by Tim Gilmore, 4/14/2018
1. “You Got to Be Able to Rap.” / The Tension in the Air
H. Rap Brown, fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC (pronounced “Snick”), stood in the center of Durkee Field, facing 300 black supporters—some news sources said 800—ready to hear Rap’s message of Black Power. The pitcher’s mound became orator’s lectern and preacher’s pulpit.
In was 1967, late in an incendiary decade that Jacksonville began with Ax Handle Saturday, August 1960, the beating of black student protesters by white racists with baseball bats and ax handles at Hemming Park in the center of the city. James Baldwin was reminding white Americans the Old Testament God said his second great destruction would be The Fire Next Time.
Rap, born Hubert Gerold Brown, earned his nickname for “signifying” and “playing the dozens” before hip hop was born. As he would explain it two years later in his autobiography, Die Nigger Die!, “Signifying is more humane [than the Dozens]. Instead of coming down on somebody’s mother, you come down on them. But, before you can signify, you got to be able to rap.” As he stood at the center of this baseball field first constructed in 1912, Rap ’67 was a year shy of bridging SNCC to the Black Panthers—SNCC had “nonviolent” in its name; the Panthers formed armed citizen patrols of the Oakland Police Department.
H. Rap Brown had been scheduled to speak at Hemming Park, in the center of the city, but strident segregationist Mayor Hans Tanzler, saying he feared race riots, moved the rally to Durkeeville, an historically black neighborhood northwest of downtown, named for Union soldier Joseph Durkee, who first settled here.
Duval County Sheriff Dale Carson met Rap at the airport to read him an anti-riot act, signed by Governor Claude Kirk two weeks prior, which made incitement to riot, keyed to recent events across the country, a Florida felony. Rap acknowledged the sheriff’s existence, then vanished into the crowd of travelers.
Brown’s message at the time was that white people had lots of guns and white cops all had guns, so black people! should get guns too. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense had formed the year before and Robert F. Williams’s 1962 book Negroes with Guns had catalyzed the movement. An equality of access to guns seemed a most American principle.
Racial tension had always run flammable in Jacksonville. Slavery and Jim Crow laws and lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan had bled gasoline into the region’s sun-broiling sandy soil all its history. During Reconstruction, from 1865 to ’77, that brief moment after the Civil War when the federal government, through military rule, oversaw civil rights in the former Confederacy, progress seemed achievable. As of late, when Rap stood at the mound, the nonviolence of Martin Luther King had curdled, and the Gandhian Civil Rights Movement satisfied angry and disenfranchised young black people less and less. As Rap stood at that pitcher’s mound, Dr. King’s assassination was less than a year away and you could taste it, bitter and metallic, in the air.
2. The Heart is a Diamond
You have to acknowledge the irony. This ballpark, this place where people have played baseball for more than a century, this field dedicated to a community’s enjoyment and friendship, becomes a verbal proxy battleground for the deadly racial turmoil of the late 1960s. The irony made itself necessary. Watch the geometry: the heart of the neighborhood was the baseball diamond. What happened in the heart took center stage.
And it’s not H. Rap Brown’s statue appears to have just knocked a ball out the park on the corner of Myrtle Avenue and West 7th Street. It’s Buck O’Neil’s. O’Neil attended Edward Waters College, just down Old Kings Road, left Florida in 1934, became a star player in the Negro Leagues and the first black Major League coach with the Chicago Cubs in 1962.
And it’s Union soldier Joseph Durkee who gave his name to Durkeeville and the neighborhood’s centerpiece, Durkee Field, Jacksonville’s main baseball turf from 1912 to 1954, and the ground where the Negro Leagues played.
The first Negro Leagues organized in 1920 and packed the bleachers across the country through the 1930s and ’40s. Because white fans flocked to Negro League games too, Durkee Field expanded in 1935 to provide a further division in separate seating for white and “colored” attendees. Major League baseball teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees came to Durkeeville for Spring Training. The city had hosted Major League spring training since the New York Giants came to town in 1895.
The Jacksonville Red Caps played Durkee Field, first in the Southern Negro League, then for one year, 1938, in the Negro American League, before moving to Ohio to become the Cleveland Bears.
