June 15, 2020
President Trump’s new plan, to accept in Jacksonville, Florida the Republican Party’s request that he run for a second term as president, has historical resonance.
Jacksonville was the site of Axe Handle Saturday, August 27, 1960. On that morning Arnett Girardeau, a black student home in Jacksonville for the summer from Howard University Dental School, went to Hemming Park in the downtown area with a few others, having gotten some news of potentially alarming activities there. “As we approached Hemming Park, we saw several white men wearing Confederate uniforms. Other Whites walked around Hemming Park carrying ax handles with Confederate battle flags taped to them. A sign taped to a delivery-type van parked nearby read ‘Free Ax Handles.’ Small fence rails bordered that section of Hemming Park. We could see bundles of handles in the shrubbery. No one attempted to conceal them.”
A group of young black students from the local NAACP Youth Council was planning on sitting in that day at the white lunch counter in Jacksonville’s W.T. Grant department store, which was walking distance from Hemming Park. (Blacks were required to dine at the blacks-only counter at the rear of the store.) A similar event had taken place two weeks earlier at Jacksonville’s Woolworth’s store, when eighty-four of the youths sat down at the white counter and waited to be served. The counter seated exactly eighty-four people, so there was no room in this instance for a white person looking for lunch. (This was part of the plan for all subsequent sit-ins in Jacksonville. The number of seats in whatever lunch counter would be assessed, and exactly that number of black youths would show up for the sit-in.) On that first day, the students remained seated at the whites-only lunch counter until the lunch counter was closed, without being served.
The hidden axe handles on August 27 were clearly intended for use by whites against these black students sitting in at W.T. Grant’s, and the resulting melee, which pretty much engulfed the entirety of Jacksonville, went far into the night.Radio stations warned white people to stay out of black neighborhoods, and vice versa. In one particularly memorable event, a truckload of armed white men (believed to have been Ku Klux Klansmen) arrived in a black neighborhood called Blodgett Homes, and began firing at various apartments. Perhaps to the surprise of these men, residents of the apartments returned fire. The truck retreated.
Named Axe Handle Saturday, the event was a signal occurrence in the civil rights movement in the United States. (A complete description of the occasion can be found in the book It Was Never About A Hot Dog and A Coke! by Rodney L. Hurst, who on that day was one of those black students.)
The University of North Florida was founded in Jacksonville in 1972. A new professor at the institution, Peter Kranz, with a doctorate in psychology, decided that this would be an appropriate location for a class he wished to institute, in which direct verbal confrontation between black and white students would be the key element. The one strict rule in the class was that physical attack would not be allowed. Otherwise, the verbal gloves were off, and the students were encouraged to speak openly and directly about how they felt about each other’s racial identity and actions.
It was the only such class ever offered in an American institution of higher learning, and it took place while Jim Crow legislation against blacks was still in full flower in Florida.
Each class lasted a single semester, and was held twice a year for six years, until 1978. (For a complete description of these classes and of their quite remarkable results, please see my book An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White. The book was featured on a recent presentation of National Public Radio.)
Now, in 2020, President Trump is planning to accept the Republican nomination for president in Jacksonville. It is not an irony that this will be so. He is, after all, a throw-back to the whites-only sentiments of the Deep South of previous decades. But times have changed, in Jacksonville and the rest of the United States. I expect the president and his Republican cadre will receive a boisterous, if not entirely agreeable, reception in that city.
Terence Clarke’s latest novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.