by Tim Gilmore, 4/23/2021
1. Hurricanes and Trainloads
Had there been truth to that old slave saw about hurricanes being the whips of Africa uncoiling in revenge on the American South, the cold early months of 1920 were reminders that the ocean’s wrath did not discriminate. Viciously the waves eroded Manhattan Beach’s waterfront and the small resort’s southernmost pavilion began to fall into the sea.
For decades, Manhattan Beach was the only strip of oceanfront in Jim Crow Florida where black people could legally and without worry play in the water, devour the day’s haul at an evening crab boil or fish fry, or dance to the stomps, the blues and the rags sung, strung and blown by black musicians. In 1900, once Henry Flagler had built his grand hotels and railways into Florida, he set aside this oceanfront wasteland slashed with storm swells for black railroad workers. Soon, tiny Manhattan Beach became the seaside resort for Black Jacksonville.
“I had trouble believing Big Mama,” writes Marsha Dean Phelts, “when she said that on these trains, which left early in the morning and returned home at dark, black people rode in the front cars and whites rode in the cars at the end.” Big Mama, Agnes Lloyd Cobb, was Phelts’s grandmother. Her mother cleared up the mystery. “My mama explained that the soot, cinders and smoke from the train’s engine blew back and settled heaviest on the cars closest.”
Phelts describes Manhattan Beach briefly in her 1997 book An American Beach for African Americans. Humanitarian Eartha White created a “Fresh Air Camp” for tubercular children here, but would soon have to move it to American Beach. American Beach on Amelia Island replaced Manhattan Beach after Ponte Vedra developers and financiers threatened and blackballed black business leaders and new owners set the last of those black-run properties on fire.
At the pavilions for dancing and dining and lodging at Manhattan Beach, day trippers rented bathing suits beneath the advertisements for Orange Crush soda. Streets were named for presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, for Jacksonville founder Isaiah Hart and Joseph E. Lee, one of Florida’s first black lawyers. “Trainloads” of black church members made regular beach excursions. Tin Lizzies and other early Fords lined up on the shore and friends splashed in the spray in those new one-piece swimsuits, long shorts and full tops, that the church ladies said were indecent.
2. Oceanfront “Negro” Removal
How do you classify the irony that Joseph Finegan Elementary School stands in place of Manhattan Beach? It’s menacing irony, at the very least. That a school on the site of a once segregated black beach should bear the name of a general who fought for a new nation whose cornerstone, as its Vice President Alexander Stephens said, was “African slavery”! That a place devoted to teaching children should bear the name of a Confederate warrior where developers forced out black property owners and black businesses went up in flames!
In Don Mabry’s 2007 article, “Harcourt Bull’s Atlantic Beach, Florida,” he calls Manhattan Beach a “stretch of oceanfront near the jetties and Mayport which was reserved for African Americans. The resort had existed for years in that deserted stretch about which whites in Duval County had ceased to care.”
But self-described white “capitalists” certainly still cared about any profit yet to be made, as Brittany Cohill explained in her February 2019 presentation to the Jacksonville Historical Society. Cohill, instructor of history at Jacksonville University and former associate director of the Beaches Museum, knows more than anyone else alive about Manhattan Beach.
Harcourt Bull left a lucrative law practice in New York to drop down to this pioneer peninsula as legal counsel for the Atlantic Beach Corporation. Appointed first mayor of white Atlantic Beach in 1925, Bull had popular black musicians come play at his house. Sugar Underwood, who named his songs after black streets back in town—songs like “Davis Street Blues” and “Dew Drop Alley Stomp,” played at Bull’s 11th Street oceanfront home, the oldest house at Atlantic Beach.
As Cohill told the Jacksonville Historical Society, however, “[I]t was Bull’s policy to cease selling Manhattan Beach property to African Americans. The black community could no longer endeavor to own an uninterrupted stretch of coastline in the Jacksonville area. As other white investors acquired surrounding property, efforts increased to remove the African American enclave completely.”
As early as 1915, black property owners challenged white developers’ aggression. Capitola Washington, a formerly enslaved woman who’d left farming for the rail industry, living in LaVilla and purchasing land from Flagler at Manhattan Beach, retained attorney Richard P. Daniel to represent her against the Atlantic Beach Corporation from whom she demanded the deed for her recently purchased property.
In response to Daniel’s late 1914 letter, James Payne, assistant secretary of the Atlantic Beach Corporation, wrote Harcourt Bull in January 1915, “The Mayport Terminal Company agreed that they would withhold the deeds from these niggers and give us the chance to purchase their contracts, but we have never availed ourselves of the opportunity.” ABC’s successor company, RCBS Corporation, would come down hard on the family business run by Capitola Washington’s nephew, Mack Wilson.
And when Manhattan Beach started to falter financially in the mid-20s, when more whites started moving out to the ocean, when storms and currents dug their mandibles into the shoreline, Harcourt Bull talked to black beachgoers and businessmen. When that pavilion began to collapse in the surf, he proposed its owners move it back or demolish it and sell it for firewood.
Bull represented Equable Trust of Baltimore in foreclosing Manhattan Beach’s mortgage, then proposed buying the beach himself and renting it back to its operators. In “Harcourt Bull’s Atlantic Beach,” Don Mabry seems to see Bull as sympathetic to Manhattan Beach, while Cohill sees him as “opportunist.” Clearly, cruel interests had great leverage and powerful forces wanted every scrap of the black beach erased.
