by Tim Gilmore, 3/19/2021
We’re standing in Centennial Hall, looking at a lacquered diploma hung on the wall. The document certifies that Ruth Alberta Manuel had “honorably completed the Normal course of study” in May 1917, for Edward Waters once operated a “normal school,” the mostly obsolete term for a college that trains teachers.
EWC had built Centennial Hall just the year before, but it’s another building sketched on Ruth Manuel’s diploma: three stories of wide wooden porches draping the façade, a small central cupola rising from the roof. What building was this, emblematic of the college 104 years ago? An old photo shows unnamed scholars, all men, wearing ties and holding their hats, in front of Centennial Hall, with that three story wooden building crowned with a cupola and bedecked in those front porches just to the west.
Dr. Jamison points from one structure to the other, says Edward Waters endured three fires early in its history. He’s emphatic now. I follow him outside. We stand before Centennial Hall and he points to what’s not there. He points to the past, to history, invisible but real as the brick in the walls of Centennial Hall. “It stood right there,” he says. “This is part of why we do history, for the mystery of it.”
A 1919 Souvenir Booklet of Florida, Complimentary to the Seventh Quadrennial Session of the Women’s Parent Mite Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church shows the mystery building as Salter Hall, built in 1908, destroyed by fire in 1936.
This particular mystery is emblematic of the persistence of Edward Waters College amidst its own disappearances. It became the oldest historically black college in Florida by evolving from earlier schools wholly dissolved within it. It’s hard to imagine an institution of higher learning persisting against greater odds in its early decades. Each new manifestation incorporated each earlier iteration. Residuals of residuals inform the institution from within.
For Edward Waters College dates to the end of the Civil War, to the end of the Confederate States of America, to the abolition of slavery in the 13th Amendment ratified on December 6, 1865. The Reverend Charles Pearce began raising funds the very next year, saying, “We have a right to aspire to and claim position with education,” that “Without [education] we have no assurance of permanent stability in our work.”
In 1870, as David Jamison writes in a brief history of the college, Pearce “suggested an area north of Kings Road–where the school stands today.” But, David points out, it didn’t start here, and it’s hard to keep up with those first decades. “In 1872,” David writes, “Pearce’s ally, Florida Governor Harrison Reed, chartered the Brown Theological Institute in Live Oak, Florida,” naming it for A.M.E. Bishop John Brown.
This is how it went: Brown Theological Institute became Brown University, a hurricane destroyed the university’s single building, Bishop Thomas Ward “gave fundraising duties for a new building to a white Methodist Episcopal minister, Dr. R. O. Sidney, in an attempt to strengthen ties with that church,” another storm sacked the new building, “Sidney absconded with the money, then drowned in yet another storm.” That’s only 1873 and ’74.
Thus continue the next several years, equally confusing and calamitous. A decade later, Reverend William P. Ross holds classes in the basement of Mount Zion A.M.E. Church at Beaver and Newnan Street in Jacksonville for the school’s latest iteration, East Florida Conference Divinity High School. The following year, as David writes, “Brown University’s charter was rewritten to authorize the Florida Normal and Divinity High School.”
It was 1892 when “Divinity High graduated its first five students and changed its name to Edward Waters College,” named for the third bishop of the A.M.E. Church. David tracked EWC’s move to 1658 Kings Road in 1904 after the Great Fire of 1901 destroyed its wooden buildings downtown, then the construction of Moses B. Salter Hall in 1908 and John Hurst Hall in 1912.
We’re standing in front of where Salter once stood. There’s a newer Salter Hall now, but David speaks of what was and would’ve been. The shadows of the past subjunctive roll over us. All that lovely wooden tracery cobwebbed down the front of the building must have burned like ripe kindling. All those storms, all those fires, all those double crossings and resurrections of hope, all that struggle, all that suffering, it brings us here to the great tall structure whose disappearance seems almost visible before us. Here it is. Majestic. Just behind these stern, hopeful, strong, determined and triumphant black faces.
2. Invisible Designs at Centennial Hall
History traces not just disappearances, but limns what never quite appeared. Such is the credit that R.L. Brown, Jacksonville’s first black architect, should more often have received. For certain structures for historically black use, Brown gets credit for design, while for others he’s listed only as builder. What he’s credited with accomplishing is remarkable, since he was born a slave, and lends credibility to presuming successes for which he’s not credited. City historians like Joel McEachin of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission have wondered just what Brown’s role may’ve been in the design and building of Centennial Hall.
Brown had worked as farmer, carpenter and minister and served two terms as state representative during the Reconstruction boom of black political power in the 1880s. It seemed there was nothing he could not do. After the Great Fire of 1901 destroyed Edward Waters College buildings in central Jacksonville, the school board hired Brown as chief builder and repairman. Over the next decade, Brown oversaw construction of several new schools for which no architect was named. By this time, Jim Crow laws were steadily undoing the advances of Reconstruction. It’s surprising he got the job, but he’d proven he could do the work. It’s less surprising he mightn’t have received credit for original architectural designs.
Brown is listed as both architect and builder for Mount Olive A.M.E. Church in Fairfield on Jacksonville’s Eastside in 1922. The school system would have appreciated his services, though not his name, his genius, or his color, in building the first two sections of School No. 8, built in 1909 and 1910, Fairfield School (School No. 9), built in 1910, and Lackawanna Elementary School (School No. 10), built in 1911.
When Edward Waters College built Centennial Hall, named to celebrate the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s first 100 years, it contracted Richard Lewis Brown to build it and Howell and Stokes of Seattle to design it. John Mead Howell and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes began their firm in 1897, focused on the Pacific Northwest and on educational buildings in general, and dissolved just after Centennial Hall. Howell and Stokes lasted 20 years, developing the Downtown Seattle site of the University of Washington and designing buildings for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University in Manhattan. How they moved from working on elite schools in Providence, Rhode Island and San Francisco to a black institution in the Jim Crow South remains a mystery.
What R.L. Brown, a black architect thought to have designed several structures without getting his due, had to do with a Seattle architectural firm on its last leg, a firm who’d never before worked in the South and never worked for a segregated black institution—how Brown may have interacted with Howell and Stokes, whether he played a role not just in construction but in design, remains material for a thousand educated guesses. I hope someone spends years researching Brown’s life and career and writes his biography.