by Tim Gilmore, 2/3/2018
Someone stole their heads. Their bodies had been burnt. Police found two axes in the scorched desolation of the shack. Just before Christmas. 1913.
“[T]he minds of Sheriff W.H. Dowling and his staff of deputies,” the Florida Times-Union reported, were busy working out “whether or not the two negroes were murdered.” Clearly, they’d not died of the Common Cold.
John McLaurin repaired bicycles out of his humble little woodframe house at the southwest corner of Louisa Street and Kings Road (now Avenue) at the northern spearpoint of the poor black settlement called Philips. His friend John McRay, who did what job he could when and where he could, sometimes helped out and stayed the night.
A 1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows clusters of small houses, a “negro restaurant,” and one block up, McLaurin’s “repair shop.” The dwellings of black workers huddle against the Florida East Coast Railway yards.
Flames scorched nearby underbrush and longleaf pines before dawn on Monday, December 22, 1913, and the smoke sent particulates of McLaurin and McRay, of their muscles, of their emotions, of their clothes, of their sweat and sinew, off into the Jacksonville morning sky.
The newspaper reported that both men “were known as law abiding characters.” In case readers wondered if they’d deserved it.
Folk tales of Confederate ghosts riding their horses in vengeance through the woods in the outskirts of towns at night had haunted the landscape for as long as anyone whose skin was black could remember. Though Congress ended the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan in 1871, and the Klan would not reappear until 1915, white ghosts dressed in white had sought vengeance steadily since the Confederacy’s demise.
Police found the men’s bodies prostrate in bed, indicating they’d been beheaded in their sleep, the house then set afire. Nevertheless, a coroner’s jury was impaneled to decide whether the headless men, axes found at their sides, might have been murdered.
A century later, the street corner where McLaurin and McRay were murdered stands undistinguished beneath the concrete walls of Interstate 95, one block east of Tidbits Restaurant, just south of Reddi-Arts supply store. This end of Philips, now the Southbank, downtown, had spread down what’s now Kings Avenue, down a leg of Philips Highway built in the 1930s, and either side of what’s now St. Augustine Road, originally lengths of the King’s Road from British and Spanish Florida.
Most of the residents of Philips were the children or grandchildren of former slaves, or were former slaves themselves. In the 1840s, Albert Gallatin Philips, Duval County’s first sheriff and owner of nearby Red Bank Plantation, set aside land for a Methodist church and school. Its members abandoned it during the Civil War, letting the structures collapse through the years, but burials started in the churchyard by 1867. Sunken ground in the slope and swale of Philips Cemetery at Craig Swamp might mark older unrecorded graves.
I come down here from time to time, think about McLaurin and McRay, wonder whether their skulls lie within the radius of my rambles. Their heads were never recovered. That’s just one secret I know I don’t know, among all the invisible others. No one can re-present the past. Whatever the present may be, the past exists as infinite variations of a thing that does not exist. I’ll take any trace of it. The situation’s urgent. I’m more than a little desperate.
The ground rises over time. The sky rains earth it’s risen: dust, ash, particulate. People build atop what other people built. Landscapes overlay landscapes. Besides Philips were other sparse rural black communities: Pine Forest, Larsen, Jerusalem, and other names now lost in the earth and time. These communities never had fixed boundaries. They waxed and waned across the land like the marsh on the banks in flux between relentless rains and drought. Then South Jacksonville absorbed Philips. Then Jacksonville oozed south across South Jacksonville.
Roads lay atop roads snaked over roads curved and cut into roads, ad infinitum. Sometimes I walk them, the roads on the bottom. The king’s old road. A streetwalker. Taking in the landscape, exhaling mania, shame, sadness. Sometimes joy. Unadulterated. Flowered up from filth. Ecstatic. Walking along outside myself. In the very best moments, a calm happiness that comes I can’t tell whence. Might I age more gracefully into that condition?
