The original Ritz Theater was constructed in 1929 when Black
entertainers followed what was called the “Chittlin’ Circuit”
and African Americans could not walk into any theater to see a
show like other citizens. Ritz
Theater was built in Art Deco Style and was the center of the
LaVilla neighborhood. It was rebuilt in 1999 and all that remain
of the historic building are the sign and the Northwest corner
of the building.
When I visited it recently, I learned the theater seats 426 and
has kept its Art Deco feel and its entertainment traditions.
Live concerts and top performers appear at the Ritz. For
newbies, they hoist a “Putting on the Ritz” event once a month.
It’s a talent show where the audience determines the fate of the
|Interior of the Ritz Theater
The museum is much larger than it appears from the outside and
had a vast amount of material showcasing the African American
heritage. It traces Jacksonville’s Black culture from slavery
days through the Civil Rights struggle. It recreates the feel of
being back in LaVilla during the first half of the 20th century.
|Singer Treadle Sewing machine at
the Ritz Museum
The exhibits place Jacksonville African American history and
thought to life in the greater content of national and world
history. One example is a clip from the journal of Dr. Julia S.
Walker Brown, President of Walker Commercial College. Dr. Brown,
who died in April 1969, was a witness to events we only know
through history books. She wrote of the hotly contested election
between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes and reflects on
Wilson’s reelection, “mostly by virtue of his having delayed
America’s participation in that war.”
She discloses a seldom realized “Silver Lining” aspect to the
devastating “cloud” of WWI. As
shipyards and other war related businesses sprang up in
Jacksonville, “Negro Jaxons (sic) were not to be
denied a share of this sudden prosperity. Where there had been a
“T” model Ford in the yard, a Cadillac soon replaced it. The
little house across the tracks were deserted for more elaborate
|Pictures of the Johnson brothers
What a view of history! There is so much more here. Another
favorite exhibit focuses on the
Johnson brothers, James Weldon and John Rosamond. The
brothers wrote over 200 songs for Broadway musicals as well as
"Lift Every Voice and Sing,"
the song that became
the official anthem of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People. Both brothers had extensive
careers outside the music work as well. James became a leader of
the NAACP and John had a career as an actor.
There is a
video about thei life at the museum.
|Johnson Brothers' video
Perhaps the most interesting exhibits are the ones portraying
everyday life and careers of the average African American
people. The museum had an sample street of the places and
businesses that existed in Jacksonville in the early 20th
century. I had a lot of fun wandering that street seeing what
treasures from the past I found. There’s a kitchen table set for
the family and right out of everyday life in the ‘50s. Ways to
earn a living were stereotyped in those days. Many hairdressers
and seamstresses were African American. I loved the treadle
Singer sewing machine and the hairdresser’s chair and old time
|Kitchen table of the 50s
The museum covers all aspects and all classes of the Black
Jacksonville community since the days of forced enslavement but
focuses on the 19th and 20th century. It’s
an enlightening walk through history as it influenced one
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