Edward Waters College, 3: B.F. Lee Seminary Building and Milne Auditorium

by Tim Gilmore, 3/19/2021

cont’d from Edward Waters College, 2: Centennial Hall (and Salter)—Peering into the Vanished

Edward Waters College hired the prestigious (and de facto white) architectural firm Marsh and Saxelbye to design the Benjamin F. Lee Theological Seminary Building, constructed from 1925 to ’27.

For older black residents of College Gardens, of the Mid-Westside, of Northwest Jacksonville, hearing “Edward Waters College” summons an image of Centennial Hall, but diagonally across the intersection of Kings Road and Pearce Street, the Lee Building announces itself noble in the style called Collegiate Gothic. The architectural style suggests a castle’s the appropriate setting for an education, just as elementary schools in the early 20th century wore neoclassical façades, dressed up like Ancient Greek temples, while contemporary primary school buildings so often resemble prisons. At the top of the Lee Building, a series of dormers points skyward atop three brick stories with crosses and quoins and gargoyles.

The former seminary structure is now the college’s administration building. It’s where I first meet David Jamison beneath great trees. I’d misread his directions to meet him elsewhere. He’s gracious. Neighbors walk past Lee Hall on Kings Road. So do students, some of whom address Professor Jamison reverently, sweetly.

Lee Building, date unknown, courtesy David Jamison

It was here, back in 2010, that I met representatives of the Jacksonville Commitment, a consortium of specifically appointed high school advisors committed to help star students from impoverished backgrounds achieve admission to the University of North Florida, Florida Community College at Jacksonville, Jacksonville University or Edward Waters College. One of those consortium representatives was my wife, Jo Carlisle, previously assistant director of admissions at UNF and soon a tenured professor of English at FCCJ.

Lee Building in 1927, courtesy University of North Florida Library

Nat Glover, who’d been elected the first black sheriff in Duval County in 1995 and the first in Florida since Reconstruction, was serving as 29th president of Edward Waters. He’d graduated from EWC in 1966. He was good at bringing in funds, though when he ran for mayor in 2003, I winced when he said in a televised debate that “the arts” were important because everybody couldn’t be good “at math and science.” Leonard da Vinci and Frank Lloyd Wright would have seen it differently.

Glover marched the stage in the Milne Auditorium (named for a family of longtime white benefactors and connected by grand arches to the Lee Building), his soul in his eyes, his heart in his throat, and told the Jacksonville Commitment’s scholarship recipients, “Doesn’t matter how you get in, but once you get in, you show ’em! You show ’em!”

Recipients came to the podium before likenesses in stained glass windows of forgotten black spiritual leaders and of Edward Waters himself (elected third bishop of the A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia in 1836)—not that anyone in attendance knew it, and read award-winning essays about how deeply they wanted a life-changing education. How one young man had never known his father. How one young woman had seen her grandmother shot right in front of her. How her parents wanted her to exceed them. How his mother fought to keep him from doing better than she had.

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

A century and a half previously, Florida Senator Reverend Charles Pearce first sought to raise money for an institution of higher learning that would become this very college, saying, “We have a right to aspire to and claim position with education.” Without education, he said, “we have no assurance of permanent stability in our work; but with [it], we can realize a confident hope of success in establishing happy homes and an improved state of society.”

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

What comes next is wrong. Every history chisels off from other histories. Any selfish little person can find himself refracted in a corner lens. So I make this paragraph about me. I fell so far again in love. I’d fallen for her uncountable times already. Then she introduced her students, with whom she’d fought against all odds already, guided them through applications both academic and financial, come to know their struggles intimately. She loved them. Invariably she choked up telling us about them, then brought them to this lectern to read their essays. I fell in love with her again through each of her students and loved each of her students through the woman I knew I’d love for the rest of my life.

cont’d Edward Waters College, 4: Three Alarm Coda