by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2016
Decades ago, here at the old city limits, the City diverted natural springs to inadequate sewage and housed an incinerator dump by a black recreation site. Now the Clara White Mission has reclaimed his patch of earth for the holiest of earthly purposes—community farming.
Four years ago to the day, I wrote about Moncrief Springs. Today I write of this site rechristened “White Harvest Farms.”
Holding up the sky, the three Corinthian columns still stand, the middle one headless. They bear a fresh paint job and new titles.
Four years ago, as it had for decades, the first pillar bore blue block letters that read, “Eartha White,” the middle column, “Memorial,” and the last, “Boys Club” [sic]. Today the columns say, “White,” then “Harvest,” then “Farms.”
Four years ago to the day, I wrote, “In the mid-1940s, Eartha Mary Magdalene White, Jacksonville’s own Gandhi of Civil Rights and activism for the poor, bought 18 acres of Moncrief Springs, renovated the swimming pool and bathhouses, and opened them up to the city’s black citizens, since every other public swimming pool in the city was whites-only.”
I’d not yet begun research on my 2014 book In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People, and I’d not yet found numerous references to the rise and fall of Moncrief Springs.
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For nearly a century, until the early 1970s, the City of Jacksonville disposed of much of its garbage by burning it.
As American manufacturing increasingly used synthetic materials, which it started to offshore to poorer countries (leading to the massive 1970s American manufacturing decline), incinerating trash continuously meant concentrating certain synthetic toxic compounds and coating the landscape with them.
What the City didn’t send through the air to scatter and settle across the city and its outskirts—toxic and carcinogenic dioxins and furans, aggressively corrosive hydrochloric acids, and the Sulphur dioxide emissions that led to “acid rain”—it collected in exponential densities in the garbage dumps where it buried the ashes of its trash.
Brown’s Dump was a prime location, at the intersection of Moncrief Road and the old city limits, before Jacksonville and Duval County consolidated governments in 1968, partly in response to white fears (amidst suburban expansion and “white flight”) of Jacksonville’s becoming a mostly black town.
Brown’s Dump operated on 250 acres for less than 10 years, late 1940s to 1953, but it saturated the soil several feet deep with mercury, lead, and heavy metals.
The dump adjoined Eartha White’s recreation center. For years, even as the big gospel bands with their trumpets and French horns and trombones played “When the Saints Go Marching In” and churches baptized crowds of young boys and girls in the swimming pool at Moncrief Springs, backhoes and large tractors poisoned the land beside them.
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Jacksonville’s black population had always concentrated in certain pockets of the city proper, like LaVilla and the urban Eastside, as well as the urban to rural Northside. The neighborhood at 45th and Moncrief had long been a cultural crossroads. A club called the Two Spot was famous across the South for its jazz and blues shows.
Eartha White had long maintained a small fieldstone bungalow out at Moncrief Springs beside her recreation center. While she most often spent the night in her second floor bedroom at the Clara White Mission she’d named for her adoptive ex-slave mother, she hoped to make the Moncrief bungalow more and more home. The little house connected to two rear buildings that increasingly contained her collections of books and historic documents and artifacts.
Much of that collection is now on display on the second floor of the Clara White Mission in LaVilla, including an organ from Duke Ellington’s orchestra and a European-featured plaster bust of a mythological Moncrief-area Indian named “Grand Powder.”
By the early 1960s, Eartha’s financial difficulties had grown unmanageable. The site fell into disuse and quickly became overgrown by Jacksonville’s subtropical flora.
By the summer of 1963, Christine Burger of The Jacksonville Journal reported that the “pure water” of Moncrief Springs that writers had described in 1874 had long since disappeared, as had associated (mostly white) recreational uses like the horse track, “one of the finest […] in the country.”
Then Burger writes of Eugene Moncrief, the Frenchman after whom these springs and later this entire district were named, how he sailed into the St. Johns River in 1793, buried treasure near the eponymous springs, then dug up one chest of jewels to offer his Indian bride Sun Flower, after which Grand Powder scalped Moncrief for his true Indian love.
Supposedly the springs lay hidden in the woods until 1873. After several failed white efforts, Eartha White channeled the springs into black swimming pools in 1945.
Abel Bartley argues in Keeping the Faith: Race, Politics, and Social Development in Jacksonville, Florida, 1940-1970 that in the late 1940s, black fifth-ward residents were taunted to vote for a swimming pool, where their children could play free in the water, in exchange for a true black civil representative.
After black city council candidate Wilson Armstrong lost handily in 1947, the City purchased land just south of Hogan’s Creek and just north of LaVilla for a blacks-only swimming pool. In 1951, the city opened the Jefferson Street Pool.
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Brown’s Dump shut down in 1953 and two years later, the School Board built an elementary school for black kids on a portion of it.
In 2001, when city officials admitted to Moncrief residents that attending school at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary posed significant health risks to their children, parents who’d attended the same school wondered why nobody had mentioned it for half a century.
Then Bethune Elementary, which shared its name with schools all over the South, just as Nathan Bedford Forrest High School once did, ceased operation and sunk under the weight of its abandonment.
Bethune, Eartha’s friend, was a Florida educator and Civil Rights leader, while Forrest was the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Jacksonville’s Mary McLeod Bethune closed in 2001, while Forrest High School finally changed its name 13 years later.
Now the elementary school is empty and city and state officials have dug up soil beneath houses built where Brown’s Dump once stood and replaced the soil with gravel. County health officials offered residents lead testing, but most refused it, whether from a desire not to know, an historically based distrust of authorities, or the fatalism of poor neighborhoods who have no locus-of-control.
The Clara White Mission worked with the University of Florida to remove several feet of soil and replace it with clean dirt, to pledge this ground once again to the community at 45th and Moncrief.
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The transformation of Moncrief Springs into White Harvest Farms illustrates everything miraculous about the earth’s constant renewal, and the Concept of Compost illustrates everything miraculous about Eartha White.
Wherever people have farmed, they’ve understood compost. On a small practical scale, it may mean banana peels and grape stems and coffee grounds and fallen leaves mixed and turned until they achieve a fine, rich, sweet-smelling nutritious soil.
But on a larger scale, all the farming people of the earth, throughout history and prehistory, no matter their religions or faiths, have understand that natural elements reclaim themselves in order to foment new life.
It’s the original concept of recycling.
So head out to the White Harvest Farms Farmers’ Market, open seven days a week, and buy yourself a stalk of sugar cane, a bag of boiled peanuts, fresh collard greens, green beans, and okra.
Then thank the Two Spot, thank Wilson Armstrong, thank Sun Flower and Grand Powder while you’re at it, but especially thank Eartha White and the Clara White Mission.