If you’ve ever driven down Davis Street near State and Union in downtown Jacksonville, you’ve seen the colorful marquee of the charmingly restored Ritz Theatre. It’s hard to miss, but many First Coast residents have yet to attend a show there or to browse through its museum archives, a collection that celebrates the history of Jacksonville’s African American communities, specifically the neighborhood of LaVilla.

In the 1990s, a good portion of LaVilla’s historic buildings were demolished during a redevelopment project called the “River City Renaissance Plan.” For those who remember LaVilla as the “Harlem of the South,” this was a major blow, not only to the region’s African American heritage but to downtown Jacksonville’s overall historic preservation. Among the few relics left standing are the Clara White Mission, the Old Stanton School, and the Ritz Theatre movie house, a structure that was rebuilt in 1999 to be a formal theatre and museum. The Ritz Theatre and Museum currently stands as a superb example of living history, a lively entertainment venue that continues to provide our community with big name shows and other opportunities for arts and culture.

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The Ritz Theatre originally opened its doors in 1929 and quickly became a significant venue for touring black entertainers, including legends like Ray Charles. “There is no other important symbol of the African American culture still standing in Jacksonville,” says museum archivist Adonnica Toler, “no other continuously operating business but the Ritz Theatre.” She explains that during LaVilla’s heyday, there were many other theaters and nightclubs including the Strand, the Roosevelt, the Air Dome, the Globe and Frolic. Those structures have since been torn down or repurposed. “Just the fact that we exist and that this building has not been demolished is a big deal,” says Toler.

When the theatre was being rebuilt in the late 1990s, the “elders” of the community insisted on including an educational component, says Toler. Now, the stories of old LaVilla are celebrated within the walls of the museum, and the staff continues to collect family histories and relics from former residents. “Oral histories are so important,” says Toler. Her goal is to record as many stories as possible directly from the people and family members who experienced them. “You’re capturing the essence of people…each person has a part of the story, has something that we will lose if we don’t record.”

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Toler notes that the Ritz museum is unique, because they are archiving events that occurred just down the street. “When we give tours, we talk about people from this area. Ninety eight percent of what you’re looking at comes directly from the people who actually used these things. We also have personal items from James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamund Johnson.”

Although she always has loved history, Toler remembers that she never felt engaged when visiting history museums as a child because she never saw anyone with whom she could identify, no one who looked like her. “That is important, especially for kids. If you don’t make that connection, it doesn’t mean anything. As I give the tours I try to show the connections.”

The goal of the museum is to rescue and revive what was lost between the 1970s and the 1990s, when the community of LaVilla seemed to crumble under the weight of suburban flight, disrepair, crime, drugs, and, eventually, its own city’s redevelopment plan. It could be easy for us to forget the prominent role that LaVilla played in the history of Jacksonville. At its height, it served as a significant hub, not only for African Americans, but also for immigrants, newcomers, and entertainers. In terms of commerce and entertainment, LaVilla was virtually independent of white Jacksonville.

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Toler discusses how the downfall of prosperous African-American neighborhoods was an unintended side effect of integration in the 1960s. She says that in 1926 there were more than 600 black-owned businesses in town. “Not just barbershops and beauticians, but large insurance companies, prominent doctors’ offices, and grocery stores.” Walking through the museum is like walking through the heart of LaVilla in the 1920s. There are storefronts and residential homes where you can poke through the actual items from the families and businesses of that time period. There are also unpleasant reminders of segregation, such as a water fountain labeled “colored” and a complete replica of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Jacksonville, the spot of the sit-in that sparked Ax Handle Saturday. The idea of segregation is difficult to grasp for children today, says Toler, so she tries to have museum-goers put themselves in the shoes of those who suffered under Jim Crow laws.

Toler can accommodate group tours by appointment, and individuals are encouraged to visit the collection during museum hours: Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visit ritzjacksonville.com for upcoming shows.