In 1953, Hank Aaron came to town. He was 19 years old. His eyes opened wide, his eyebrows raised in exuberance. His smile was bright and toothy and big and sweet. You couldn’t not love his innocent expression. Unless you were one of the many white people who sent him death threats and called him a “nigger.”
That year, ’53, the Minor Leagues’ Jacksonville Braves “integrated” racially by bringing three black players to the roster—Hank Aaron, Horace Garner, Felix Mantilla. The New York Dodgers had broken “the color line” by hiring Jackie Robinson in 1947.
Most places, yet the Jim Crow Era, about town, baby-faced Hank Aaron couldn’t eat, couldn’t urinate, couldn’t sit down. He stayed at the house of Manuel Rivera, who owned Manuel’s Tap Room on West Ashley Street in the thriving, bumping, hopping district of LaVilla.
Though most of wealthy black Sugar Hill—centered on the so-called “Eighth Street Strip”—was demolished decades ago, Rivera’s home, which he opened graciously to Hank-Aaron-the-young-man-not-yet-Hank-Aaron-the-legend, still stands at West 8th and Eaverson Streets. Aaron was the league’s Most Valuable Player that year.
3. “White Honkies […] Revoking Citizenship […] by Helicopter”
Something else stirred in the atmosphere, the anthropophony, that 1967 night, surreal, on the field and in the bleachers. You could smell the nitration of lightning in night air. A small “group of young Negroes” chanted, “We don’t need you. / Go home, Brown!” Local news stories claimed young black people rejected Brown’s message, but newswires reported the group “encouraged by a Negro police detective,” Police Sergeant Willie Weston, who said he’d organized the counter-protests himself. He called his participants “my boys.”
Just as Rap began to speak, the strangest, most Floridian thing transpired. A white hayseed politician, the 36th governor of Florida, a Jacksonville insurance salesman on his way to reelection, hopped the fence at the baseball field, a black National Guardsman at his side, and tromped toward the pitcher’s mound.
Rap saw him coming. “You better get yourself some guns, baby,” he told his crowd. “That’s the only way you gonna get what you need.” Rap said, “The streets are yours. Take ’em whenever you’re ready!”
The Tallahassee Democrat reported, “Governor Kirk confronted H. Rap Brown, black power agitator, at a Negro rally in Jacksonville last night; and reporters at the scene disagreed on which won the crowd.”
United Press International reported that Kirk channeled “fears of racial violence into a first-class publicity coup,” as he “plunged into the delighted crowd smiling and shaking hands, campaign-style.”
Reporters noted a black truck driver who told the governor how white people in Frostproof, Florida said they didn’t serve blacks, denied him a motel room, or even a cup of coffee.
“We’ll do something about that,” Kirk said glibly and full of pomp and moved on. H. Rap Brown told the crowd to ignore “these white honkies” who assumed they could “take over our meeting” like it was their own plantation.
Kirk approached the pitcher’s mound, snatched the mic from Rap, told him, “Welcome to Florida,” and said he sure did hope Rap had no plans to make trouble. The governor tried to shake the activist’s hand, putting his other palm on Rap’s shoulder. Rap refused, disbelieving, retaining his cool.
“Are you here in good spirits?” the governor asked Rap who, without the mic, yelled to the crowd, “If he wants to campaign, let him pay for it!”
The Associated Press reported Kirk “applauded and cheered” when he stepped onto the field, but said the crowd “booed lustily” when the governor took the microphone from the activist’s hands.
Wrote the AP, “Kirk was the first governor to directly challenge a militant Black Power leader in the street, on his own ground, before trouble began,” and quoted Kirk, “I went to the meeting to represent law and order.” Those last three words have stood code for white authoritarian politicians ever before and onward since.
Kirk later boasted to reporters that H. Rap Brown “was so shocked he couldn’t talk,” that Rap told his followers President Lyndon Johnson was setting up concentration camps for black people and that “someday all of the Negroes in the state will be pushed into the ocean.” The bumpkin governor claimed, knowing it or not, to beat Rap at the dozens.