Old honeycomb shingles of the Carpenter Gothic church enmesh the porch entrance behind which stands the door. Historians date the Philips Congregational Church to 1887. Philips persists, that old woods settlement. Look beneath the present. Beneath the broken asphalt roads and parking lots you’ll find the older roads the wagon paths became.
But the Philips that most clearly protrudes through the strata of time since? You’ll find it in the cemetery. Both Confederate soldiers and American soldiers lie here, some of whom surely crossed each other in life. Headstones are scattered far and wide.
Rust shows through where the white paint chips off the crooked iron fence standing isolated oddly in the midst of the sloping graveyard. Inside lie the remains of Louis Hufbauer, who died at age 17 on November 18, 1888, and his mother Mary, who died at 49 one month and one day prior, two of the 450 who died of the 5,000 sickened in Jacksonville’s largest Yellow Fever epidemic. An old oak grows at one corner of the iron fence.
The ground slides up from Craig Creek, rises into its graves. A fallen oak lies about the stone of a Union soldier. The January sun that shines through a mottled, overcast sky on toppled tombstones seems older here, belies the Florida lie of newness, keeps company with this chamfered ground. To walk here is to feel you’ve walked here for 200 years and not be wrong.
Walk a ways back toward McLaurin and McRay. The shotgun shacks are gone. So are the houses dogtrot-style. The tin roofs. The porch spindles. But there’s one hall-and-parlor left. Hall-and-parlor houses face the street with a wide porch, then open into the parlor that leads to a hall and bedroom. Their gables face the sides.
So I walk around back of 2944 St. Augustine Road, find my way to the office of First Coast Industrial Supply, ask Mary Ann Harvich, who leans on a desk covered with piles of papers, what she knows.
“I can’t remember the woman’s last name that lived there,” she says, “but her first name was Margie.” Mary Ann says Margie was a “lonely old black lady” whose husband had lived to be 99. Margie was born in the house in 1922. “I took her to dinner on Thanksgiving, you know, and brought her dinner for Christmas. I felt sorry for her. She always told me, she’d say, ‘Nobody ever comes to see me.’”
I walk back to the house, pull an orange off a thorny wildstock tree, peek into the windowed porch. I look at city records: the house dates to 1914. I look at city directories—1998, 1971, 1955. No Margie. At 2944, it’s always Joseph Moore.
I look at Joseph Moore’s obit. He died on Wednesday, September 19, 2001, 97 years old, “survived by a loving and devoted wife: Marjorie Moore.” The cortege for the funeral assembled right here, at 2944, the last hall-and-parlor, at 10 a.m., Monday the 24th. Joseph Moore had retired from Florida East Coast Railway “after many years of service.”
He was nine years old when John McLaurin and John McRay were murdered. He’d worked his whole adult life for the railroad company among whose workers lived McLaurin and McRay, workers whose bicycles they’d repaired. Surely he’d heard the story when he was young.
Would Marjorie remember? Her own death soon followed her husband’s. Without luxury of obituary. What did she see across the 20th century in Philips? What does a city suffer?
In 1972, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a two-part television special called The Stone Tape. Based on the ill-credited ideas of anthropologist T.C. Lethbridge, the show promoted the possibility that stone could sometimes “record” the “spiritual projections” of people in moments of dire need, their tragedy and trauma, and “play back” the pain to those who come after them.
A city could, thereby, absorb its suffering in its streets and walls, and future city denizens could experience some “feedback loop” of earlier urban pain.
Should not, after all, the present city, both as physical space and as populace, know its own past? And should great pain be so easily spent and forever dispatched, never, it would seem, to have happened at all?
If there’s a stammering susurration that rebounds all day and redounds all night up above Naugle Funeral Home, established in 1919, just the other side of I-95 from McLaurin’s cabin, surely that’s no longer the sound of beheadings, racial killings, or Confederate vengeance for loss of slaves and honor and cause, but the ceaseless pulsing and the pounding shoosh of hundreds of thousands of cars passing overhead every day all day and all night. Right?
Omnia mea mecum porto.