by Tim Gilmore, 4/6/2018
The Cross Burning Still in Her Mind
When Donna Delegal was six or seven years old, the Ku Klux Klan burnt a cross in front of her family’s little woodframe house on St. Augustine Road. She can still see it when she closes her eyes.
Donna lived at the end of a long line of black households, but her parents weren’t African American. Her grandmother, Sadie Nasif Aborjali, had immigrated from Beirut in 1905, and Donna’s father, Marlen Frazee, was dark. Donna “toddled” after her grandmother “nearly everywhere she went.”
She recalls that during her childhood, in the 1940s and ’50s, the city’s large and tight-knit Arabic community connected firmly with black Jacksonville.
“In my mind, I can still see the cross burning,” Donna says. We’re standing in the sand parking lot for Air Flow Designs Heating and Air Conditioning. If we stood here 60 years ago, we’d be in the Frazees’ front yard.
“I knew this was something that happened. Several of our neighbors down St. Augustine Road had had crosses burnt in their yards.”
Since the last days of nearby Red Bank Plantation, St. Augustine Road from downtown south was mostly black. The loosely amalgamated community of Philips came down St. Augustine to about where Emerson crosses the road today. From there, Pine Forest continues to University Boulevard and east to the Florida East Coast Railroad line.
Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church first held services off St. Augustine Road on Vinson Lane in 1868, and though it relocated a few blocks north to 3811 St. Augustine in 1937, its cemetery marks where the church first stood. The graveyard for this old black congregation lies alienated and blocked in by squat industrial headquarters for cabinet makers, ceramic tile contractors, and Florida Custom Weapon Finishing, which offers protective coating for guns and features photos of assault rifles on its webpage.
Vinson Lane shoots narrowly into these industrial netherlands, Mount Zion Cemetery, lush green and lonely, chainlink-fenced to one side. Here old gravestones stand in rows beneath warehouse walls. Stones of United States Colored Troops tilt heavily in the acidic sponge of the earth. A broken wooden cross bedecked with dolls and toys leans against a tree etched with diamonds from decades of growth against wire fencing.
Back on St. Augustine, Donna’s childhood house looked like the black family woodframe houses that proceeded north for two miles.
Across St. Augustine and just south, another Lebanese family, the Johns, lived in the three-story rambling house at 5724. Built in 1920, in later years, the John House would lodge a tea room, apartments, even a truck stop. It’s currently home to a craft store called, appropriately, A Stitch in Time.
Albert John’s house stood center of several acres of corn and beans and cattle. Donna recalls a white worker named Matt who drank heavily and lived in workers’ quarters.
“What I most remember about the Johns’ place,” Donna says, “is climbing a pecan tree to get away from the bull chasing me and a girlfriend. I was about 10 years old. It was terrifying.”
She feared the Klan’s cross less. “They lit it sometime in the early evening. We were about to go to bed. From the front of the house, we saw, suddenly, this very bright light. The front room was the family room, the dining room, and my grandmother’s room. My father shouts, ‘Get down! Get behind the bed!’ We didn’t know if there might be gunfire, or if the house might be next to catch fire.”
Donna, her sisters, her parents and her Lebanese grandmother—who, until recently, had lived in a similar woodframe house next door north—positioned themselves between the bed and the back wall of the front room.
“So my father and my grandmother are saying, ‘If this house catches, we’re going out that window,’” Donna remembers.
With light and shadow dancing into the front of the house from the burning cross, the family waited. The men who’d planted the cross and set it ablaze shouted and screamed. Donna doesn’t remember what they said, but could probably guess the epithets. When they left, the family waited and watched, nestled together. The cross burnt itself out and the next day Donna’s father axed it down.
Poetic Justice / Injustice
Twenty years ago, Hazel Tisdale told me she remembered walking a narrow road in the heavy woods, eight or nine years old, sometime in the early to mid-1930s, when two white men stopped their pickup truck, jumped out, and ran after her.
