Duval County: A Walk Around James Weldon Johnson Park

Duval County, of which Jacksonville mostly incorporates, is not the tourist destination travelers think of when visiting Florida. It is easy to believe that those journeying down I-95 probably drive through without stopping, even for a bathroom break.

Those that do decide to spend some time in the LARGEST city in area in the Contiguous 48 might do so only because Jacksonville is centrally located between Amelia Island to the north and St. Augustine to the south, both of which attract visitors nationally and internationally by the thousands.

But as you travel through Duval County on A1A (which is by far the most beautiful way to enter), consider this: Duval County, of which Jacksonville mostly consolidates, is the main make-up of a metropolis (ranked 39th nationally), and as large cities go, there are bound to be adventures to enjoy and history to discover.

As A1A mainly runs through Mayport and the Jacksonville beaches (Atlantic, Neptune, and Jacksonville), four roads offer a chance to go inland and explore: SR 116/Wonderwood Drive/Mount Pleasant Road, SR 10/Atlantic Boulevard, US 90/Beach Boulevard, and SR 202/J. Turner Butler Boulevard—all of which will lead you to Downtown Jacksonville.

“It’s Easier Here,” the latest advertising campaign from Visit Jacksonville and the Beaches, Jacksonville’s official travel website, emphasizes an atmosphere found within Northeast Florida’s urban core. Jacksonville does have its issues with traffic, crime, homelessness, and other urban woes; unlike most other large cities, Jacksonville also has a small-town, laid-back feel to it, and it is easy to recognize its sense of community as well as its diversity: culturally, socially, and politically.

With an urban skyline intertwining tall buildings, five bridges, and the St. Johns River, Downtown Jacksonville, for better or for worse, never feels hectic and overcrowded. And at first, it doesn’t seem to offer much to visitors. But with a bit of creativity and research, sightseers will find some pretty cool and at times entertainingly obscure sites, as well as a deep connection with the struggle for civil rights.

Take for example, James Weldon Johnson Park in Downtown Jacksonville, rich is history from a national, as well as local, perspective.

Once named Hemming Park after Confederate veteran Charles C. Hemming, who donated the Confederate soldier statue that once stood atop the park’s statue column, the park was renamed in 2020 after the famed Civil Rights activist from Jacksonville, James Weldon Johnson, who with his brother penned what is known as the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Ray Charles on the Dick Cavett Show in September 1972. Charles attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, located just off A1A in St. Augustine.

The changing of the park’s name was voted overwhelmingly in favor of by a Republican-dominated city council, as was the decision to remove the statue. which stood for 122 years, in the middle of the night of June 9, 2020.

There is a sense of pride in knowing that Johnson is a Jacksonville native. Bill Delaney, in his The Jaxson article, “James Weldon Johnson Deserves To Be Celebrated” (August 8, 2018), opens with this lead:

“James Weldon Johnson is, without exaggeration, the single most accomplished person ever to come from Jacksonville or Florida.”

James Weldon Johnson Park is hugely connected to the Civil Rights movement; as organized demonstrations occurred involving lunch counter sit-ins at nearby restaurants, a riot occurred on August 27, 1960. Known as “Ax Handle Saturday”, over 200 Ku Klux Klan members viciously attacked Black Civil Rights demonstrators with baseball bats and ax handles.

An August 27, 2020 article in The Washington Post, “‘Ax Handle Saturday’: The Klan’s vicious attack on Black protesters in Florida 60 years ago” by Sydney Trent, provides a look back at one of Jacksonville’s most infamous moments in history.

A documentary, available on YouTube, also gives a complete look at Ax Handle Saturday.

A 30-minute documentary focuses on Ax Handle Saturday, one of Jacksonville’s most infamous moments in its history. Much of this riot occurred around what is now James Weldon Johnson Park.

In the days following the riot, discussions among white and black leaders were held at Snyder Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, located across the street from the park’s southeast corner at 226 North Laura Street. In March of 1961, Jacksonville lunch counters were desegregated.

Built in 1903, the church is one of the early structures built following the devastating Jacksonville Fire of 1901. Though currently unused, the church building, owned by the City of Jacksonville, is listed with the National Register of Historic Places; it is hoped that this Gothic Revival structure might be the future home of a Civil Rights museum or a live music venue.

James Weldon Johnson Park is the centerpiece of this suggested walkabout. And at the northwest corner of the park, we have what Roadside America refers to as Horrified Horror Head.

Once serving as an entrance to an exhibit at Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History (MOSH), this oddity was added to the park in 2016. Its teeth look just fine from a distance, but from a closer view is marked up with graffiti, maybe as a reminder to brush up before going through this head from the northwest park side, caddy corner to…

… the candy corner known as Sweet Pete’s!

If entering this three-story candy factory doesn’t conjure up thoughts of Willy Wonka, just step outside and try again. Once known as the gentlemen’s only, cigar-smoking and brandy-drinking Seminole Club (built in 1903), the building now is a sweet tooth fantasyland (and to me, the thought of Horrified Head looking out at Sweet Pete’s and yelling “Do not enter!” seems appropriate) for kids of all ages.

