The Great Fire of 1901

The historic marker in James Weldon Johnson Park records the effects of Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901 on our city’s cherished public square vividly and specifically: 

“The park and its renowned live oaks were devoured by the flames and only the Confederate Monument survived, its base glowing red from the heat.” 

The marker also describes the fire’s origin to the northwest of the park, ten blocks away at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory, where sun-dried moss intended for use as mattress stuffing instead became a force of destruction when ignited by chimney embers. And it notes a visual measure of the fire’s intensity: “black smoke clouds could be seen as far away as South Carolina”. 

If room permitted, other details might be included, like how superstitious residents moved valuables near the statue in what was then called Hemming Park, that residents and visitors escaped to Riverside and Springfield and south by boat, or how firefighters barely escaped with their lives. 

The event of May 3, 1901, which destroyed 146 city blocks and left nearly 10,000 people without homes, is chronicled in photos, first-person accounts, historical writings and books, in newspapers of the day as far away as Baltimore and in a locally produced documentary.  

A notable voice in many accounts is our park’s namesake, James Weldon Johnson. A Jacksonville native, Johnson was educated in Atlanta, returned home and at the time of the fire was Stanton High School’s principal. Johnson, only 30 years old, had already made many positive improvements to the school including expanding it from 8 to 12 grades, making Stanton the only high school in the city for black students. 

In his autobiography, Along This Way, Johnson chronicles his experience from the realization that the city was burning, to efforts to save the Stanton brick building for use as a shelter, then gathering his principal records when it became clear the white firefighters chose not save the building and finally, as the city began receiving aid post-fire, his role in operating one of the newly established commissary depots. 

In the midst of this harrowing experience, shared with his brother as they rode bicycles home after a commencement rehearsal, Johnson chronicled the moments they reached their family home and saw all loved ones were unharmed. 

“But there stands our house. Due either to the reported race prejudice of the fire chief, or to the direction of the wind, it is unharmed; at any rate, we are fortunate, for the house is only three blocks from the fiber factory, but due south. It isn’t just our house for long. Before night, it is the refuge of more than twenty of our friends who have no other roof.” 

 It is also worth noting that in addition to the white fire chief’s decision to focus on white-owned properties, another effect of racial tensions was Johnson’s near lynching by militia men who were told he had been alone in a Riverside park with a young white woman, who Johnson said was not white “according to the customs, and possibly, the laws of Florida”.  It was shortly after this time that Johnson and his brother, Rosamond, moved to New York City.  

 In Jacksonville, the rebuilding began and the present day Jacksonville Historical Society notes that more than 1,000 building permits were issued within five months of that fateful day in May of 1901. And our city park, the heartbeat of Jacksonville, was also rebuilt, later redesigned and eventually renamed for its native son, James Weldon Johnson.