The Durkeeville Museum keeps the story alive for the next 100 years

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Having lived in Jacksonville for over a decade, walking through the doors of the Durkeeville Historical Society allowed me to see a version of the city I never knew existed. In fact, I later realized that even most residents who were born and raised here probably had no knowledge of Durkeeville’s rich and influential history.

On my first visit, I met Mr. Lloyd Washington, the president of the Durkeeville Historical Society. I quickly began what has been a life-changing journey to an extraordinary bygone era. Mr. Washington, a lifelong resident of the community, passionately brings each exhibit to life with a vast knowledge of the people who have made significant contributions. The museum displayed worthy images of musical influences, artists, politicians and athletes from a thriving Durkeeville community.

On my second visit, Mr. Washington introduced me to some of the early residents of the community. They generously shared their stories of a time when Myrtle Avenue was Jacksonville’s “Black Wall Street,” where black-owned businesses lined the streets, and the community thrived.

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One of the business notables of the day was Mr. Abraham Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire. He founded the African American Life Insurance Company on Union Street, known for supporting black families, making sure they got life insurance and mortgages.

Beyond the creation of this historic financial equity system, Mr. Lewis was also responsible for the creation of American Beach, providing black families with safe recreational activities in the age of segregation. One of the most exciting things I learned was that James Weldon Johnson was part of a group of influential black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. He was also a former resident of Durkeeville and a member of recreational baseball teams.

Besides being the industrial sector of the black community, Durkeeville was also essential to the social scene of the time, hosting the Florida Classic between Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M at JP Smalls Field. Many people shared memories of attending Negro League Baseball games where hometown heroes played – the Jacksonville Red Caps. Additionally, former major league home run king Hank Aaron played for the team in the 1950s.

Durkeeville is no longer the thriving community it once was due to urban decay, poverty, and crime. I have barely touched the surface of the history available at the Durkeeville Museum and encourage everyone to attend.

The sacrifices and struggles of the residents who founded Durkeeville in hopes of creating a safe space of their own cannot be forgotten. The pioneers, trendsetters and influencers of yesterday should have their achievements recognized by those of today.

As I continue to learn more about Durkeeville and speak to those who were there from the beginning, I promise to dedicate my time, energy and effort to raising awareness and bringing the museum to the community of Jacksonville to engage in its history. Whether you’re a local artist, sports fan, or political activist, Durkeeville has pioneers from all walks of life.

As we celebrate Jacksonville’s Bicentennial this year, the next 100 years should ensure that all future generations will experience the Durkeeville Tour. As we know, history helps build empathy by studying the lives and struggles of others.

Larry Rencher, Jacksonville

This guest column is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of The Times-Union. We welcome a diversity of opinions.

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