Once you enter the decorated hallway (this summer’s decor is enchanted tiki room-themed), a host will welcome you with a free piece of sea-salt caramel, made in-house by Sweet Pete and his candy-making staff (you can head to the second floor and watch these oversized Oompa Loompas in action). This little caramel delight is their signature item; most, like myself, will walk out purchasing a bag of these treats as gifts for others or most likely for themselves to snack on while traveling.

There is so much to Sweet Pete’s; along with selling and making candies, there are tours, classes, and soon—another on-site restaurant: Fizzies and Fare (several restaurants at this site have come and gone). Its humble beginning in a Springfield neighborhood house caught the attention of CNBC’s “The Profit.”

Sweet Pete’s truly has become a Jacksonville institution; another one, near the southeast corner, is Chamblin Uptown Bookmine.

That’s book mine, not book store. This independent book seller opened its first store in Jacksonville’s Riverside in 1976. From beginning with only “a few boxes of smoke damaged books retrieved from a house…,” Chamblin’s two locations plus a warehouse consist of 60,000 square feet of space, with more to come. Chamblin is considered one of the top independent booksellers in the nation, and according to Atlas Obscura, one of the top 62 in the world.

The book mine’s facade, a mural created by artist Shaun Thurston, “features pieces of earth floating in a pale blue sky” and is one of many murals to be found throughout downtown., including some around the park.

Chamblin Uptown is located on 215 North Laura Street; one block north is the Jacksonville Public Library’s main branch and the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA).

Another Roadside America attraction is the Big Brown Owl, Books, and Key statue at the main library’s southeast corner, definitely worth a photo op. For art enthusiasts, MOCA is Northeast Florida’s only contemporary art museum.

Facing the park from the north at 117 West Duval Street is Jacksonville’s City Hall. Housed in what is known as the St. James Building, it was once the Cohen Brothers department store (later May Cohens) from when it was built in 1912 until its closing in 1987. It was built in the Prairie School architectural style by famed architect Henry John Klutho, who is credited with rebuilding much of Jacksonville following its devastating 1901 fire.

Located one and a half blocks south of Chamblin is one of two Visit Jacksonville centers. A visit here will convince you that there is much to see and do in Jacksonville; the staff is super friendly, and the amount of material they provide is worthy to locals as well as out-of-towners.

For those looking for museum visits, Visit Jacksonville provides a museum passport which includes along with MOSH and MOCA the following: Beaches Museum, Cummer Museum, Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, Ritz Theatre and Museum, and Tree Hill Nature Center.

A prize is given to those that visit four of the seven sites; get your passport stamped at each and either mail or return the passport to the visitor’s center in downtown or at the beaches location.

For beer drinkers, Visit Jacksonville also offers this passport.

The Jax Ale Trail allows microbrew fans to check out the more than 20 breweries found all over Duval County. Jacksonville does have a history of brewing beer, from the Jacksonville Brewing Company that opened in 1913 but later sold its rights to its popular Jax Beer, to Anheuser-Busch, who picked up the beer brewing mantle in 1969, opening its Jacksonville-based brewery.

You can get a Jax Ale Trail passport at Visit Jacksonville’s downtown or beaches center, or at any of the participating microbreweries. Four stamps gets you a koozie, eight stamps gets you a koozie and a t-shirt; and 22 stamps gets you a koozie, a t-shirt, and a super secret surprise.

While walking to Visit Jacksonville from Chamblin’s, you will walk past Jacob’s Jewelers, Florida’s OLDEST jewelry shop. In front of the shop is the street clock at Laura and Adams streets. Built in 1901, it is one of only a few downtown clocks found in the country.

More on this Jacksonville icon can be found in The Coastal article, “The Story Behind the Street Clock at Laura and Adams” (June 12, 2018).

In Downtown Jacksonville, a pilot program has begun allowing visitors to venture about using electronic scooters. Read the Florida Times-Union article, “Electronic scooters have arrived in Jacksonville: Here’s how you can use them” by Dan Scanlon (March 5, 2021). These scooters can easily be found around the park.

Parking can be found at any time at any day in Downtown Jacksonville though a short walk to the park should be expected; meter parking is $2 per hour, and there are several parking garages nearby.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority also has a Skyway station (elevated monorail) at the park. The Skyway is a barely used, 2.5-mile system serving the downtown area; while not the most convenient way to see Downtown Jacksonville, it is a free ride, might be fun for the kids, and offers a few other parking options.

There are several places to grab lunch near the park, but to get a taste of Jacksonville cuisine, consider enjoying a food truck offering within the park Monday-Friday.

Each day, a different food truck provides locals and visitors with lunch selections from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Live music is provided on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

At the corner of North Laura and Monroe Street West is Mag’s Cafe, open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Locally owned, they offer a wide range of breakfast and lunch options; inexpensive and good (I recommend their Cranberry Turkey sandwich—delish!).

For a local coffee stop, try Back to the Grind, located nearby at 223 North Hogan Street, or at Chamblin Uptown Cafe.

Suggested time to explore James Weldon Johnson Park is one to four hours, depending on how much time you want to devote to MOCA, Chamblin, and lunch.

Happy Traveling!

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