Anyone looking for the perfect model of urban blight need only look at the Black neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Florida.
Roads and sidewalks – if they are even there – need repairs. School buildings are old. Housing is decrepit.
But after a century and a half of neglect by white-dominated governments, hope is rising across this Atlantic Coast city.
On May 9, the Jacksonville City Council agreed to settle a federal lawsuit charging that the city has long deployed an unconstitutional, racially gerrymandered voting district map that denied Black voters fair representation in city council and school board elections.
The judge repeatedly rejected the city’s defense of its proposed alternative map and ordered it to use a new, fairer district map, offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The new map created a fifth district in which Black voters can elect preferred candidates.
One week later, in the first elections since the City Council agreed to the settlement, Black residents exercised their newfound political power in this fast-growing city, the 11th largest in the U.S.
“The court-ordered map, as part of the settlement, appears to have provided Black voters the opportunity to elect preferred candidates,” said Jack Genberg, senior staff attorney for voting rights at the SPLC.
“Community members were complaining about a liquor store set to be located next to a school. Now Black voters will have the chance to determine the actions their government takes.”
The old map artificially “packed” Black voters into four districts to diminish their political influence on other districts and ensure white majorities on the governing bodies. With generations of white political leaders assured of Black political impotence, their flagrant neglect of Black neighborhoods continued as standard operating procedure.
“[The ruling] means that we now have rare, political power as the electors,” said Rosemary McCoy, co-founder of the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to register returning citizens and new and young voters in communities of color.
“Officials have to understand that we are taxpayers and that we deserve the same rights as everyone else,” McCoy said. “The people got it done!”
The promise of change
To the citizens who have long fought for equity in this city, the differences in resources provided to communities of color and white communities is plain to see – even though non-Latinx white people make up slightly less than half of the 971,000 residents of Jacksonville and Duval County, which consolidated their governments in 1968.
As of 2021, Black communities in Jacksonville and Duval County were still home to 71 locations polluted with hazardous materials, known as Superfund sites; along with leaking septic tanks and sewers; food market deserts and high crime rates.
The residents in those neighborhoods might as well be on another planet from the city’s white sandy beaches, swanky hotels and emerald green golf courses.
Lack of resources isn’t the problem. Tourism to Duval County accounted for nearly $4 billion in economic impact in 2021 – a nearly threefold increase since 2009 – yet one would never know it living inside the city’s 32206, 32208, 32209 and 32254 ZIP codes of North and West Jacksonville.
It’s long been clear to Black activists here that the key to change is political power. And that’s been out of reach, because Jacksonville’s white-dominated governments have for generations enacted laws suppressing the Black vote – just as many other jurisdictions across the South have done since the end of Reconstruction.
The new council map at last offers the promise of change. It reapportions some Black voters from Council Districts 7, 8, 9 and 10 into District 14. During the May 16 election, Districts 7, 8, 9, 10 and the newly apportioned District 14 were all won by candidates that most Black voters supported. (There are 19 districts in all, and five members are elected on a citywide basis.)
The new map will be in force at least until the first elections after the 2030 U.S. census – 2032 for the school board and 2035 for the council.
Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, which was also a party to the suit, believes that identifying and financially backing more qualified candidates to run for office is critical to advancing community interests.
“We did unpack these council and at-large districts, and in the future, it will be better for the community,” Rumlin said. “Our priorities are economic development, gun control, crime, mental health funding and infrastructure investment. We’ve been working with the sheriff’s office for five to 10 years to get more mental health personnel to deal with mental illness instead of police breaking down a door and shooting. Ever since consolidation [of Jacksonville and Duval County] we’ve been promised removal of every septic tank and it’s never happened. Why would a major city have septic tanks?”
White leaders have governed Jacksonville with racist impunity because they could.
When the 1920s land boom arrived, city leaders passed redlining laws to segregate housing by race. Black residents were forced into low-lying, flood-prone areas, which later became dumping grounds for toxic waste and other pollutants. Property values in white Jacksonville rose; in Black Jacksonville, they fell.
In those days, if Black residents balked at being treated like second-class citizens, the Ku Klux Klan stood close by to keep them in line. Confederate memorials built during the Jim Crow era were another constant reminder of white supremacy. As late as the 1950s, the North Florida KKK membership of some 30,000 was second only to the national KKK’s.
Redlining’s cascade of harms persists to this day.
