by Tim Gilmore, 10/7/2017
A Whole World Underneath
Hansontown lies beneath Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Downtown Campus, figuratively and, in part, literally.
“It’s strange to realize there’s a whole world underneath your feet that you never knew existed,” says Jennifer Grey, library public services coordinator.
Jennifer’s organizing the college’s historical archive. It’s a crucial and Herculean task. Over the college’s half century, old publications, newspaper clippings, film reels and African masks have gathered dust in corner closets behind corner closets in buildings all over the city.
Sifting through the decades, Jennifer knows the world is built on previous worlds receding all the way down. She can sense Hansontown just under her feet and she wants it to tell her its stories.
When construction began on Downtown Campus in the mid-1970s, the last of this poor black neighborhood, which dated to just after slavery, disappeared. Until 1974, tall wooden row houses stood side by side along Orange Street and Caroline and shotgun houses huddled down Broad Street and Davis and what was left of Dew Drop Alley. Almost 50 years before, a Jacksonville blues pianist named Sugar Underwood had recorded his raucous “Dew Drop Alley Stomp” and “Davis Street Blues.”
The year after Emancipation, 1866, a surgeon with the U.S. Colored Troops named Daniel Duston Hanson bought this land just northwest of the city core. He wanted to develop it for freed slaves and former Colored Troops, imagined them communally working their own crops, as so many of them had spent their lives working the land for those who’d owned them. They could work together and save toward owning their own property. People who’d been property now might own their own.
Though he died in 1868, the population of Hansontown, northeast of LaVilla and southwest of Springfield, had grown to more than 1600 by the late 1880s when Jacksonville annexed it.
Every Christmas in the late 1880s, Clara White’s little shotgun house on Clay Street became the center of the neighborhood. Clara made wooden toys and parents donated simple toys, some in need of repair, for Clara’s Christmas parties.
In LaVilla, eight decades later, the Christmas party would be one of the year’s biggest events at the Clara White Mission, which Eartha White named for her adoptive mother. Eartha White lived just shy of a century and became the greatest humanitarian leader in the city’s history. Her mother’s graciousness to Hansontown’s children was one of Eartha’s earliest memories.
In 1908, Eartha and Clara started a soup kitchen in a two-room wooden house at 233 Eagle Street, now West 1st Street.
Many of Hansontown’s streets remained unpaved throughout the 20th century. For a block of what used to be Caroline Street, now Bethel Baptist Street, the old brick pavement stubbornly remains. By the second half of the century, western portions of the district were replaced with federally funded public housing projects and Interstate 95 drove its wall of car lanes through where bedrooms and backyards and fireplaces had stood.
Then, in 1974, Florida Junior College began the process of replacing the 10 blocks left of Hansontown with its Downtown Campus, which officially opened in 1977.
Jennifer runs a finger over a slightly blurry black-and-white photo of the campus groundbreaking. She shows me an aerial view of the landscape from State Street north to Bethel Baptist and from what remained of Hansontown east to Main Street. We zoom into empty lots and clusters of six or seven wooden row houses standing tall together.
It’s hard to believe you once could walk from downtown through Hansontown into Springfield, and it’s hard to believe that segregated black Jacksonville once spread in a densely populated swath from LaVilla, just west of downtown, up and eastward into Hansontown (and northward into Sugar Hill and back west into Durkeeville), then along the northern ridge of downtown just beneath wealthy white Springfield, into the wide Eastside between downtown and the river.
From west to east, Downtown Jacksonville, since its origins as the entirety of the city, once wore its black community perched on its head like a dark crown it could not shake free. Ironically.
Ideas Renewed, Archictecture Lost
In the humid 1970s, some of Hansontown’s streets looked much like they did in the 1870s. The rooflines of shotgun shacks arced over wide front porches, side by side on either side of Caroline Street at Broad. Camphors crowded over the roofs and squat palms swelled out at wood frame houses to either side. In 1972, however, a faded wide-grilled sedan sat parallel-parked and malt liquor cans littered the camphor roots that simultaneously held together and broke up the ground.
Camilla Thompson remembers large family dinners at her grandmother’s house in the 1930s near today’s corner of Broad and State Streets, right where the FSCJ Administration Building stands now. Her grandmother’s dinner table in 1936 sat somewhere below where, in 2017, the conference table occupies the president’s office on the fourth floor.
In the decade before the opening of Downtown Campus, the college used historic buildings throughout the city core, like the 1902 Central Grammar and High School on Church Street, Douglas Anderson School, and J. Allen Axson Elementary.
Downtown Campus consolidated most of the college’s central operations, though it still used the old City Engineers’ Building, built in 1912 at 904 North Main Street, a small architectural gem whose design some historians believe Henry John Klutho, the city’s most significant historical architect, helped design.
In photos of the 1977 Downtown Campus groundbreaking, college and city dignitaries wear dark-framed glasses and checkered suit jackets. Everyone’s hair looks greasy, not quite long but not short. Black men wear dark corduroy jackets and fedoras.
Ed Napier, the first Downtown Campus president, poses with his ceremonial golden shovel, wears a hardhat at an angle and a tie that’s too short and too wide.