“We were scared of that place anyway,” she told me, “because of an old cemetery up in there.” I don’t remember asking her which cemetery—Philips Cemetery at Craig Swamp, further north on St. Augustine, Jerusalem Cemetery, the other side of Philips Highway, or Mount Zion, and I can’t ask her now. She died in 2014, 89 years old.
I want to believe it was Mount Zion, because it’s the only cemetery inside Pine Forest’s present parameters, but also because that’s where community activist Douglas Anderson is buried. Hazel Tisdale remembered Douglas Anderson well.
But a century or 75 years ago, the rural black communities of Pine Forest and Philips and Larsen and Jerusalem had no fixed borders. Boundaries came later for mapping and jurisdictional convenience.
Hazel remembered the pickup, rattling down the narrow old road, towing a boat. She saw the truck brake, the men get out, their attention fixed on her.
“My heart started pounding,” she said. “I told myself to walk as if I was not afraid and then, when I rounded the corner, to run.” She managed to evade them and reached her house, then saw them coming down her street.
“They looked everywhere for me,” she recalled. “They even looked under the church, but they couldn’t find me.”
If that church and that cemetery were indeed Mount Zion, Douglas Anderson was only a year or two from being buried in its grounds. Anderson died in 1936. The church moved up the street in 1937.
All Douglas Anderson’s humble, mottled, and tilting gravestone says is “Douglass Anderson / Born March 13, 1883 / Died Sept. 30, 1936.” I’m struck by the double-ess. All other renderings of his name spell it “Douglas.”
Douglas Anderson led the effort to convince the Duval County School Board, at the height of the brutal racism of the Jim Crow Era, to build a school for black children on the Southside of Jacksonville. When South Jacksonville Grammar School, the other side of Philips Highway, opened in 1922, Anderson led the school’s free bus transportation service.
Hazel attended the school through ninth grade. “Douglas Anderson was our bus driver,” she told me. “He was very kind and very patient and tolerant with children.”
In 1945, the school board renamed South Jacksonville Grammar School after the man who made it happen. It served as the San Diego Campus for Florida Junior College from 1968 to 1970. In 1985, the Douglas Anderson School, shuddered for years, reopened as Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and now consistently ranks as one of the best high schools in the nation.
It doesn’t serve many, if any, poor black kids from the surrounding area though. Still, its student body’s diverse, even if some students drive BMWs from wealthy Ponte Vedra Beach, outside the city and county, to attend school here on the Duval County taxpayer’s dime.
Grandmother Sadie, Incinerator Ash, and the Tree of Life
The center of young Donna’s life was the mulberry tree beside the woodframe house her father had built by hand. Numerous Christian hymns called the cross upon which Christ died a tree. “They nailed my Lord upon the Tree.” / “The Cross is my Christmas Tree.” / “Jesus, my Savior, on Calvary’s tree / Paid the great debt, and my soul He set free.” / “Behold the Lamb of God on Calv’ry’s tree, / The Saviour crucified for you and me!” / “Was it for sins that I had done / He groaned upon the tree?”
Donna knew, as of yet, nothing of scholars who argued and evidenced the historical transformation of ancient pagan, earth-based holidays into occasions for Christian worship. Easter rose from ancient pagan Eostre, when at the Spring Equinox, the Sun died on the Southern Cross in the sky, and spring resurrected itself from winter. Numerous ancient nature divinities died or were sacrificed in the barrenness of winter, only to have their bodies, sometimes dismembered like the Egyptian Osiris, as holy compost, nourish new growth and life with divine nutrition in the spring.
“The mulberry tree was my solace,” Donna says, looking around the old homeland where the KKK burnt that cross in her childhood night. That mulberry tree was no crucifix, but the original Tree of Life.
“I loved that tree,” Donna says, “and I miss it. I was always working, a strange child, a loner, and I’d climb that tree every day, and it was there for me.”
