded “Axe Handle Saturday” and focused on the strategically located Woolworth Building at the northwest corner of West Monroe Street and North Hogan Street. After being strengthened with prayer and song, 100, predominately black high school students, left the Laura Street Presbyterian Church headed for Woolworth’s. Once in the store, the captains of the sit-in, Alton Yates and Rodney Hurst, Sr., gave the signal to sit-down at the lunch counter reserved for whites only. After the waitresses refused them service, the store manager came up and read a statement that the store has the right to refuse service, and ordered the lunch counter closed. However, the demonstrators remained at the counter through the lunch period during which they received both verbal and physical abuse from white customers. Afterwards they returned separately back to the church.
Following up on calls reporting troubling activities at Hemming Park on Saturday morning, August 27, 1960, Pearson, Arnett Girardeau and Ulysses Beatty went by the park and witnessed a large group of white men, some in Confederate uniforms, congregated in Hemming Park where axe handles and baseball bats were being distributed. After being informed of the situation at the park, members of the Youth Council voted unanimously to go on with the planned sit-in, but move it to W.T. Grant store at the northwest corner of West Adams Street and North Main Street. When demonstrators sat down at the lunch counter, the manager of W.T. Grant turned the lights off and completely closed down the entire store. The demonstrators came out of the Grant store, and were met by a group of 150 to 200 whites armed with axe handles, baseball bats, golf clubs and heavy walking sticks. The group of whites included local residents as well as members of the Klan and Citizen Council members from other parts of northeast Florida and south Georgia. While being attacked, many of the demonstrators covered their head and tried to run for safety. No police presence was evident to stop the riot or protect the demonstrators.
Charlie Griffin, a victim of the violence in Jacksonville on August 27, 1960, being escorted by police. This image, taken by a Life Magazine photographer, has been commonly reprinted in retrospectives on Ax Handle Saturday and has become one of the best known images in Jacksonville history. Image courtesy of the Florida Historical Society.
Life magazine carried a story about the incident and used a photograph of a police officer holding the arm of a young black male whose face and shirt were splatted with blood. Ironically, the young man was not a member of the Youth Council, but was in the area only to shop. When the news of the attack reached the nearby black neighborhoods, a gang known as the Boomerangs that lived at the Blodgett Housing Project, accompanied by other individuals, headed downtown to assist and protect members of the Youth Council. The demonstrators were escorted to LaVilla where they sought refuge in nearby residences and businesses. Although there was no police presence during the attack, over 200 hundred squad cars and fire trucks quickly moved into the area to restore order. The black business district along West Ashley Street was closed down while the police went searching for demonstrators.
Sporadic violence and vandalism by both blacks and whites in different parts of the city continued through the night. The many Florida and regional newspapers that covered the event had differing estimates on the number arrested and injured with the St. Petersburg Times reporting a high of 150 arrests and 70 injuries. Using local police statistics, the Florida Times Union reported that 33 blacks and 9 whites were arrested on a variety of charges including fighting, inciting a riot, vandalism, resisting arrest and assault. An estimated 300 whites participated in “Axe Handle Saturday” which reportedly was planned by the Ku Klux Klan with prior knowledge of the police.
On the evening of Axe Handle Saturday, an emergency meeting was held at the Magnolia Garden home of Dr. James Henderson, prominent black dentist. Held at Dr. Henderson’s residence for security purposes, the meeting included Rutledge Pearson, Ruby Hurley, NAACP Field Secretary and NAACP Regional Director, NAACP attorney Earl Johnson, John Henry Gooden, president of the local branch of the NAACP, Marjorie Meeks along with Youth Council leaders Alton Yates and Rodney Hurst, Sr. Pearson and Earl Johnson took media calls and communications from the National NAACP office. They also held a press conference at Dr. Henderson’s house which was not identified. In addition, Johnson coordinated with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, on legal strategies. The purpose of the meeting was to advise the Youth Council on developing possible strategies for responding to the events at Axe Handle Saturday and to encourage the Council as they moved forward. It was agreed to have a public meeting on Sunday night to discuss options and approve a plan of action.
The former St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church at 2225 Myrtle Avenue. Image courtesy of Ennis Davis, AICP.
Held at St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church (southeast corner of West 13th Street & North Myrtle Avenue), the public meeting was presided over by Rodney Hurst, Sr., President of the Youth Council. The large crowd in attendance heard comments by Alton Yates and Marjorie Meeks, Vice President and Secretary of the Youth Council, along with speeches by Rutledge Pearson and by NAACP legal counsel, Earl Johnson. Having followed the events in Jacksonville closely, Mrs. Ruby Hurley and Bob Saunders from the regional and national offices of the NAACP also spoke. Also present was Saul Lefkowitz from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Those present overwhelmingly approved a resolution by the Youth Council that no further demonstrations would occur for the next two weeks giving the local white power structure the opportunity to respond to their demands, particularly that Mayor Haydon Burns establish a broadly represented biracial committee to address a multitude of issues Other demands in the resolution included a recommendation to boycott downtown stores, to cancel Florida Times Union subscriptions and call for the Justice Department to investigate the failure of police to provide security for the protestors.
Although buried on page 15 of the Florida Times Union, the events at Axe Handle Saturday sparked broad media interest and was covered by the Tampa Tribune, Atlanta Journal, Orlando Sentinel, Daytona Beach Morning News, Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald. Whites in Jacksonville had to obtain a copy of the Florida Star to get the full story on Axe Handle Saturday.