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!!
“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.
“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.”
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.