Jacksonville is a vast city—the largest incorporated city in landmass within the contiguous United States—and it’s also a complicated city, as Jacksonville Historical Society CEO Alan J. Bliss likes to say.
“It’s complicated, it’s authentic, and it has many stories,” he shares on the lecture circuit in any given week, visiting business and civic groups from early morning to evening and spreading the word about Jacksonville’s Bicentennial, an occasion which the citizens of Jacksonville are encouraged to commemorate, celebrate, and elevate during 2022.
A huge piece of local history is being resurrected in downtown’s Eastside neighborhood, just north of TIAA Bank Field. The Debs Store and the Davis Rooming House next door (now razed) were built by Edward D. Mixson in 1913. The red-brick, neighborhood grocery store on the corner of 5th Street and Florida Avenue was opened in 1921 by Lebanese immigrant Nicolas Debs and closed 90 years later in 2011. Debs Store was a part of the fabric of its community and the Debs family a staple. Nicolas’s sons, Nick and Gene, knew nearly everyone who walked into the store, and once they both passed away, the family made the difficult decision to shutter it.
We live in a city whose location we did not select, that we did not design or build, dependent on technologies that we did not invent, speaking languages that we did not create. And yet, the city is now ours. Our daily lives transpire in a place that we have inherited. That makes us just like the people of every other city, although we (and Jacksonville) are different from other cities. It also makes us the stewards of Jacksonville’s future.
In 2020 protests over the tragic death of a Black man named George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman reignited a long-running national debate over the significance of Confederate monuments in public places. Some discussions widened to consider the names of schools, streets, parks, and even a city itself. Suggestions for renaming Jacksonville have included Jaxson, Duval, Cowford, and even Durstville, after Fred Durst, lead vocalist for the local band Limp Bizkit.
Some would say the story began in 1918 when, just after the announcement that the Huns had surrendered their fight in the Great War, a group of businessmen in Jacksonville … well, more on that later.
The ongoing process of racial reckoning that’s been taking place around the country over the past few years has occurred on many different fronts, be it the classroom, the pulpit, or the streets of hundreds of cities from coast to coast. This process has peaked (so far) with the social protests we saw sweeping the nation after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Locally, there were protests here in Jacksonville, St. Augustine, the Beaches, and beyond.