Four stories from Jacksonville's LGBTQ history

From Timucua two-spirits in the 16th century to bisexual blues musicians to the continued celebration of River City Pride, Jacksonville has a long and storied LGBTQ history. In honor of Pride Month, The Jaxson takes a look at four stories from the city's past with special significance for the LGBTQ community.

Timucua two-spirits

*Timucua two-spirits carrying the dead on biers, and carrying the wounded on their backs. A colorized version of an engraving by Theodor de Bry, said to be based on a lost painting by Jacques le Moyne. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

“Two-spirit” is a modern term for Native American peoples who belonged to a third or non-binary gender. Historically, most native peoples in the present-day U.S. and Canada had one or more gender roles that were distinct from the roles of men and women. The earliest substantial records of two-spirit people come from the Timucua of what’s now the Jacksonville area in the 16th century.

The term two-spirit does not refer to a person’s biological sex (their physical anatomy), but to their gender, which is characterized by social roles and varies from culture to culture and person to person. Timucua two-spirits had duties and a manner of dress all their own. Surviving records date from the French colonization of Florida in the 1560s. Among the Timucua, two-spirits had duties and a style of dress that distinguished them from men and women. Like women, they wore skirts and kept their hair down; they also wore their own color of feathers.

Timucua two-spirits carrying baskets of food harvested by the women. Another of the de Bry engravings.

Among the Timucua, two-spirits’ duties included transporting supplies and weapons and carrying the wounded and dead from the battle. They also tended to the sick and prepared the dead for burial, indicating they played a role of deep spiritual significance in Timucua society. In addition to the two-spirit gender role, contemporary Spanish sources indicate that same-sex relationships between men and women were common and accepted among the Timucua well into the colonial period.

Jacksonville’s rainbow blues

*Johnnie Woods and Little Henry from the Indianapolis Freeman, January 26, 1918.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Jacksonville was an epicenter of blues, jazz, and ragtime music. The neighborhood of LaVilla, in particular, was later dubbed the “Harlem of the South” for its vibrant Black musical and performance culture. LGBTQ performers played crucial roles in cultivating Black music and bringing it to mass audiences.

The first known instance of the blues being sung on stage anywhere in the world has an LGBTQ connection. It came in a 1910 performance by Professor Johnnie Woods at the Colored Airdome on Ashley Street. A ventriloquist, Woods had his dummy “Little Henry” get drunk and sing the blues in a performance noted by the Indianapolis Freeman on April 16 of that year. In addition to his ventriloquist act, Woods was also a tap dancer and “female impersonator,” or drag performer. There’s no evidence Woods himself was queer, but his gender bending act certainly pushed the envelope.

Ma Rainey circa 1923. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

In 1906, legendary blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey moved to Jacksonville to join Pat Chappelle’s LaVilla-based Rabbit’s Foot Company along with her husband William. As part of one of the largest Black vaudeville troupes, the Raineys traveled extensively throughout the South and beyond, spreading the popularity of the blues as a musical style. Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” was bisexual and invoked same-sex romance and cross dressing in several of her songs. Reportedly, Rainey was arrested in 1925 after police raided a raucous party and found her and her chorus girls in a state of drunken undress. Researchers suggest the incident inspired Rainey’s 1928 song “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she sang:

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me

Sure got to prove it on me;

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,

They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men. Ma Rainey, “Prove It On Me Blues,” 1928

Ma Rainey, “Prove It On Me Blues,” 1928

One of Rainey’s reported lovers was Bessie Smith, who Rainey brought into the Rabbit’s Foot Company in LaVilla in the 1910s. Smith, known as the “Empress of the Blues,” was openly bisexual and had relationships with several women, including a tumultuous affair with chorine Lillian Simpson.

Next page: More stories from Jacksonville’s LGBTQ history