by Tim Gilmore, 2/14/2020
1. Traces of Chaseville
The old census records say “Chaseville Col[ored] Settlement.” Because there are landscapes beneath the landscape and histories under the histories, traces of Chaseville remain. People who live in these mid 20th century neighborhoods see those traces daily, but that doesn’t mean they recognize them.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who knows there was an Old Chaseville Road,” John Christian tells me, “but a short section of it was still there in 1961.” Nine years old and ready to explore the world, John rode his bike down the skinny path in the woods by the old black cemetery where workers lackadaisically dug up graves.
It’s hard to believe, as I wander these 1960s suburban streets, looking at split-level ranch style houses and smiling plaster manatees that stand and hold mailboxes toward the road, that the first black American to run for president lived here.
Chaseville persisted on maps from the 1890s to the 1920s to the late 1940s. Its place on the map outlasted its place in the land, unless you consider that old magnolia, the old streets haphazardly connected and renamed University Boulevard in 1959, traces of Chaseville.
2. Ladders Atop Ladders
Fortunately for his bones, America’s first black presidential candidate, George Edwin Taylor, wasn’t buried in the community where he spent the last years of his life. Otherwise, his remains wouldn’t have remained where he’d left them. The 1920 census lists the 62 year old Taylor and his 31 year old wife, Marian Tillinghast Taylor, both “mulatto,” as owners and operators of a “poultry farm” in Chaseville. When he died in 1925, he was buried in Mount Olive Cemetery in his widow’s hometown of Green Cove Springs, south of Jacksonville.
Taylor, in the words of The Florida Times-Union’s Matt Soergel, was the “son of a slave, a journalist, labor leader, farmer, policeman, politician, seller of potions and elixirs.” He grew up, according to a short biography by historian Cary Wintz, with a “politically active black family” in Wisconsin, where he first held office, became a labor leader, and started his own newspaper. He moved from state to state, edited papers and led various civil rights organizations, until in St. Louis in 1904, he became the candidate for the National Liberty Party, the first political party founded by and for black people.
Taylor was charismatic, a sharp dresser, a natural salesman. A Richmond newspaper said his wardrobe seemed that of “a distant relative of the Prince of Wales.” Bruce Mouser, author of the 2011 book, For Labor, Race, and Liberty: George Edwin Taylor, His Historic Run for the White House, and the Making of Independent Black Politics, told Soergel that Taylor’s personality made him perfect for the “almost carnival politics” of the time period.
As a candidate, Taylor pushed for pensions for elderly former slaves, many of whom died forgotten and lost or depended on the goodwill of black churches and welfare activists like Eartha White. He argued against American imperialism and fought for universal suffrage, anti-lynching laws and Federal protection of the civil rights of black people in the South and elsewhere. He told The [New York] Sun that he knew white people saw his candidacy as a “joke” and that most black people didn’t pay attention.
Taylor came to Jacksonville in 1912, first living in urban LaVilla, and became editor of the “Star Edition” (“by Colored People, for Colored People”) of The Florida Times-Union in 1917. How active in politics Taylor remained in the last five years of his life, when he raised chickens with his third wife in Chaseville, is unclear, but his influence seemed to be felt throughout the black South.
Soergel points to a speech Taylor gave on Emancipation Day, 1898, saying every former slave “should press on until he has reached the top of the ladder and then reach up to see if there isn’t another ladder on top of that one.”
A February 27, 1984 T-U story by Marlene Sokol described how Taylor’s moving to Jacksonville meant moving into the shadow world of segregation: “He lived in houses that no longer exist, wrote for papers that were not microfilmed, and presided over companies than now are mere numbers in state-house records.” But at least, since Taylor was not buried in Chaseville, his bones can be accounted for.
John C. Christian’s memories are sharp. From his home in the North Carolina mountains on a February night when he and his wife are “fogged in,” he tells me about being eight years old in 1960 when his family moved to the part of Greater Arlington, not yet within Jacksonville city limits, being developed as Fort Caroline Club Estates. They lived in a new house on Rogero Road, just south of Fort Caroline Road. Everything else around them was woods.
Though John says, “My dad and I roamed these woods with a .22 rifle, sort of rabbit hunting and squirrel hunting, before it was developed,” he adds, “We weren’t actually ‘hunting’ per se. It was just an excuse to get outside and explore and learn about our new surroundings.” In his young mind, John mapped that land. Though much of it soon vanished, even today he reads it clearly.
Chaseville, he says, “like so many communities, had no hard boundaries.” While maps indicate it occupied the northern peninsular tip where the St. Johns River swam up from Jacksonville proper, curved around Reddie Point, then made its way east to the ocean, Chaseville stretched, sparsely populated, from Reddie Point to New Castle Creek.
