The Whetstonian

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On North Jefferson Street, in downtown Jacksonville, Florida there sits a huge building. The locals don’t see it as much as an outsider. Its there but it’s not there.

The building sits  in beauty amongst   greenery and fine vintage objects like a Harriet Tubman bust, fluegelhorns and trumpets and trombones and piano innards, mannequin parts, tall tin plates emblazoned with architectural slogans by Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, and human-faced suns in factory cogs.

An outsider wouldn’t know that this building has historical value. However, an insider may know, especially a black insider.

This building sits in Jacksonville’s downtown district area and looks as if it should be a museum.

When my sister asked me what area I wanted to photograph one morning during my stay down there, I  described this building.

“Take me to the building with the broken mirror pieces in the door. You know, the one that is surrounded by green shrubs and have objects in the walls. The one that takes up the span of one block”. I told her.

“Oh,  that’s the building Mother Seabrooks used to go to on Friday nights back in the day before she was saved!!

“Really?”

“Yeah, apparently, that’s where everyone went. She said it was the hot spot for musicians and dancers. It was the center of night life in Jacksonville.

“Wow”.

“Yeah, even Ray Charles and other famous African American musicians. Attached is a hair salon that is closed now. Everyone black would go there to get their hair done.”

“What is it now?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s much now. It’s never opened.”

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Before I  returned home, I began to do research on the building.

My visit to the Ritz Theater and Museum let me know that the entire neighborhood (that housed the building) was called La Villa. La Villa, I gathered was like Harlem in Jacksonville.

Bishop, the young and knowledgeable tour guide who met us at The Ritz gave my sister and I fundamental education about African American history in Jacksonville.

‘You see, the downtown area is really OUR La Villa, he began, La Villa is the name of the very affluent African American neighborhood in which everything happened. We ran shops and stores, we built schools and churches. Everyone who was black and somebody in that time, existed in La Villa”. I listened closely to Bishop as he walked me slowly through the museum and schooled us on Jacksonville’s history.

Then, in the 1990’s  Mayor, Ed Austin, destroyed much of La Villa during his term under his ‘urban renewal’ plan. A lot of the blacks moved out the neighborhood changed and not to many people stayed behind to stop the city from coming in and bull dozing our neighborhood. People probably left before that. Now, La Villa, which was once a plantation, turned popular neighborhood among the blacks,  became a ghost town. Currently, in  LaVilla, stand the old Brewster Hospital, three shotgun shacks, the Ritz Theatre and Museum, and the Clara White Mission. That’s it. And we don’t know how long before something else is taken down.

He showed us photos and told stories of business owners, principles, inventors, preachers and even photographers. It’s  where I found out about Augusta Savage, an amazing African American sculptor who should be celebrated much more for her art work.

The visit to the museum helped me to put missing pieces together. It set up a mental stage for me. La Villa was the place where working and middle class African American’s lived. They were all successful in keeping the dollar in the black community and lifting up each other.

Now I know about La Villa. What about this building.

Why is it closed?

After typing the address and the original name of the place, I came across an article dated 2016. I found out the place was called The Whetstonian and was owned by an African American man named Walter Whetstone.

“If Smithson can have his Smithsonian,” he explained, “then Whetstone can have the Whetstonian.”

The second article I came across was more detailed and written by Jacksonville professor, Tim Gilmore. This article  reaffirmed the little my sister did know about the place, “Blind Blake and Jelly Roll Morton played at the Whetstonian. So did just about any jazz or blues musician you can think of from the 1930s through the 1950s” it states.

Walter Whetstone , experienced his father driving an ice truck and collecting all sorts of things from the trash as a child and pretty soon he picked up the same habit.

Each item he saved was something special. When the city of Jacksonville decided that it would deface the building, he brought it. Then, it became his own museum if you will. The space where his junk from the trash would be stored. Each item placed in a particular spot.

Mr. Whetstone specialized in collecting historical African American artifacts. He knew exactly what to pick and how to use it to create art.  With this niche, he created the Whetstonian, a home for all of his collections.

There’s a lot of black history around here, including me. He told the interviewer.

When this article was written, Mr. Whetstone was already 80 and still fighting to keep it alive and well from the city’s grasp.

