by Tim Gilmore, 6/4/2021
1. “To Give Them a Place”
Such strange ironies. For years Atlantic Beach didn’t want the Voo Swar, even tried actively to run it out of town. Yet the passage of time does strange things to the plots of our lives and the lives of whole communities. Eventually the Voo Swar, and the man who built it and ran it for decades, Earnest Davis, would bring this beach town together in ways no mayor or civic leader ever had.
“Mr. E,” Earnest Davis, built the Voo Swar with steel from the demolished Atlantic Beach Hotel, built in 1901, seating from the demolished Le Chateau Restaurant, built in 1937, and with concrete from beach construction magnate J.T. McCormick. Origin dates vary. Davis told historian Brittany Cohill and Beaches Museum Director Chris Hoffman in 2018 that he’d poured the concrete foundation in 1961 and worked at building the place for a decade, opening it in ’71.
His son Lewis Washington, who runs the Voo Swar today, agrees his father built the place a piece at a time, depending on what he could afford and when, but says the concrete came after the walls, that “at first, people were dancing in the dirt.” He dates the Voo Swar to 1963.
Sitting at a table up front, Davis told Cohill and Hoffman, “Back in the day, black sailors, they didn’t treat ’em too good. When they get off the ship and they go around,” he said, they’d visit restaurants and taverns where whites, even after Jim Crow and desegregation, wouldn’t serve them. “And so I said, ‘I’m gonna build a place and give ’em a place to come.”
He told Florida Times-Union journalist Matt Soergel that he’d come up with the name by drawing straws with his daughters and losing. “They then dug through a thick dictionary before picking a fine word and showing it to him.”
He was always eager to show people that yellowed old dictionary, which he kept in the back of the restaurant, split at the binding, dog ears crumbling, stuffed with lottery tickets, missing its outside covers.
Writes Soergel: “He turns to the V’s and points to the word that gave his restaurant its name, something he’s done so many times over the years that the ink there is worn away: Voussoir.”
2. Destruction / Creation
Sitting in the afternoon diagonal sunlight, bottles clinking in the background, Davis tells Brittany Cohill and Chris Hoffman about working for Martin G. Williams at his bowling alley at segregated Jacksonville Beach. Old postcards show crowds between roller coaster and Ferris wheel, “Martin G. Williams Building” stenciled high over revelers’ heads. Davis was 12 or 13 years old when Williams hired him to set up pins. “If you was working with him, you could be at Jax Beach, because” if somebody objected “he’d say, ‘Them’s my niggers.’ ’Cause,” Davis says, “they’d call you that in a heartbeat.”
Davis remembers being chased off the beach after work, how he and other black workers walked as a group for protection back to the black neighborhood called The Hill. “If you not workin’ down there, you better not be caught down there.”
Davis talks about how his family came to Jacksonville’s beaches in the first place, says his “daddy” had moved “from Carolina” to Rosewood with Davis’s grandfather. “’Cause his daddy was a farmer. Then, uh, they had to leave Rosewood.” Clearly uncomfortable mentioning Rosewood to two young white women, he says, “When, you know, you know, when something went wrong, you know, dealing with white people back in the day, they figured they better leave there.”
He’s referring, of course, to the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, when the black Gulf Coast town rallied together after a Rosewood resident was lynched. Hundreds of whites responded by ransacking and burning the entire town—mills, stores, churches, school, Masonic hall, houses. The mob murdered at least six residents, perhaps many more.
Earnest Davis was born in Jacksonville Beach in 1931 and moved to Atlantic Beach when he was 11 years old. As an adult, he worked seven days a week for the Beaches Laundry, saving up money for years. Finally, he visited construction magnate J.T. McCormick and said, “‘Listen, um, I want to build a place, and I need to get some concrete.’ And he said, ‘Well, Ernie, we’ll go see one of my bookkeepers and see what we can do for you.’”
