On the northern boundary of Downtown sits a cultural venue that houses perhaps one of Downtown’s best-kept secrets. On the walls, inside the rooms and – most importantly – within the hearts of the people who work there are stories that capture the essence of one of Downtown’s most historic bygone eras.
From the 1920s through the ’60s, LaVilla – Jacksonville’s historic African-American neighborhood – was know as the “Harlem of the South,” packed with theaters and nightclubs. Since 1999, the Ritz Theatre and Museum, located on the site of the 1929 historic Ritz Theatre movie house, has shared through art, photography, artifacts and info-graphics the stories of the lives that made the community special.
People of all ages – from children on field trips to individuals who remember the “Harlem of the South” firsthand – visit the museum for an important and fascinating glimpse of Jacksonville’s past.
“[Museum visitors] start looking at the photos and say ‘that’s my aunt’,” said Octavius Davis, marketing and development manager for SMG Jacksonville, which manages the Ritz. “People still find themselves identifying family members.”
Take a walk through the museum’s entrance, and you’ll first see its signature art exhibit, featuring dozens of artwork by local African-American artists. The “Through Our Eyes” exhibit showcases an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures and mixed-media pieces.
Just past “Through Our Eyes,” the history begins to unfold. The wall-length timeline touches on figures such as James Weldon Johnson and Eartha White, ranging from the start of the 1800s through the 1960s.
As you continue to meander through the museum, you then enter a small viewing room where visitors can watch a historical film covering the history of the era, narrated by a James Weldon Johnson animatronic. The Ritz’s nearby Downtown neighbor, Sally Corporation, provided the animatronic, and Ossie Davis provided the voice-over. It’s one of the museum’s most popular features, Davis said.
After the film, visitors can then stroll down a replica of what a typical LaVilla street looked like back in the day. You’ll see a barber shop, school room, lunch counter and more, all featuring genuine artifacts from that time period – including the pair of running shoes Bob Hayes used in the Olympics.
“The real personal items are what really make the museum special,” said Adonnica Toler, museum archivist. “There’s nothing fabricated.”
In addition to the museum, the “Theatre” of the “Ritz Theatre and Museum” is a beautiful 402-seat auditorium that often hosts African-American musicians, comedians and more, all family friendly and great fun, said Davis. Recent performers include Mavis Staples and Doug E. Fresh, in addition to the venue’s monthly Amateur Night. Singer Rion Paige of the X Factor once stood on the Amateur Night stage and is now pursuing a music career in Nashville.
Coming up this summer for the Ritz Theatre is its Jazz Discovery Series, a three-concert series featuring up-and-coming jazz vocalists from across the country. And for the Theatre’s 2015-2016 season, Booker T. Jones, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Cecile McLoren Salvant are just a sample of the talents performing at the venue. To see the full line-up of upcoming events, visit www.ritzjacksonville.com.
The Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum, located at 829 N. Davis St., is open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors of all ages are welcome to enjoy a self-guided exploration of the museum or follow along with Toler, who leads guided tours by request for individuals or groups.
“It’s something about [the museum] that they connect with,” said Toler about visitors. “There’s something very special about the space.”