I am currently still doing research on this building. I hope it would soon become a landmark and one day open up as an museum.

 

 

The Locals and Legends Wall Mural

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That Saturday while in Jacksonville, I walked down A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and saw some amazing wall murals.

This was my second time in Jacksonville but my first time venturing places alone and learning of the city where James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston once lived.

Every block I walked, I inhaled the amazing culture. I took in the sights of my people Bar-B-Queing on their front lawns and of them walking in and out of shops owned by them. I took in the sounds of R & B, Hip-Hop, Jazz, and Gospel all hovering under the hot still sun. Each couple of blocks I walked, it was a new sound track. I took in the southern hospitality, the smiles and how-do-you-do’s.

I did not expect to see much art though and was surprised when I looked on the side of the Man Cave Barbershop building on the corner of A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and Pippin Street! I saw a colorful wall mural with seven figures. My first instinct was to try to connect with the historical figures. I could only name two.

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I knew who Zora was from her trademark hat and I knew James Weldon Johnson. But the rest… I was struggling with. I photographed the mural in different angles. Trying to get past the two cars in the lot.

I found out later through WJCT.org that the mural was painted by the locals, students and artist together.  It’s called the “Locals and Legends” mural and it features famous African American’s celebrated throughout history as well as local African Americans celebrated for their work in Jacksonville.

  1. The first subject on the left, Asa Phillip Randolph, is who the main street  is named after. He is known as A. Phillip Randolph and is a natural born leader. He was a civil rights activist, one of the few men who headed the March on Washington, and organized the first African American labor Union (just to list a few).

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2. The second one is my heroine Zora Neale Hurston, a writer and anthropologist who is best known for the novel, Their eyes were watching God. I love how she traveled through the south collecting stories from everyday people so that our rich culture would not be lost. She even recorded the southern vernacular.  ( I am looking forward to reading her  new book that  just came out this year Entitled Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, it tells the true story of the last known survivor of the slave trade…  it’s on my birthday list).

3. The third figure is someone named Clarence Williams, who once owned the building where the art lies.

I had to call around to find out more information about him and spoke to Ms. Pickett who is the curator of street art in Jacksonville (isn’t that a hot job title?) She told me the purpose of the wall murals is to bring in visitors into the East Side of Jacksonville. One of their goals after the painting is done is to set up wall mural tours.

She told me that Clarence Williams was a citizen of Jacksonville in the Eastside. He was an entrepreneur and business owner and  passed away a few months before the mural was completed.
4.The fourth figure is Pearlie Graham, the long time owner of nearby Spot Rite Cleaners and the only living subject in the mural. She also owns the building that has the mural of the girls graduating.

5. The fifth figure is James Weldon Johnson, a writer, actor, activist, and most popular for writing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.

I just finished one his books, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. This book should be placed on every high school summer reading list or read closely during the school year. After visiting his city I found myself reading more of his work to figure out who he really was. I love love Johnson. If you don’t have much time to read, then you should start with his poetry. His poem, ‘The Creation’, sits on the wall in The Ritz Museum in Jacksonville. It is a lyric that retells how the world came to be. The fourth grader who was with me named MJ had just as much fun as I had reading it aloud.

6. The sixth figure is Bullet Bob Hayes, an athlete….I read about him on wiki.

7. The last figure, A.L Lewis, was the president of the (Afro- American) Life Insurance Company, and he also started American Beach, a Nassau County vacation spot for African-Americans during segregation.

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And down the street there’s another mural (which I already posted) in progress depicting an old school in Jacksonville for African-American girls which I learned a little history about.

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This building is owned by Pearlie Graham. However, the school that this mural represents is closed. It was called The Boylan Haven Mather School and was the first school for African American girls on the East Side. It started out as a school to train girls to be servants.

The school was founded in 1886 and was named for a benefactor, Ann Boylan DeGroot, treasurer of the Newark Conference. She’d hoped to atone for, and change the image of, her family, which had operated two large plantations. In 1901, the school established a nurse training department, which later became Brewster Hospital – the first for African Americans in Jacksonville. (taken from Wikipedia)

I must say here that their modest dressing was what made me take the photo. Believe it or not, this is how I dressed in high school. My mother got the uniform company to make my sisters and I long skirts. Can you spot me in the photo below?

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