Davis told Cohill and Hoffman that City Hall required him to have a white architect sign off on his building plans to get them approved, that he tracked down famous postmodern architect William Morgan at his barber shop to catch his signature.
Meanwhile, McCormick, whose father’s company, B.B. McCormick and Sons, had bought, demolished and burnt the last vestiges of Manhattan Beach, the first black beach resort in Jim Crow Florida, sold him the concrete on credit. Davis, whose parents had fled the destruction of an entire town, began the long construction of the Voo Swar.
3. Strongest Point
Sam Jacobson sits on his deck at the back of his shaded and secluded house on Seminole Road, the constant hush of the ocean and its attendant breeze accompanying his recollections. Jacobson, a retired attorney who’s called Atlantic Beach home for half a century, recalls stories full of Southern Gothic characters and odd plot twists while he sips a tall glass of sweet tea.
It was the late 1980s when former Mayor Billy Howell called Jacobson and asked him to take on an unlikely client. Howell had first been elected in 1957, was voted out in 1963, then returned to office from ’65 to ’81 and again in ’83. Jacobson calls Howell “mayor on a recurring basis.” Others called him the “perennial mayor.” When Howell called Jacobson, he’d just left office for the last time.
The phone call surprised Jacobson because Howell “still had the power of the sway.” Something bothered the former mayor, however, about new Police Chief David Thompson and he asked Jacobson to consider defending the Voo Swar against him.
“He said the new chief was bent on running the Voo Swar out of Atlantic Beach,” Jacobson recalls, and though Howell hadn’t cared for the Voo Swar, he didn’t like the new chief’s way of going about things.
Maybe Howell knew what a voussoir was, how the wedge-shaped stones held together an arch, and how Earnest Davis had named his tavern for the keystone. As Davis would later tell Cohill and Hoffman, “Voo Swar mean, it’s like a archway. It’s the stone that locks all the other stones in, what they call a keystone. And it’s the strongest point.” Maybe Howell wondered what would happen to the edifice of Atlantic Beach if you pushed out its keystone.
Jacobson sips the tea his daughter Anna brings him and looks out toward the susurrus of the surf. Anna’s visiting her parents for the day from her home in San Marco back in town. She spent her adolescence in this house, a Midcentury Modern dream designed by architect Lynwood Holloway, with terraced gardens at front and back, lots of glass to bring the outside in, an open flowing interior and exposed beams and rafters.
When her father explains, “I had something of a leaning toward protection of the downtrodden and Howell wanted someone who would take up the cause,” Anna adds proudly, “He’s won awards for pro bono service.”
Jacobson thinks back to his first days representing the Voo Swar and says, “The objections were that there was too much drinking, too much carousing,” he says, but notes, “I’d be very surprised if a white foot ever crossed its threshold. There was a different set of laws for blacks than for whites.”
Lewis Washington, who’s operated the Voo Swar since his father’s death in 2019, grew up hearing about the times his dad would have the fryer full of shrimp and fish, customers waiting eagerly for hot fresh meals, when police would come in and clear the place out. “This was back in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says, “and there would be nothing going on. It was just harassment.”
If race weren’t Chief Thompson’s sole objection to the Voo Swar, Jacobson says, it was clearly part of the dynamic. Most of Atlantic Beach was “white and conservative and the Voo Swar was seen as, uh, let’s say, incompatible.”
Sometimes Earnest Davis would visit Jacobson at his law office. Sometimes Jacobson would sit with Davis at the bar (no legal pun intended) at the Voo Swar. He’d be the only white person there and the only man in suit and tie.
Sam Jacobson found that he liked “Mr. Davis,” as he still calls him, a small man, soft-spoken, who “just wanted fair treatment and a chance to run his business.” Anyone could see that Davis worked hard. “He built that place,” Jacobson says, “and I don’t mean just economically. I mean he built it physically. He collected salvage, then repurposed it. He built that place with his own hands.”
