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Ritz Theater in the Lavilla Neighborhood of Jacksonville, Fl

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 performers.

Ritz Theater interior in Lavilla Neighborhood of Jacksonville
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 in the Ritz musuem
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 apartments."

Pictures of <h1>James and John Johnson in Ritz Museum</h1>
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.

video theater of James Rosamond and John Weldon Johnson in Ritz Musuem
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 hair dryer.

old fashioned kitchen setting  in Ritz Musuem
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 community.  

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