By Andrea Davis
In segregated Downtown Jacksonville, Aug. 27, 1960, started off just like any other Saturday but it quickly turned into a day when violence sparked by racial tension became a turning point for civil rights in the city.
Today it’s called Ax Handle Saturday and the terror and bloodshed that day on Hogan Street and beyond is remembered for the attention it brought to the fact that racial discrimination needed to stop in Jacksonville.
It was never meant to end in violence, remembered Rodney Hurst, then a 16-year-old black student protester and president of the NAACP’s Young Council. That day’s sit-in was just the latest in several the group had staged.
“It was a peaceful type of protest. We weren’t really causing any trouble.” Hurst said. “We would buy something from one counter, so we could show that at one counter we would be served, but at another refused.”
This day, however, would be different.
The violence began around lunch time when a group of black students came in and sat down at a “whites-only” counter of a Downtown restaurant. Their intent was to order a meal of ice-cold sodas, egg-salad sandwiches and hamburgers.
Marjorie Meeks Brown, who was also 16 and a student protestor, said the group’s appearance startled other customers at Woolworth’s restaurant.
“The whites were shocked when we showed up and sat down,” said Brown, now a resident of Atlanta. “They stood behind us because they couldn’t believe that we were sitting at that counter. Blacks also stood behind us, and they wanted to applaud.”
At that point, “a waitress loudly said to all who could hear that that was a whites-only counter and the counter for coloreds was in the back,” said Hurst, who has written a book on the violence titled “It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke.”
At the waitress’ announcement, the restaurant, which was filled with both blacks and whites, grew quiet. Hurst, who still lives in Jacksonville, remembers the events vividly.
“The young men and women who came to contribute to that day’s protest, there were about 20 of them, most of which were middle and high school students, just sat at the counter, which was whites-only listening to those around them stare with judging stares and belittle them. Many of us were hit, punched in the backs with people’s canes and were stuck with pins or needles.”
Then things escalated quickly.
Outside the doors of the diner, an angry mob of over 200 white men carrying baseball bats and the handles of axes were gathering. Some say the Ku Klux Klan was behind the growing mob.
Their peaceful protest ended abruptly when the mob attacked. The resulting melee spread throughout the streets of Downtown and soon included any black person unlucky enough to be caught by the white mob.
“People would send out racial slurs calling us jungle bunnies and that we should go back to Africa,” said Hurst, who managed to escape the mob without injury.
When the mob caught a black person, a beating ensued. Police officers mostly stood by, stepping in to try to stop the violence only after a black street gang, The Boomerangs, stepped in to help the people being attacked.
“While there were police force and National Guard on standby,” Hurst continued, “No one helped until the violence got out of hand for fear that there was going to be repercussions lead by the Ku Klux Klan.”
Bloodied victims fled to Snyder Memorial Church on Hemming Plaza seeking refuge. There they stayed until the violence stopped.
While the violence ended after just a few hours, the NAACP were told to boycott Downtown for several weeks and to refrain from their sit-ins and peaceful protests, providing the city with a cooling-off period.
The viciousness of the day’s encounter between peaceful black students and angry whites became a national story covered by Time magazine and other newspapers. But in Jacksonville, the only mention of the violence was in the pages of the weekly black newspaper, the Florida Star.
Today in Hemming Park, there is a small memorial plague reminding the city of the violent day that has become known as Ax Handle Saturday.