4. “Saved a Lot of Buildings That Way”
“It took a long time to build this building,” Davis told Cohill and Hoffman. “I put up a lot of work, seven days a week at the laundry. Did all the laundry for the big Navy ships.”
One Thursday evening, I’m sitting in one of these tall tufted booths salvaged from Le Chateau, and Lewis points out the window. “That’s the house right there,” he says. “He built that too. This whole neighborhood grew up around this place.”
Lewis, as broad chested and muscular as his father was slim, bald with a full dark beard, says he loved growing up at the Voo Swar. “I used to jump out of my crib and come in here. I never went in the other direction toward Mayport Road. I remember. People’d be dancing and drinking and somebody’d say, ‘Earnest, your boy’s up in here again.’”
Davis was proud of having worked so hard. “I worked on the dredge boats,” he said, worked on coastline infill, “building the land” on which the courthouse in Downtown Jacksonville would stand. His whole family worked hard. Remembering the long demolished boardwalk on Jacksonville Beach, he said, “My daddy helped build the roller coaster.”
Cohill asks him if he ever got to ride that roller coaster. He laughs. “You couldn’t go on the roller coasters and all that. I never did. That was all for white people.”
Whites may not have wanted black people at the beach, but there were times they needed them. Between times of not wanting and times of need, something strange happened to the vagrancy laws used to enforce segregation.
“Only time you could go to that beach down there was when they had a storm and needed you to throw sandbags to keep things from flooding. And if you did not do that, they’d put you in jail for vagrancy.” Other times, you’d be arrested for vagrancy for being black in a place designated “whites only.” That’s what vagrancy laws really meant.
Davis laughs. It’s not bitter laughter. It sounds like humor balanced on the incredulous. “That’s right,” he says. “So I throwed many a sandbag down there on that beach. And we saved a lot of buildings that way.”
5. When the Outliers Endure
Earnest Davis showed himself much more reasonable than Police Chief David Thompson, and certainly more reasonable than the chief expected him to be. So Davis and Jacobson worked out some “compromises,” the latter explaining, “They agreed to shut down sometime of night, you know, and ban firearms.” He sips his tea and thinks about how that sounds. “It really wasn’t as wild as all that. Nobody was getting shot. It wasn’t the Wild West. It wasn’t so bad that they deserved to be run out of town.”
He adds that Chief Thompson was making up his own rules and “wasn’t very good at it. When we had our proceedings, I didn’t have anything personally against him, but it wasn’t hard to make him look foolish.”
Anna smiles with recognition, says, “You just asked some questions and he unraveled?” She looks at me and nods. “I’ve been on the receiving end of this treatment.”
In an August 1990 letter to Mayor Bill Gulliford, J.C. Green, interim chairman of the Atlantic Beach Public Nuisance Control Board, wrote, “The majority felt that the preponderance of the evidence failed to conclusively show that the Voo Swar” was, despite “Chief Thompson’s firm position,” a “magnet for drug dealers and neighborhood violence.” In fact, the case resulted in beach leaders agreeing to study sociological complexities and “race relations,” while coming up with ways to increase minority representation.
Ironically, as Davis’s business endured, the City of Atlantic Beach came not only to accept it, but to celebrate it. It’s often that way. When the outliers last, eventually the culture absorbs them. The Beat poets ended up anthologized in textbooks, their haunts declared historic landmarks.
So when Earnest Davis died, 88 years old, in 2019, not only did this white Jewish lawyer attend the funeral, but so did Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser. “This is how Atlantic Beach has changed,” Jacobson says. “When Howell first called me, the Voo Swar was considered out of line, a departure. Most of the white community would just as soon have it gone. Now the Voo Swar is a symbol, an icon, a part of Atlantic Beach that the city officially wants to hold onto.”
Jacobson has represented the restaurant now for close to 40 years. When Davis died in 2019 and his son took over the business, Jacobson continued the relationship. Since that first big victory four decades ago, smaller matters followed sporadically.