While Kirk mocked and exaggerated Rap’s angry rhetoric, he ignored the historical reasons Rap’s hyperbole sounded plausible to his crowd at Durkee Field. Kirk was the first Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction because Democrats and Republicans had swapped roles regarding race. Whether or not LBJ really said, after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that Democrats had now lost the South, black voters saw Democrats their best bet as they’d previously thought Republicans “the party of Lincoln.” The Republican Party picked up the white South, angry and fearful of losing status and power and “Dixiecrats” died as a breed.
So H. Rap Brown’s welcome at Durkee Field at the end of the tumultuous ’60s resounded bizarre echoes of Hank Aaron’s batting, right here, for the Jacksonville Braves, formerly the Tars, who’d picked him up from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, as he led the South Atlantic League team to a championship in 1953. Before Hank Aaron became America’s most famous baseball player and broke seemingly every record with the Atlanta Braves in the 1960s and ’70s—hitting 755 home runs by 1976—he led Jacksonville to championship victories but couldn’t urinate, legally, in the same bathroom as white men.
The Associated Press reported that the governor’s arrival at Durkee Field “lent dignity” to the “Black Power” rally, quoting Kirk, “I suggest we put Mr. Brown on national television for three hours and let him say everything he has to say. Then give me three minutes of rebuttal and the problem will be gone.” The AP story called Kirk “a man of action” who had “married a beautiful Brazilian divorcee shortly after taking office.”
On August 10th, the AP reported Florida Comptroller Fred Dickinson lambasted the governor’s “meeting” with H. Rap Brown, a “traitor to America,” since this assignation “gave Brown national and international publicity.” Dickinson said Brown should be arrested for treason and the citizenship of Trinidad-born Stokely Carmichael, who first got Martin Luther King, Jr. to say “black” instead of “Negro,” SNCC chairman before Rap, be revoked.
The city was angry. The city gleamed and beamed explosive. The city had suffered, had licked its wounds, had acquiesced to the master, then bucked its complicity, kowtowed to boots in the teeth, blackfaced its black faces, tried civil disobedience, received, in turn, ax handles and Confederate flags planted in its back, simmered and raged and churned and fermented and stewed in its compounded humiliations, and Rap said, “Ignore these white honkies!”
Then Rap said, “You better get yourself some guns, baby.”
And Rap said, “That’s the only way you gonna get what you need.”
And Rap said, “The streets are yours. Take ’em whenever you’re ready!”
Eight months later, Martin Luther King crumpled with bullets, assassinated, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and every American city exploded from its heart.
But also there was James “Bubbling” Small. When the city built its new municipal ballpark in the growing “sports complex” on the Eastside in 1954, Durkee Field, suddenly decommissioned as city’s playground, became more than ever the ballpark for the neighborhood, for high schools, for the black community. James Small coached baseball at Stanton, the first black school in Florida, for 33 years, and his kids played ball right here, where Hank Aaron first won MVP.
Small died in 1975. Councilwoman Sallye B. Mathis, one of the two first black Council members elected since Reconstruction, sponsored legislation to renovate the field and rename it J.P. “Bubbling” Small Park in 1980. Buck O’Neil reappeared so many years after his death, this time in bronze, at the corner of Moncrief and West 7th in 2006.
1967—If it’s not the Red Caps, but H. Rap, hearing the crowd roar for nonviolent student activism crossing the Black Panther Party for Self Defense fervently capturing the revolutionary potential, the fervor of frustration, the outright danger to systems of oppression that call themselves democracy, fomenting smart angry people with the gift of rap, the potent creativity of language, then what is it?
Governor Claude Kirk may’ve claimed, after the fact, that he could take down three hours of H. Rap in three minutes, but the black organic urban animal called the city was bigger than one white outside politician formed in Jacksonville but dropped in from Tallahassee by helicopter.
At Durkee Field, please walk with me onto the pitcher’s mound. We are victims of ghostly historical forces and movements and, though I’ll hardly be able to stand in the morning, residually but shamefully, the agents.
The zombies of history must task themselves with redirecting its currents. You and I tomorrow must, in whatever shape tonight’s struggles leave us, stand and determine the direction of the wind, of the future.