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 anyone from entering the old Church of the Reconciliation. Unlike the two sides of Berlin before 1986, however, here no hope of reconciliation can exist.
The interstate that walls in and rises against Jerusalem Baptist Cemetery stands where the church that started this cemetery 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 that freed slaves founded after the Civil War. It disconnected them in order to connect far-flung suburban white neighborhoods.
Chelsea and Jacob didn’t know what they were looking for. Not really. They had signed up for this class at the community college because its course description said something about exploring the city’s places of mystery. They hadn’t really known the city had any places of mystery.
Sure, they knew about School Number Four. Every teenager for the past three decades knew about School Number Four, and a lot of them had wandered its dilapidated hallways or its underground tunnels leading to the boiler room. But that was only one place of mystery. Places? Plural? A flyer for the class had said something about a crypt for an African princess in the oldest city cemetery and houses built into the sand dunes at the beach.
Now they found themselves working together on a senseless assignment. Students were supposed to team up on scavenger hunts in which they had to find and write about such things as the statue that glowed red in the 1901 fire or the ancient Greek temple by the housing projects. No one was told where these places where exactly. They had to do a little research, beginning with a little googling, and then they had to find their way around the city, often not even knowing exactly what they were looking for.
Chelsea and Jacob drew from a lottery and found they had to find “the Eye of the Needle in Jerusalem.” What the hell did that mean? They approached the professor after class and asked him, but he only smiled at them and tugged at his beard. Sitting outside the classroom one morning, half a dozen students talked about their scavenger hunt assignments. When Chelsea mentioned theirs, a student named Kate told her that Jesus had said something about the eye of a needle. It was harder for rich man to get into heaven, Jesus had said, than for a camel to fit through the eye of needle.
When Jacob googled this strange aphorism, or whatever it was, he found that a number of wealthy Christians had claimed that the Eye of the Needle was a gateway in Jerusalem that camels had to kneel to make their way through. Apparently historians and archaeologists, however, had never found any evidence for such a gate.
So Chelsea googled “eye of the needle” and “Jacksonville,” thinking she might find some hint at what they were supposed to do with their assignment. Nothing. So she googled “Jerusalem” and “Jacksonville,” and she found four and a half million results, everything from the distance from Jacksonville to Jerusalem to various local Jewish organizations. She also found something called Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church.
The next morning, a Friday, Chelsea and Jacob climbed with purpose into her little Nissan pickup truck. They were sleepy and stinky. Both of them had tall curly hair. Both of them had once been a little too skinny, but were now a little overweight, only because their limited funds led them to often to fast food joints. They drove toward the St. Augustine Road address of Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, not knowing if they were on the right track at all, but feeling a bit like private investigators on a very important case.
After the Civil War, small rural communities of freed slaves formed instantaneously all over the bloodied landscapes of the South. Though most slaves had only moved away from remnants of African indigenous religions and toward Christianity 30 or 40 years previously, 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 from the plantation was nothing in a time when the Red Bank Plantation once covered 450 acres. Frederick Douglass’s mother, whom he later said he could hardly remember, walked 12 miles every night from her Maryland plantation to lie down with her little boy in his own slave cabin and get him to sleep, then walked 12 miles back only 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 who were whipped to do his work for him.
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 as a 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 later prostitutes and crack cocaine and meth in the 1990s, when law enforcement found any reason it could to shut them, and several were shuttered and demolished.
Somewhere between the King’s Highway and Old Kings Road and St. Augustine Road and Philips Highway and I-95 were the couple squares of earth where freed slaves had once worshiped Jesus and by extension Moses at a church they called the center of their spiritual earth: Jersualem.
Chelsea and Jacob were puzzled. They noticed that street signs on one side of the road, from which they could see the tall downtown buildings in the milky gauze of the morning air, were spelled “Phillips” and signs on the other side were spelled “Philips.” Yes, they were that observant and smart. They would be able to find out what “the Eye of the Needle in Jerusalem” might mean in the center of this city. Half the street signs were spelled wrong.
Chelsea and Jacob drove in and out of narrow streets that backed up against used car dealerships and highway berms. When they found Jerusalem Street and drove onto it from Philips Highway, they felt they might be onto something. Jacob looked out the window at moldering cottages and rubbed his left cheek and imagined driving up to an ancient Palestinian gate before which camels kneeled, while Chelsea looked furtively left and right and wondered if she were driving so slowly as to make them an easy target and if someone here might rob them. She felt vaguely racist, though the people she saw walking the sidewalks of Philips Highway were the color of her particular darkness but hadn’t grown up, as she had, in the suburbs.