“Fort Caroline Road was narrow and twisty with sandy shoulders in 1960,” John says. “All the roads turning north to the river were unpaved.” The old denizens of Chaseville were black families who worked across the river in town, though real estate developers had purchased much of this supposed “wilderness,” moving “about 80 percent of the black families” elsewhere.
In 1961, nine year old John rode his bike through these trails in the woods where “all along the river were abandoned houses.” He rode through the remnants of communities, noting “rusted tin roofing, fence posts and chicken wire.” Then the bulldozers came. And the new roads, the suburban lots, the split-level houses. “The last old houses occupied were just west of the Fort Caroline Club pool area,” John says.
Sometimes, when you see the same story of black displacement and white development happening time and again across the 200 years of Jacksonville’s history, you start to think this forced migration pattern is the main story the city has to tell.
Another variant of that story is the one about Chaseville’s two cemeteries, the “white” one whose graves were moved from Reddie Point to Evergreen Cemetery in 1946, and the “black” one. Joel McEachin, retired chief planner of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, tells me Chaseville Cemetery, “the black cemetery,” was located near Newcastle Creek close to the old Brutus and Cain Bolton Homestead. “Reportedly,” he reports, “the graves were relocated for the development of Fort Caroline Club Estates.”
The graves might be lost forever, but not the memory of those disinterments. Because John Christian was there. Joel’s coordinates of where Chaseville Cemetery was located match John’s recollection of where he saw workers lay skeletons on the sand.
On an 1890s Chaseville map, a small purple cross stands beside the letters, in purple, “Cem.” Between Heidi Road West and Kaden Drive East, a block away from Fort Caroline Elementary School, stands a magnificent magnolia between suburban yards, a tree that once stood guard in Chaseville Cemetery.
Nearby, a small pale shadow of that tree, Lonnie Wurn, the subdivision’s developer, stood for a picture in the woods and looked straight at the camera. He dated the grainy photo March 3, 1959. Balding and expressionless, he wears a dark suit and tie and his arms hang straight down at his sides. He looks grotesquely out of place, like some stalker from an urban legend, almost as out of place as an old graveyard for black people in a new suburb for white people.
4. The Community Behind the Community
Just after the Civil War, black soldiers who’d fought for the United States against the Confederacy stayed in or relocated to Jacksonville. The last time the Union had occupied the city, it did so almost entirely with United States Colored Troops. When the war was over, a surgeon with the U.S. Colored Infantry, Daniel Dustin Hanson, had big plans for Jacksonville.
Hanson founded a dense agricultural community where former slaves and black Union veterans could pool their crops. Hansontown, where much of Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Downtown Campus now stands, throve until Hanson died and then blended with other poor black wooden settlements close to Jacksonville’s core. Hanson’s other ambitious settlement seemed stillborn with his death in 1868. With fellow former infantryman William Marple, Hanson purchased thousands of acres from Reddie Point down.
Joel McEachin tells me, “Although never platted, the community of Chaseville developed at Reddie Point shortly after the war.” The head of the peninsula took its name from William Reddy’s 800 acre plantation here during the English occupation of East Florida, between 1763 and 1783. Various acres fell to various owners including Frances Richard in the Second Spanish Period in the late 1700s.
More significant to the “colored settlement” of Chaseville, members of the Kingsleys, one of the largest local slave- and plantation-owning families, settled at Reddie Point, including the white farmer Charles McNeill and his “free colored wife,” Elizabeth Coffee.
In a land of slavery and slave raids, the Reddie Point / Chaseville area had been known before the Civil War as a community of “free blacks,” their own farmers, owners of their own labor and their own bodies and their own lives. Then, beginning in 1865, former slaves of the Kingsley and Sammis families converged on this peninsula of freedom and reestablished a community. The Kingsleys, Sammises, McNeills and Baxters, former slaveowning families all, deeded acres of land here to former slaves.
Chaseville took its name from Samuel Chase, who built and operated a shipyard at Reddie Point and employed black USCT veterans who’d returned or relocated here. By the 1880s, Chaseville boasted a post office, a general store, an Episcopal church and a steamboat landing that exported the peninsula’s crops and seafood.
Joel gives me the prehistory and early beginnings of Chaseville and John tells me of its final days. Though Chaseville arose from a rare convergence of free black labor and ownership before the Civil War and reconstituted its community after the war, Chaseville disappeared not under official and legislative segregation, but by unplanned and unspoken coercions.
On Fort Caroline Road, Fire Station 27, just south of Fort Caroline Elementary School, stands where a black school operated in the late 1800s. John grew up hearing that a black classmate and friend named George Cooper was the grandson of an old woman who’d owned land along the riverfront and ran a community store and juke joint.
