A Relic of the Past Becomes a Beacon for the Future

In September, the Ritz Theatre and Museum will celebrate its 20th anniversary, marking the 1999 construction on the site of the Ritz Movie House in Jacksonville’s historic African-American community of LaVilla. Essentially, it is a 90-year old establishment, but for decades the interior was in ruins. The Ritz will host a month-long schedule of programming, including community awards to commemorate past trailblazers and to celebrate today’s volunteers. They will also hold events throughout the year. Business Development Manager Vanessa Davis says, “The Ritz is not only keeping alive memories in history but is also looking to bring this priceless cultural legacy into the future.”
The Ritz Movie House was built in 1929 during a vibrant period of cultural and commercial development in LaVilla. The downtown neighborhood, segregated at the time, was known as the “Harlem of the South.” At its height, LaVilla was a booming neighborhood with hundreds of black-owned businesses and a thriving nightlife. 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.
Today, very few of the original LaVilla buildings remain. When the theatre was being rebuilt in the late 1990s, much of LaVilla had been demolished. Even The Ritz Movie House was hardly salvageable. Davis says that the only original part of the building is the marquee.
Walking through the museum now gives visitors a sense of how LaVilla looked in the 1920’s: there are storefronts and residential homes where you can poke through the actual items from the families and businesses of that time. For several years, the staff have been collecting family histories and relics from former residents. Now, the stories of old LaVilla are celebrated within the walls of the museum. 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 Axe Handle Saturday.

In the 1970s, LaVilla began to crumble under the weight of suburban flight, disrepair, crime, and drugs. One unforeseen consequence of integration was the “brain drain” that financially robust (segregated) communities such as LaVilla experienced. Many of the doctors, lawyers, and other professionals moved to historically white communities in order to take advantage of more lucrative opportunities. Rising crime rates pushed families out, and the population dwindled. Eventually, the city’s redevelopment plan all but eradicated the former boomtown.
It could’ve been easy for residents to forget the prominent role that LaVilla played in the history of Jacksonville, but the Ritz Theatre and Museum maintains this neighborhood’s legacy. It is keeping alive the memory of a time when theatres and night clubs such as The Strand and The Roosevelt hosted hundreds of renowned entertainers every year, such as Ma Rainey and Ray Charles. This is what the founders of the re-constructed Ritz set out to do when they penned their mission: “To research, record, and preserve the material and artistic culture of African-American life in northeast Florida and the African Diaspora and present it in an educational or entertaining format showcasing the many facets that make up the historical and cultural legacy of this community.”
It’s a place where community members can exchange ideas and help develop a roadmap for the future, says Davis. “Building on the LaVilla neighborhood’s proud heritage, the Ritz is truly a special place where history’s missing chapters are being restored, where talent is nurtured, and creativity is celebrated.” She also points out that visitors who might not otherwise venture into this historic part of Jacksonville are drawn in by some of the Ritz’s more noteworthy exhibitions.
A highlight of the museum is the multi-media presentation Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing: The animatronic show brings to life two of Jacksonville’s most noteworthy sons, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamund Johnson, both born and raised in LaVilla, as it explores their lives and the outstanding accomplishments that brought them local, national and international renown. Titled for the song known as the African American National Anthem, written by James and set to music by John Rosamund, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing features the late, great actor Ossie Davis as the voice of James.
Recently, the City of Jacksonville, which owns the Ritz, has made a significant investment in the venue, but the Ritz needs community support as well. “For us to do what we dream … requires a significant collaborative effort,” says Davis. ”We have a great start but now is the time to build momentum.” There are many ways community members can get involved and support the theatre and museum, including becoming a member, buying a brick, or just coming out to the events and inviting friends. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Davis for more information.

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By Sarah Clarke Stuart
Photos by Bob Self

Author: Arbus

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