In 2011, another police chief, Michael Classey, tried to deny the Voo Swar a liquor license. The Voo Swar had sold liquor through the 1960s and ’70s, then beer and wine only since Thompson’s attempt to end the business in the 1980s. City Commissioner Carolyn Woods noted the Voo Swar was the only bar in Atlantic Beach that couldn’t sell hard liquor and the commission voted to reinstate its license.
In 2015, Classey, no longer police chief, was arrested for possession of illegal drugs and tampering with evidence. In April 2019, Classey committed suicide on a high school campus in Cherokee, Georgia. A student reported his body to police early one Monday morning.
6. Spirit in the Narrative
In his late 80s, having owned and managed the Voo Swar for half a century, Earnest Davis told Brittany Cohill and Chris Hoffman, “I’m pretty much known all over. If a ship came into Mayport, they knew about this place. And they always come back.” Sometimes when sailors came into Mayport Navy Base for the first time, they’d seek out the Voo Swar, having heard about it from other sailors in Italy, Spain or Japan.
He loved all those black sailors from all over the United States and all those black Southerners and transplants who’d kept him in business over the years. He dreamt until the end about bringing them all back together, cooking for them one last time, letting them know just how much they meant to him.
“’Cause, see, someday or other, when we get up enough money to do a reunion,” he said, “I’m gone have all these guys that come up in here come back. And we’re just gone have a big cookout. Right out on the grill out there? And we gone have a big cookout and have ’em all come back, you know.”
While that cookout never took place, beach residents came out en masse to hear Davis share his memories at an event called “Storytellers: Mr. E and Friends” at the end of January 2019, just four months before he died. He died on the first of June, two days after turning 88. Hosted at the Voo Swar by the City of Atlantic Beach, the Beaches Museum and Chris Hoffman, a year and a half before she’d be elected the first woman mayor of Jacksonville Beach, the event sold out. More than 200 people attended.
In The Beaches Leader newspaper, Liza Mitchell called Davis “an elder statesman” of Atlantic Beach. The City of Atlantic Beach presented him with a community service award. Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser still calls the event “one of the highlights of my time as mayor.”
Glasser says, “It was an invitation for everybody, including all the white people at the beach, to visit this place where they’d never been. It was a cross section, not just of Atlantic Beach, not just of black and white, but of people coming in from all over.”
Cohill remembers Davis being “really emotional. He was astonished at the huge turnout and it was the first time he had ever seen so many white people in his restaurant. He loved seeing all these black and white faces together in his place. He thought of it as the culmination of his life’s work.”
Today, Mayor Glasser says the Voo Swar is one of the few places she feels comfortable stopping off to have a drink by herself. That’s because anyone who steps inside is treated like family. When she was asked to give a brief eulogy at Davis’s funeral, she knew what she wanted to say.
“Mr. E was not a religious man,” Glasser tells me. “And though he wasn’t that close to the members of the faith community in Atlantic Beach, I believe there were similarities between what the churches were trying to do and what Mr. E was doing, which was to create a spot where people felt at home.” When the world is cruel, you can’t underestimate togetherness and home.
Lewis walks me between the pool tables beneath disco balls in the dance hall, through the back doors and out to see the new mural painted by Boston-based graffiti artist Hiero Veiga, and there he is, there’s the old man now, Earnest Davis, Mr. E, mustache and nasolabial lines, glasses and black ballcap, one hand folded contemplatively before his mouth, looking out across the grass parking lot.
“Everytime I see this mural,” Lewis says, “it just takes my breath away. Daddy would love it. It would make him so happy.”
Since Mayor Glasser says Davis isn’t done with his community, this story ends with a beginning. “Mr. E is still floating around Atlantic Beach,” she says. “He’s still here. He’s here in the way the narrative has changed. Sometimes the passage of time is your strongest ally. I can’t say we’ve fixed all our racial disparities and discrepancies, but we’re talking to each other now. And that’s a good thing. That’s the place where you start.”