Black History Month: LaVilla-Harlem of the South

  • by Catherine Tortorici
  • February 22, 2022

Before Jacksonville became the largest city (landmass) in the United States, it was divided into several smaller suburbs including the area known as LaVilla. LaVilla was first settled in 1801 by John Jones, who received a Spanish land grant, and it operated as an independent municipality from 1861 to 1867. At that time, the area served as a safe haven for newly freed Black residents, and, today, we have the honor of providing a brief overview of its history/speaking on the work being done to revive this community. 

 LaVilla’s Jacksonville Terminal (1921) | Source:State Archives of Florida

 Similarly to other Downtown Jacksonville areas, LaVilla dealt with its own handful of struggles following the Great Fire of 1901. However, the opening of the city’s Union Terminal started a new chapter in its story. In 1919, this terminal was the largest of its kind in the South, and the growth of Jacksonville’s transportation routes provided LaVilla with the opportunity to reestablish itself as a hub for Black/ minority culture.


Ritz Theatre | Source: Action News Jax

Ten years later, the Ritz Theatre (1929) opened and supplemented the growing popularity of the area due to its ability to attract some of the most sought-after Black talent to Ashley Street. This hotspot, composed of nightclubs and other theaters, was known as The Great Black Way, and big bands/jazz artists regularly filled the community with their music (i.e. Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles). In addition to this, LaVilla also contained a string of ice cream shops and eateries (i.e. Boston Chophouse and Hayes Luncheonette) that served the community for the decades prior to the Civil Rights era decline.


Hayes Luncheonette (1938) | Source:

Despite this decline that resulted from the waning of racial segregation and increased business competition, the LaVilla area has started to make a well-deserved comeback in the past couple decades. The Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, a revamped Skyway station, and the recent announcement of the Emerald Trail are a handful of the projects that have increased optimism for a rebirth of what was once known as the “Harlem of the South.” If you would like to gain a greater understanding of LaVilla’s historical significance, then we recommend you to visit the Ritz Theatre & Museum, review Metro Jacksonville’s timeline, and/or take a deep dive through the Jacksonville Historical Society’s Archives. The cultural impact of this area is substantial, and its history provides insights on how Jacksonville’s minority populations (Black, Chinese, Jewish, and more) have grown since our city’s founding in 1822.  

Article by Wilshem Pennick


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