Jerusalem

by Tim Gilmore, 9/22/2012

All these churches left their cemeteries behind. The wall of the highway that surges above stands over and against this cemetery the way the Berlin Wall blocked desperate grandmothers and broken men from entering the Church of Reconciliation. Unlike bifurcated Berlin before 1989, however, here no hope of reconciliation exists.

The interstate that walls in and rises against Jerusalem Baptist Cemetery stands where the church that founded it in 1872 once stood. The extension of Interstate 95 that forever cements over the site of the original Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church eternally disconnected several communities founded by freed slaves after the Civil War.

Perhaps beneath the interstate lies the remains of the Eye of the Needle, the mythical gateway in Jerusalem before which camels knelt in order to pass through.

The congregation of Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church rebuilt their sanctuary in 1964, on the other side of Philips Highway. The dark bricks daydream when the sun strikes the far side of the church. The steeple stands determined and modest.

After the Civil War, small rural communities of freed slaves settled throughout the bloodied landscapes of the South. Some slaves had only moved away from remnants of African indigenous religions 30 or 40 years before, and new communities that surrounded just-exited plantations bore names like Mount Zion, Mount Pisgah, Shiloh, and Jerusalem. The exodus of the Biblical Israelites from their slavery in ancient Egypt became the nearest, dearest metaphor for the emancipation of slaves after Lincoln.

The miniscule community of Jerusalem planted itself two miles from the plantation its former slaves and supporting freedmen left behind. Two miles was nothing. Red Bank Plantation had covered 450 acres. Frederick Douglass’s mother, whom he later could hardly remember, walked 12 miles every night from her Maryland plantation to lie down with her little boy in his own slave cabin to get him to sleep, then walked 12 miles back to sleep for a few hours before waking up before dawn to work in her master’s fields.

God, who was she? Who were all these millions of mothers and fathers?

At the end of the Civil War, Albert Gallatin Philips, owner of Red Bank Plantation, filed petition against the United States government for his losses. He sued for the financial loss of 38 slaves, something like half the value of the total number of slaves whipped to do for him his work.

The nearby portion of the Kings Road, the first highway in Florida, dating from British rule of the peninsula in the late 1700s, was absorbed by St. Augustine Road. An intersection of Old Kings Road and St. Augustine Road still exists though. St. Augustine Road was mostly supplanted by Philips Highway, named for a judge who descended from the slaveholders at Red Bank, and when Interstate 95 replaced or displaced Philips Highway in the 1950s and 1960s, the former motor hotels built in the 1940s to capture cross-Florida tourists became the motels that fostered prostitutes and gin and crack cocaine and meth.

Between the King’s Highway and Old Kings Road and St. Augustine Road and Philips Highway and I-95 freed slaves worshiped Jesus and honored Moses and decided to call the center of their spiritual earth: Jersualem.

The Red Bank Plantation House, built in 1854, can be found tucked into the Colonial Manor extension of wealthy San Marco.

After the house lost the Civil War and Florida Governor John Milton shot himself in the head, it lost its slaves, then became an inn, then became a restaurant called “Johnson’s Chicken House,” then became a private residence again in 1937.

Communities absorb and subsume into and bury beneath them earlier communities whose own boundaries long ago blurred out into historical patterns of old and poor and black and wealthy and white South Jacksonville.

Since 2012, strange little Jerusalem streets called Bertha and Fagg and Olevia and Barton have disappeared. The houses here stood close together. They lacked doors and windows. They had asbestos warnings spraypainted across their faces. Now the interstate has spread its girth over those streets and houses and histories.

In the debris beside interstate construction, between Jerusalem Cemetery and Jerusalem Baptist Church, Giant Swallowtail caterpillars crawl hungrily across the Ruta Graveolens herb, Common Rue, and a Barred Rock rooster stands in a field of dry dead weeds, his comb glowing red in all that screaming invisible history.