She climbed the tree with favorite books. In the mulberry tree, she taught herself to read. She perfected picking the soft bittersweet fruit that broke too easily against her fingerprints. She practiced in the mulberry’s branches words her new little childhood mouth had trouble shaping and pronouncing.
St. Augustine Road spanned much narrower then, the woods heavy on either side, the oldest roads laid with nine-pound bricks. Foundations were built and laid for permanence. These days, the asphalt of St. Augustine Road lies, layer upon earlier layer, atop its original nine-pound bricks.
Donna remembers how her family’s filthy spotted pointer—“Nobody ever bathed that dog!”—treed Florida Panthers and how the great cats’ shrieks and cries and hisses and screams soared through the wild wet Florida night, how her grandmother, reclaiming Lebanon in Jacksonville, one of so many Jaxons who still spoke Arabic in those days, made and sold candy downtown on Davis Street, and how the Klan burnt that cross before her family’s and her grandmother’s living room.
Says Donna, “I knew already the world was filled with hateful people. They never deterred me. I knew what Florida panthers sounded like when our filthy dog Jack chased them up pines. Jack chased even bears up trees. Sometimes skunks would get him and you could smell that dog for miles. I knew the world contained these things.”
She remembers her childhood house as “a two-room shack with a porch and four times as many nails as it needed.” Clients sought after her father, a house painter, in the days when painters mixed their own hues. She calls him an alcoholic, says he’d disappear sometimes for days or weeks but stayed around to become president of the local house painters’ union.
Donna and her grandmother Sadie climbed the house and re-roofed it when the family ran out of pots and pans to catch the leaks. She recalls the black man with the mule who walked down St. Augustine Road to plough her family’s land. Hobos came down the railroad tracks, and “Though we didn’t have much, we always shared what we had.” The Frazees raised chickens; Donna held Jack while black neighbors caught a chicken the Frazees sold them; Donna sold them eggs. She says she was “always a little merchant.”
“I walked everywhere,” Donna says. “I’d walk blocks and blocks. I’d walk miles. I’d walk to my grandmother’s candy factory on Davis Street downtown. She specialized in peanut brittle and chop suey candy. I remember the workers in the back stirring candy in these big copper kettles—I mean one of them wouldn’t fit in my car—stirring candy in these kettles with these large wooden paddles.”
I wander the unnamed lane into these inner-city woods where the Southside Incinerator once burnt trash all day and night every day. “Not us,” says Donna. “We weren’t wealthy enough for the city to pick up our trash. We burnt our garbage out back.”
Every day, from the 1940s to the ’60s, the Clydo Road incinerator burnt as much as 120 tons of trash. Donna recalls the black smoke pouring through the trees, but says, “Mostly the wind blew away from us.” The incinerator was demolished in 1970, but the grounds from which rise these pines and red maples and camphor trees and air potatoes yet hold dense concentrations of lead and arsenic and mercury.
Last year, for $2.5 million, the City of Jacksonville contracted Aerostar SES, “an environmental and construction company,” to clean the site by September 2018. Today, mid-spring, I’m walking on layers of toxins from which rises all the new cancerous spring green around me.
Sometimes walking up St. Augustine Road, Donna would hear, “Whose little white girl is that?” and the answer, “That Miss Sadie’s gran.”
Though Donna says, “I knew there were mean people in the world,” and flaming crosses were fixtures of her childhood landscape, she was “lucky to grow up” in a multicultural Jacksonville, “raised to see all colors and no color.”
So much of old Pine Forest, including the Southside Incinerator, has disappeared from these inner circles of exurbia and Donna misses her mulberry tree.
The Klan’s cross burnt and dealt terror, but Donna’s favorite tree served her, soothed her, and fruited. It nurtured, comforted and restored her.
As a little girl, she noted the difference. It marked her. She’s accorded herself thusly all her life.