Oceanway: Catherine Tourist Court

by Tim Gilmore, 2/11/2018

In the early 1950s, The Wakefield News of Michigan reported consistently on the Moyles—“Mr. and Mrs. Wm.”—who’d moved to Jacksonville to manage Catherine Tourist Court, “consisting of 16 cabins and a restaurant, with living quarters.”

In March 1952, “the Randalls,” whomever they may have been, wrote the newspaper from Florida, “Read the News at the Moyles’ motel. It sure gave us a lift to get a paper from way back home. Florida weather is swell, but as for beauty, give me northern Michigan, or should I say Wakefield?”

The Moyles had taken over from the Tinsleys, whose postcards of the motor court 10 miles up Main Street from Jacksonville’s Victorian Springfield, promised “Private Hot and Cold Showers in each modern new clean and cozy cabin.”

Certainly Catherine Tourist Court never merited a rating in The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, which listed hotels, motels, restaurants, and other service establishments safe for black travelers. The Tinsleys proclaimed, “We cater to the better class only.” Everybody knew what that meant.

Annual Klan rally outside Jacksonville’s Imeson Airport, near Oceanway, 1956, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

You could find Catherine Tourist Court a few miles north of the airport in Oceanway, a rural nerve center for white supremacy and Ku Klux Klan activity nowhere near the imputed ocean. Imeson Field served as Jacksonville’s municipal airport from 1927 to 1968. The Klan held annual membership drives across from the airport, wearing masks and white hoods, singing hymns and burning tall crosses.

Annual Klan rally outside Jacksonville’s Imeson Airport, near Oceanway, 1956, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Wander Main Street north from Imeson Field, and before you come to Airport Center Drive, where you might take a left to Jacksonville “International” Airport, which opened as Imeson closed, you’ll find Oceanway Bar and Grill, and on any particular Saturday, amidst heavy airport traffic, you’ll see dozens of white men with big-tired pickup trucks bearing machine gun stickers and flying Confederate flags. Welcome to Jacksonville, 2018, “international” flyers!

Wander further north to the Old South. There’s an old joke that the further north (uncapitalized) in Florida you go, the further South (capitalized) you travel. Come to what’s left of Catherine Tourist Court, the postcard still promises, “You are safe when you register here.” Someone’s nailed a radiation hazard sign to a pine tree, but the postcard doesn’t get the joke.

Recent developers have built new subdivisions, drywall and plaster, ’round about, but there’s a meanness in the land here no suburbanization can eradicate. The tourist court has weathered Florida poorly. The front office has been rebuilt, torn down, re-rebuilt. The driveway’s been enclosed, the old columns replaced with wooden slats and lattice.

Rickety stairs built when?—1970s? 1990s?—climb crookedly a side porch barely wide enough to stand on, the original 1940 structure leans sideways, the remains of wooden cabins dot the periphery, as do tin-can trailers that replaced most cabins only to rot like cheap wood, while mattresses piled on the porch once the office driveway hop with bugs like pepper cooking or cartoon Mexican Jumping Beans.

At the top of the stairs, dense clouds of flies feast on unnamable detritus. Might the flies not canvas a corpse? If I set this whole compound on fire, I might come back in 10 years to plant tomatoes and beans if the Confederates didn’t set my beard and my books and my heart on fire first.

In the next-door compound, I find little cabins that date to the 1940s, a circular unpaved path unofficially named, according to a wooden board screwed into an aluminum pole, “Jesus Way,” and ask two white men with neck tattoos and bad teeth, one with a pony tail, what they know of Catherine Tourist Court. They stare at me, friendly enough—I’m white after all—but empty-eyed.

“What’s Circle of Love Ministries?” I ask, and the man with the pony tail tells me, “It’s a church and discipleship program.” The shorter man smiles big, genuine, says, “It’s better than Alcoholics Anonymous,” and I believe him. Jesus is infinitely adaptable. It’s the secret of the Savior’s success.

Out by Main Street, the cluster mailbox holds 15 bins whose little metal doors stand open. Only the “Outgoing” bin remains closed and locked. I’m too prone to find metaphors. Does some moldered escape plan really rot within?

What happened to Catherine Motor Court—“We cater to the better class only”—in the heart of Klan Kountry—in the decades that followed the Tinsleys and Moyleses? Who cried beneath the pines? Who died? Who occupied these 15 addresses across the months, across the years? Who watched the metal mobile homes replace the wooden cabins? Who drank too much, night after night? Who smoked bowls? Who chef’d meth? Who—and I know it happened—miscegenated—whose love crossed color—what daughter of a Klansman secretly touched her fingertips to the lovely lips, the forehead, the zygomatic sculpture of a beautiful black face, a good man, that gentle and gracious lion who lay with the lamb?