“Now here is the odd part,” John says. “Virtually every single white person in the new emerging ‘midcentury modern’ Arlington suburbia was totally unaware of this hidden black community that lived along the river.” Most black Chaseville residents supported themselves on their own land or worked across the river. Besides a small black church in Chaseville, most residents worshiped across the river in core city neighborhoods like LaVilla and Oakland.
Most new white residents in the suburbs along University Boulevard and Fort Caroline Road never knew of the black residents they’d displaced. “I can truthfully say,” John says, “that from 1960 to 1969, I never saw an African American in a store or gas station in Arlington, although many of our neighbors employed black ladies as maids.”
Where the magnolia tree stands between Heidi Road West and Kaden Drive East stood the gate to Chaseville Cemetery. Heidi Road was named for the daughter of Ted Edidin, developer Lonnie Wurn’s attorney. A nearby road bears the name Edidin. The graveyard extended south to where Heidi Road curves back east. A dozen houses and their swimming pools now occupy the land.
In 1959, hundreds of visitors from across the city came to Fort Caroline Club Estates’s “Parade of Homes” to see showcase houses like the “Roundhouse” on Howalt Drive. One of eight known houses built from blueprints designed by Atlanta attorney Gilbert Spindel, “Geodesica,” as Spindel also called it, stands a block from the neighborhood clubhouse and pool. You could have thrown a stone from Geodesica to Chaseville Cemetery.
By the early 1960s, Fort Caroline Elementary, which John would attend for sixth grade, was just being built. Down Laudonniere Drive from the front of the new school, skeletons lay naked in the sand. The wooden caskets had rotten away. Joel McEachin had located the cemetery here on a map; John remembers it in the land. Whites buried further up on Reddie Point had been relocated in ’46.
John can still see the scene—“just a couple of workers, no police, no minister, no authorities whatsoever.” There were no tombstones. Like the coffins, headstones had likely been wooden and rotted away. Nobody partitioned off the site. It was all very casual, no barricades or rope or tape to keep people out. “Just a couple of guys digging holes in the ground,” bones laid out on the sand.
Trying to place how normally such strange and dramatic enterprises were conducted, John pauses and says, “Let me digress for a moment. My dad and I fished several times a week all along the river, especially at Mayport.” Shortly after moving to the neighborhood, they heard about the Timucuan Indian mounds archaeologists from the University of Florida were excavating nearby at what’s called the Mill Cove Complex. So John and his father stopped by the dig where archaeologists let the little boy shake ground samples out in the sifter. John and his dad stopped by every Saturday. The archaeologists knew where they lived and told them about other mounds closer to their house. Archaeology was only a generation or two advanced from when the profession was mostly an obsession and hobby of young men wealthy enough to afford the time and travel. The early 1960s, in retrospect, was an astonishingly casual time.
That fact still leaves John’s most astonishing childhood memory shocking. As he wandered the woods and Chaseville ruins on his own, as he and his father went squirrel and history hunting around the new suburbs with their rifles, this little boy wandered into the Chaseville Cemetery one day, climbed into one of the shallow graves beside the two workers and began to dig at a skeleton.
“Even brought my own tools,” he says. “The skeletons were in excellent shape, brown in color. There were no coffins, just dry sandy soil. The workers pointed out the shallow rectangular depressions in the soil under all the trees as where to dig.” Around the old graveyard were hardwoods, a hickory hammock, a small creek running just east. Digging and clawing, this little boy finally, as John recalls now, 60 years later, well, “I excavated an entire skeleton by myself.”
6. Hallowed Ground
“Here’s where it gets almost spiritual for me,” John says. “Look at the map where the black cemetery is and follow the dotted lines (dirt road) to where it begins to turn right down to Horseshoe Landing.
“See the oblong shape within a larger circle? This was an ancient Timucuan ceremonial mound dating back several thousand years. And the vast clearing behind it was on the very level ground where the cemetery was located.
“A buried civilization on top of another buried civilization.”
Besides bountiful seafood, John notes, another “main food source for the Timucuans” was hickory nuts. There’s an old theory that Indians here may have planted hickory orchards. “So when I saw the graves under the ancient hickory trees,” John says, “I knew I was on hallowed ground.”
A small boy, John gathered hundreds of shards in and around Chaseville Cemetery. “The workers kept telling me it was all just trash.” John knew otherwise. To this day, he treasures those early finds of ancient objects.
It wasn’t unusual for Florida real estate developers, mid 20th century, to disrespect the old burying grounds of black people and indigenous tribal people. Nobody who knows Florida can be surprised by this fact, though certainly the callous dislocation of somebody-else’s-dead should shock us.
What’s less common surely is the innocence of a child in the presence of the dispossessed dead. That child, not understanding what adults must have, or should have understood, yet flooded himself with wonder at the all-ness of each particle of the earth and the long unknowable past that calls up to us in mystery, if we’re alive enough to hear it, from the depths of our own being.