Jerusalem Street extended—in her head, Chelsea almost used the word “progressed”—for two and half blocks, before it curved in cowardice from the highway that dominated the area. Driving up and down old roads, eventually they found the other half of Jerusalem Street on the other side of Interstate-95. They came to the gates of the cemetery the highway sliced like a two-story razor blade.
They didn’t know Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, just off White Street, one of the few city schools that could call itself one of the nation’s top schools, was originally the one South Jacksonville high school for black students in the days of segregation. They didn’t know Douglas Anderson was a black educational advocate who so devoted himself to his cause that he even drove a school bus to the only black high school south of downtown.
The Red Bank Plantation House can be found tucked into a “Colonial Manor” extension of the wealthy San Marco area south of downtown. In fact, the Red Bank Plantation House, built in 1854 but listed by the city appraiser’s web site as built in 1954, can be found tucked into a renovation that significantly altered it.
In the century between 1854 and 1954, the house lost the Civil War, it lost its slaves, it became an inn, it became a restaurant that called itself a “chicken house.” Once again, it became a private residence in 1937, 17 years before the city’s property appraiser’s website lists it as having been built.
The neighborhood around it matches it in style. According to the online appraisal records, the neighborhood around even matches it in era. Maybe there’s no other way to free your conscience while living in a house that oversaw large numbers of slaves and later sued the federal government for their loss.
But Chelsea and Jacob weren’t driving through the wealthy old neighborhoods of San Marco and its extensions. There was no way they could understand they drove across the graves of multiple communities long since absorbed and subsumed into and buried beneath later communities whose own boundaries had long since blurred and smudged out into some vague notion of old and poor and black South Jacksonville.
They drove and stopped the car and walked up and down strange little streets called Bertha and Olevia and Barton. The houses here were very close together. They lacked doors and windows. They had asbestos warnings spraypainted across their front walls.
Chelsea and Jacob drove these streets several days over several weeks in the early fall of 2012, and over this time they saw several of these pitiful houses disappear. The Florida Department of Transportation had purchased most of these properties to demolish them and build a new interstate interchange. The properties were worth nothing. The D.O.T. could pay something.
At an intersection with Olevia Street, Jacob pointed out a street sign for Fagg Street. Fagg Street was only one block long. When they later looked up the city’s online property records, they found no listing of Fagg Street. Googling street names didn’t register a Fagg Street. One night in Chelsea’s apartment, they zoomed in through Google Maps to the intersection of Olevia and Fagg. They could see the street sign, but Google identified Fagg Street as Barton Street.
This street named for someone’s last name, ironically—given its cruel and ugly homophone—around the corner from a strip club called the Doll House, both the street and the strip club purchased by the state’s Department of Transportation for demolition to make way for a highway interchange, disappears into the landscape the same way Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1872 by slaves freed from the Red Bank Plantation, whose main house still stands with a historic nameplate in an extension of wealthy San Marco, disappeared forever beneath the highway.
That highway is a no-man’s land. Slaves weren’t considered to be men or women either. They weren’t considered to be fully human. Hence the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 that said that slaves, for purposes of political representation for the South, could neither be considered fully human, nor merely livestock like horses or pigs. The highway too is such a compromise. Human beings can’t exist here as individuals, but they can fly across the face of this landscape as extensions of their automobiles.
Chelsea and Jacob were confused. They wanted to give the full history of this place its full and ugly weight. They also didn’t want to make glib and melodramatic comparisons between people driving in cars and slaves. After all, a slave was property. Under law, you can do anything you want to property. Work it. Burn it. Beat it. Breed it. Fuck it. Kill it. In the South. Under law. Property is nine tenths of the law, they say. In the South, it was ten tenths.
Chelsea drove around a corner that paralleled an exit onto Interstate-95 just south of downtown. Jacob looked out the window and saw the street sign for the intersection of Bertha and Fagg. Old houses here fell down. Doorways held no doors. Window frames held no windows. Most of the houses behind a corner sign identifying Jerusalem Street would be demolished in the next month or two. The erstwhile density of the inner city would open wide to spacious highway interchanges.
Chelsea had a sense that addresses were not just addresses, and Jacob had a sense that those who had cried here and loved here and shat here and died here were likewise forever being buried beneath Interstate-95.
