Yesterday Rebecca did a solo show at Hemming Park in downtown Jacksonville. The day was hot, but shade from the trees and a gentle breeze made it comfortable. I met so many people as I did roadie duties, and every exchange was pleasant. I took note of all the different types of people there. The park is, like our country, a melting pot. After the performance ended, I witnessed something that touched me deeply.
There was an elderly gentleman who listened to Rebecca’s music. He was sitting near the table I shared with our friend Jared Rush, film producer and artist rep. I noticed the man when I returned to my seat after refilling her water. I could tell he was enjoying himself. She did a variety of music—country, roots blues, Americana, a few pop tunes.
As she put her guitars up, the elderly gentleman walked up onto the ramp to the stage, and he started talking to her. I was answering emails, but I looked up just in time to see Rebecca open her arms and hug the man. Shortly thereafter, Jared helped us pack up and we headed home quickly because it looked like a storm was coming.
We both have a busy week, so we didn’t have time to talk much after her show, but this morning I called to ask her what the man said to her before she hugged him.
She said he told her he loved her music and her voice. “Then he asked if he could hug me.”
I told her I found that hug so symbolic because of where it happened. She asked me what I was talking about.
I told her the story of Ax Handle Saturday. On August 27, 1960, whites who opposed integration attacked black protesters. Ax handles were the segregationists’ weapons of choice. There’s an excellent account of this historic event in the Global Nonviolent Action database at Swarthmore College. It’s interesting to note that the turmoil wasn’t remedied by politicians of that day.
Instead it was the private sector, largely the business sector, who took steps to resolve barriers to integration. A report on Hemming Park prepared by the City of Jacksonville in 2016 explained:
“The violent attacks of the young demonstrators on August 27, 1960 shocked the white community which in turn galvanized action, particularly by the business community, to address race relations. Concerned about continued national exposure to Jacksonville’s negative racial climate and its impact on the city’s business appeal, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and other community and religious leaders, circumvented the lack of action by Mayor Haydon Burns to create a biracial committee to address this explosive issue. Their efforts eventually lead to the integration of downtown restaurants, but more importantly created the momentum needed to address other problems…”
Hemming Park has withstood wars, social turmoil, the great Jacksonville fire, and at one point, complete neglect. That park has been a center of the town since its inception. In the early 1900s there was even an alligator, “Big Joe” who lived in the park’s fountain. Big Joe ultimately moved on to lusher quarters at the zoo. I highly recommend reading that report if you’re a history buff. It’s very well-written and enlightening.
Today there is a plaque at Hemming Park to commemorate Ax Handle Saturday.
I explained all this to Rebecca, and I also explained why I didn’t take a photo of her hugging that gentleman whose skin happened to be darker than hers, although I do often make photos of her with her supporters. For one thing, it would have been perceived as exploitative by some who don’t know us personally.
For another, it isn’t unusual for my daughter to hug a black man because our family is multi-colored.
Whatever criticisms are lobbed at Jacksonville’s downtown, they fall flat if you visit Hemming Park. There is no plot of ground more diverse and welcoming in our present day than that time-proven 1+ acres where so much history has taken place. Hemming Park is a gem smack in the middle of our city’s heart.
As I watched her hug that gentleman who was a complete stranger, I reflected on the amazing changes I have witnessed in my lifetime and what a span of fifty years or so can bring. After we talked about it this morning, I told Rebecca what a beautiful moment that was for me to witness because of the times I grew up in and my own early devotion to civil rights issues as well as my knowledge of some of the history of the park.
We are constantly reminded how far we still have to go. Sometimes it’s good to point out how far we have come.
Then Rebecca reminded me of something.
“Mom, that’s how music is supposed to work,” she said. “It’s a bridge, remember?”
(Kay B. Day/July 23, 2019)