Behind the small square makeshift stage in the dirt are lined the golden shovels. In the background, like a detail from a movie set, stands a billboard advertising Jacksonville’s own 666 Cold Medicines.
If there’s haunting in how places supplant and rise atop places, there’s poignant irony in how ideas cycle through the decades.
In 2013, Dr. Cynthia Bioteau replaced the ousted scandal-ridden Steve Wallace to become the college’s first woman president. Before long, she was investigating the beautiful and abandoned old structures at the heart of town. She’d soon move the college’s culinary department to a lovely old building on West Adams Street, providing dorms for culinary students and a college-run café at ground level.
The beauty of students with all the world before them eagerly studying all that’s come before, young in an old backdrop, ever fuels, with hope, the old students who’ve become their professors.
Bioteau said she likes what Savannah College of Art and Design has done to restore and revitalize urban Savannah, repurposing the Georgia city’s old buildings across the core, a strategy much like the one Florida Junior College abandoned when it built its Downtown Campus.
Listening to the City Beneath the City
Hansontown’s Orange Street still exists, but you won’t find it on any current map. It runs beneath a Downtown Campus footpath between Building A, to the south, and Buildings B and C.
Every now and then, a student who’s also the right kind of poet notices that the walkway between buildings is about the width of a two-lane downtown street, that the walkway runs a city block north of State Street, and that the campus interrupts the city grid whose pattern should indicate that a street runs here through the middle of campus.
Jennifer Grey now chairs the Downtown Campus Aesthetics and Art Gallery Committee. When the committee proposed planting shade trees along the promenade, Senior Campus Plant Supervisor Ray McEwan told the committee it wouldn’t work. The walkway’s soil, he testified, was simply too shallow, for a road lay underneath it.
While preparations for Downtown Campus simply eradicated most of what was left of Hansontown, parts of the new campus descended like an overlay atop the old black town.
Early photographs of Hansontown’s having been cleared away for the college show dirt lanes between camphor trees and oaks, with crooked wooden telephone poles to one side, and sandy fields where small wooden vernacular houses still lingered.
Another photograph shows a tall chain-link gate erected around the sands where Hansontown shacks and row houses had been leveled, construction pylons sitting along the ground like tree stumps, a sign on the open gate warning, “Street Closed Permanently.”
In a photograph from just a couple years later, Orange Street is submerged beneath the walkway between Building A and Buildings B and C, with concrete picnic tables and benches as recalcitrant as chess pieces beneath the new concrete brutalist architecture. In the walkway’s middle, low brick walls enclose the thick dark forms of an inkblot ligustrum and a patchy mimosa.
Today, Orange Street is planted with varieties of palms. Perhaps, in homage, we should line it with a citrus garden. The brutalist buildings would protect the lemons, oranges, grapefruit, satsumas, tangelos, and limes from the coldest of Northeast Florida winds.
Other remnants of Hansontown persist in the obdurate geometries of streets widened by 20th-century “urban renewal.” At the corner of Clay and State Streets, a nearly unnoticeable alley between old brick industrial buildings echoes State Street Lane, which ran along these same lines, only 10 feet wide, and contained 12 shotgun houses a century ago.
On February 16, 1967, the black newspaper The Florida Star reported that two white men had been charged “with assault to murder in the shooting […] of Joseph Augustus Baldwin, 36-year-old hearse driver of 512 State Street Lane.” The two white men, James Aides and Leon Wheeler, had pulled up beside the hearse down on Roosevelt Boulevard and shot Baldwin point-blank in the head. He survived. There was, as yet, no such legal category as “hate crime.”
Five blocks north of where Downtown Campus covers Julia Street downtown, Julia reemerges, without name or notice, as a lane into the parking lot for the Jacksonville Vital Statistics office of the Florida Department of Health.
Along State Street, wide lawns dip into low swales, the slightest dells, out front of the Downtown Campus Advanced Technology Center. Every now and then, a student who’s also the right kind of poet can see how the houses lined the contours of the land.
Behind the Administration Building, the land rises into slight swells, anchored in young oaks planted since the disappearance of the last of Hansontown, but one final structure stands. St. Joseph Missionary Baptist Church first formed in 1930, moved its congregation around Hansontown, bought land to build a permanent sanctuary in 1940, raised funds for the next decade, and completed the small concrete block sanctuary in 1950.
It took 20 years for St. Joseph’s to raise the funds to build its “permanent” church home. In another 20 years, Hansontown was gone. The church has moved to a large sanctuary just behind campus and its original church building sits marooned in a vast FSCJ parking lot for administrative offices and the Advanced Technology Center.
Toward the end of another year, I walk lanes and alleys and slight hills where Hansontown speaks up through the college from beneath, and I ask what I can do. Elsewhere, stuffed between boxes and cabinets of clip files in the archive, Jennifer Grey researches accession numbers. She knows the college intimately from now back to its origins.
Streets beneath streets speak up to us both. These séances are accessible to any student who’s also the right kind of poet. This Spiritualism is purely historical, but no less ghostly and far more haunting.