Then somehow they came to the Carpenter Gothic church. One sign nebulously named emergency services offered inside, while another identified it as “one of the few remaining structures dating from the old Philips Community. Later erased by twentieth-century subdivisions, this rural 19th century community was named after Albert Gallatin Philips, owner of nearby Red Bank Plantation.”
Then were they surrounded by confusions of descendings. Highways that stole travelers from highways that stole travelers from highways. Plantation owners who sued for their rights to human beings who founded communities up and down these highways, freed-slave communities called Pine Forest, Larsen, Jerusalem, and other names now lost.
Philips was the community named after the former owner of the plantation and emanated out from Red Bank. Then Philips was the main artery through this part of the future Jacksonville, Philips Highway, often misspelled, even by the State on street signs, as Phillips. Freed slaves from the plantation owned by Philips bore communities around the community called Philips where a future highway called Philips would fill up with motels primarily used by drug dealers and users and the hookers who walked Philips Highway.
But Chelsea and Jacob looked at this Carpenter Gothic church, Philips Congregational Church, built in 1887, with its gable and the patterns of its shingles. They found the church small, no bigger than many of the houses that had been built around it since that time. They ogled the humble rectangles in the old wood of the doors.
They kissed. Neither Chelsea nor Jacob had even thought about each other this way before this moment. They kissed, but there was something chaste about the kiss. The lust between them was somehow clean. The kiss was all and whole. It was as though all the human emotion that had moved through all these places had moved them toward each other. So the kiss was a full consummation, though the kiss went no further than a kiss. The kiss, as full consummation, was all. They could imagine no lust in all the kisses that led toward all the reproductions that had led to them, because all that was left of all those lusts were ghosts. So ghost and lust could exist together without each other. So conception was possible, but so was immaculacy. Pregnant with each other’s Immaculate Conception, they found themselves across Philips Highway on Jerusalem Street again. They stood away from the truck.
Jacob recalled a memory he could not himself have formed. He remembered hitting a man who was much darker than him in the face, and then he remembered being hit in the face by a man who was much, much lighter than him. But when he looked at a map for the intersection of Philips Highway and Jerusalem Street, he easily found Philips, but Jerusalem Street simply did not exist.
He remembered the church services his mother brought him to when he was a little boy. There he heard about Moses bringing the children of Israel out of bondage, and he learned to think of a young Martin Luther King, Jr. as Moses and the ancient Israelites as black Americans. He learned to think of Black America as the Center of the World, as Jerusalem.
But he had long since forgotten all these things. Now he stood beside old wood-frame cottages. Chelsea, named by her black parents after a part of London, stood beside him. They looked across the narrow street at a birdcage hanging on the porch of an old house. Chelsea happened to look down to the ground and she found a needle there. Since every needle contains an eye of a needle, Chelsea kissed Jacob. They had found “the Eye of the Needle in Jerusalem.” They didn’t see the hummingbird that fluttered the petals of the nearby Seven Sisters roses.
They didn’t see the Giant Swallowtail caterpillars crawling hungrily across the Ruta Graveolens herb, known also as Common Rue, “rue” as a verb meaning to regret, to feel sorrow over, but “rue” as a noun either meaning the anciently named “herb of grace” or, of course, in French, feminine, a street or road. You could rue your lost love by the garden rue growing along the Rue Véronèse.
Or you could mourn slaves singing, rhythmic in the ring shout, deep in the night, scars of whips grown across backs like branches grown crazy from branch-thick vines grown across the branches of oak trees in star-filled nights that somehow knew only you as they somehow cosmically couldn’t care, like a road on a map that vanished from the road across your back that mapped the cutting destruction of the one thing you ever cared about, Chelsea, the one human being you ever cared about, Jacob.
You reach down, you have found one sewing needle here, containing its eye, in the dirt and the rocks on Jerusalem Street, Jerusalem and Crawford Streets. You see no camel passing through. Instead you see cheap old dangerous buildings falling down. You’ve found the eye of the needle for the scavenger hunt, but you’ll never be the same. Poor as you are, you yourself cannot pass through it.
So at Jerusalem and Crawford Streets, you see. No one can be poor enough. No one can be detached enough from the world. No one can be un-world enough to move through the world to attach herself to the world that is other than and after and before the world.
So both of them step in an ant bed. Both of them are stung. Mosquitos bite both of them. So does a bumblebee. And then, a flea. Here in the center of the world, which the Florida Department of Transportation demolishes tomorrow. Here is a brick. Here is a leaf. Here is the eye of a needle.