The finances of the Atlantic Beach Corporation, the precursor to RCBS Corporation—Rogers, Crawford, Swartz and Bull—were already muddled when Bull first came to Florida. Then Black Friday hit, the Great Depression lowered, and the bottom fell out of the Florida Land Boom. Exeunt the 1920s. RCBS owned Manhattan Beach.
Cohill points to Bull’s statement in the February 1929 issue of Beach Life Magazine. “For everyone knows,” he said, totally ignoring black ownership at Manhattan Beach, “that from 16th Street, Atlantic Beach, north to the jetties, there lies a tract of land that is owned by a wealthy syndicate which is waiting for the psychological moment to come when they will develop the tract as Coral Gables or Hollywood was developed. That moment may be six months away or it may be a year away, but come it will and it will come soon.” It did not come. That “syndicate” developed Ponte Vedra Beach, well to the south, instead.
For along came Ed Ball. One of the wealthiest men in Florida, and many said one of the meanest, Ball was helping finance Stockton, Whatley, Davin and Company’s development of Ponte Vedra Beach to the south. Ball was the brother of famous philanthropist Jessie Ball duPont, and the Stockton Company, which had already built Avondale and San Marco, would later develop Deerwood and other exclusive neighborhoods.
In a letter dated January 27, 1933, Bull’s associate William H. Rogers writes, “Edward Ball called me at noon today and said that he had just acquired title to the Manhattan Beach property. He would like to buy from us a strip of land about 1,000 feet deep immediately behind his Manhattan Beach property. He would also like to get us to cooperate with him in excluding the negroes from Manhattan Beach in so far as possible in order to get them entirely off the oceanfront north of the southern limits of Atlantic Beach.”
Cohill points to an undated brochure for the Manhattan Beach Amusement Corporation that matches a lease agreement from RCBS dated May 15, 1931. It advertises shares for a more orchestrated development than had previously existed, yet still, as Cohill says, “by black people and for black people.” The front of the brochure quotes Booker T. Washington: “Those of Vision, Foresight and Perseverance Invariably are Remembered Long after their Departure by the size of their Success.” Booker T. didn’t seem to include the crooked power of white supremacism in his equation.
Until those last evenings, until the fires, the music at Manhattan Beach played on. Mack Wilson’s Pavilion, the family business run by Capitola Washington’s nephew, still offered seafood, soulful music and a place for black people, everywhere else segregated out, to spend a night or a weekend. But any illusion of the possibility of success for the Amusement Corporation ended abruptly. RCBS terminated its lease early, demolished the buildings and sold them for lumber to growing contracting giant B.B. McCormick & Sons, then burnt and cleared all that was left.
3. Ever Was Such a Place
A historic marker refers to Manhattan Beach at parking lot 8 in Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park. It’s the result of years of Brittany Cohill’s work to bring recognition to the black beach Ed Ball and white developers successfully removed. Bright white sand blazes in the sun. A volleyball net sags and withers and palm fronds rattle like buckets of crabs.
The park and coastal hammock preserve was named for Dr. Hanna, the preservationist and historian, in 1967. Joseph Finegan Elementary School opened two years later, tucked into the dark green curve of those forested dunes.
Across Jacksonville and other Southern cities, new schools named for Confederate leaders opened in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that public school racial segregation was unconstitutional. In 1963, the KKK bombed the home of Donal Godfrey, the first black first grader at formerly all white Lackawanna Elementary. From 1959 to ’69, Jacksonville opened J.E.B. Stuart High School and Stonewall Jackson Elementary, named for Confederate generals, Jefferson Davis Junior High, named for the president of the Confederacy, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, named for a Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and Joseph Finegan Elementary.
Which unfolds into one more irony. In 1863, Finegan’s plantation house in Fernandina, just north of then-future Manhattan Beach, became an orphanage for black children. Chloe Merrick, an agent for the National Freedman’s Relief Association, had purchased Finegan’s plantation through a tax sale of abandoned Confederate properties. Where Finegan had owned and brutalized black slaves, Merrick now helped black children find homes and families.
After the Civil War, Finegan sued to get his abandoned land back and won. A century later, Jacksonville named a new elementary school for the Confederate general who recovered his abandoned slave plantation from Merrick’s orphanage.
On June 16, 2020, the Duval County School Board voted unanimously “to begin the process” to rechristen Jacksonville’s schools named for Confederate leaders. Jacksonville activist Bob Rutter proposed that Finegan Elementary be renamed Manhattan Beach Elementary. Parents have told him that naming the school for Manhattan Beach would be “too controversial.”
Camilla Thompson, born in 1922, put it this way, when historian Robert Hayden interviewed her in 2006: “Manhattan Beach was a beach for African Americans. And there were about six families that owned property down there and some of them had bathhouses and they had a restaurant and rooms where you could maybe spend the weekend or a week or whatever. And so around the ’30s people started asking them to sell and some of them sold the property, but one family, the Mack Wilson family, refused to sell. So in 1938 a mysterious fire destroyed their beach place. I wrote a story about it. And someone on one of the television channels made the remark, said they didn’t believe there ever was such a place as Manhattan Beach.”