“Like many cities throughout the state, with gentrification, Jacksonville’s Black population has been siloed into certain areas of the city,” said Matletha Bennette, SPLC senior attorney for voting rights. “Zoning and redlining have absolutely defined the makeup and layout of Jacksonville, limiting economic development in Black neighborhoods.”
Consolidation of the city into slightly larger Duval County brought a new round of empty promises by politicians hoping to win the Black vote. In the decades following, many Black residents saw little point in voting.
Today, voter apathy remains a challenge.
“We see a domino effect among the issues that plague Black and Brown communities,” said Moné Holder, senior director of advocacy and programs at Florida Rising, also a plaintiff in the suit. “In the past, fixes to our broken system have been temporary or simply overlooked. In addition to fair representation, we need quality of life. That starts with affordable housing, access to fresh food, police accountability, investments in mental health resources, and access to quality and unbanned education.”
Florida Rising, a statewide grassroots organization dedicated to building power in Black and Brown communities, is also the recipient of a grant from the SPLC’s Vote Your Voice initiative, which provides resources to voter outreach organizations across the Deep South.
Among Holder’s immediate priorities with the newfound voting power for the Black community is passage of a local Tenant Bill of Rights to address the city’s dire housing conditions, a problem that worsened during the pandemic and resulted in surging housing costs statewide. A Tenant Bill of Rights would hold institutional rental companies and individual property owners accountable for the city’s rental crisis. The legislation has a sponsor and is expected to be introduced soon, Holder said.
According to a February 2023 report, almost half of Jacksonville’s renters pay more than 30% of their annual income for rent. But that number underestimates the crisis, because the figures are already outdated, according to the report’s author. Rent has increased 39% in just the last two years; 92% of the city’s apartments rent for $1,000 or more.
Evictions have also reached crisis proportion, with 3,766 eviction filings from January to March 2023, according to Christian Gonzalez-Orbegoso, Florida Rising’s regional director for North Florida.
Holder said that with the lawsuit settlement, “We see a silver lining. We are hopeful that this continues to turn the tide in this city and shift voting and political power in a way that centers marginalized communities.”
More work to do
There’s a road in Jacksonville named for Johnnie Mae Chappell.
Chappell was the Black mother of 10 who went out the evening of March 23, 1964, to buy her children ice cream and was murdered by four white men out looking for a Black person to kill as a riot raged in downtown Jacksonville.
The road was named in Chappell’s honor in 2005, decades after city leaders promised it to the Black community. Sidewalks along the road – promised since the renaming – were finally installed in the last year or two.
Confederate Park is a source of pride for the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which operates it on donated private property. The park is surrounded by a metal chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Confederate and American flags fly near each other in the distance, high above a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, which stands on a concrete pedestal. Smith was among the last Confederate leaders to surrender their troops, on May 26, 1865, in Texas. The statue of Smith is about a mile away from Johnnie Mae Chappell Parkway.
An SCV sign attached to the Confederate Park fence reads: “COEXIST: Confederate Veterans are American Veterans.”
It’s not the only reminder of the region’s reverence for the “Lost Cause” that residents regularly encounter.
As Keith Green, a retired U.S. Naval officer and 40-year resident of Jacksonville, considered the meaning of the park he often drives past, he described a jarring memory of life lived as a Black person in Jacksonville.
“In 2013, I went before the city council at a public meeting about renaming Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. A lot of people, young and older white, spoke in support of keeping the name because they had a feeling for the Confederacy. Forrest had no connection to the city or state. [Before the Civil War] he became a millionaire as a slave owner and a slave breaker. He was called the ‘Butcher of Fort Pillow’ because he ordered his troops to massacre 100 Black, surrendering Union soldiers. He was also the first grand wizard of the KKK.
“A white man spoke right before me. He went into this racially derogatory diatribe about ‘heritage’ and ‘mongrels.’ He used about every word you can think of except the N-word. Not a single council member spoke up and called that language into question,” Green said.
Of the settlement, he said, “Unless Black and white politicians come together and work for the benefit of the least powerful constituents, nothing will change. They have to push for policies that can benefit the community because people feel voiceless.”
Then he asked, “When are they going to get rid of the Confederate monuments?”
Photo at top: The historic St. James Building is home to Jacksonville City Hall in Florida. A new voting district map in Jacksonville marks an important step toward ensuring fair representation for the city’s Black residents. (Credit: Michael Rivera/Wikimedia Commons)