A labor of love came to fruition earlier this month when the Beaches Museum hosted the unveiling of the Manhattan Beach historic marker on Oct. 2.
Once located on the site of present day Hanna Park, Manhattan Beach is believed to be Florida’s first African American beach resort. Founded by Henry Flagler, president of the Florida East Coast Railway, it opened around 1900 as a place where Flagler’s Black employees could spend their leisure time, including those who helped build his Continental Hotel.
Local beaches were segregated at the time, in keeping with national, regional and local Jim Crow laws. Until the late 1930s, Manhattan Beach was the only parcel of shoreline in the Jacksonville-area that was open to African Americans.
Brittany Cohill, former associate director of the Beaches Museum & History Park, began digging into the history of Manhattan Beach in 2017, when she was a graduate student majoring in history at UNF. She often delivered public lectures based on her research.
“In 2019, I created a traveling exhibit [called] ‘Recovering Manhattan Beach: Florida’s First African American Beach Resort in the Segregated South’, through a partnership between the Beaches Museum and the Jacksonville Public Library Beaches Branch,” she said. “Later that same year, I gained approval from the City of Jacksonville and the State of Florida to place a historical marker at the site of Manhattan Beach.”
In her speech at the unveiling, Cohill related how she was inspired to embark on the project after reading “Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History,” a book by Andrew Carroll published in 2014. A brief conversation with her Environmental History professor around this same time also struck home.
“He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘It’s unfortunate that the presence of Hanna Park obscures the history of Manhattan Beach’,” said Cohill. “By this time, I had lived in the Jacksonville area just shy of 35 years and I had never heard of Manhattan Beach.”
Though the project was approved in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic presented obstacles, slowing the fabrication and installation process. The initial plan had been to unveil the marker in early 2020, but work-from-home orders and other safety protocols put that plan on hold.
Once the marker was actually installed, Cohill and other museum officials waited until it was deemed safe to gather outdoors before hosting the unveiling ceremony.
In attendance at the event were roughly 25 descendants of Mack Wilson, a prominent Manhattan Beach businessman. He owned and operated Mack’s Place — an establishment that provided refreshments, entertainment, bathing suit rentals and more.
His mother, Minerva Wilson, was born into slavery on the Dilworth Plantation in the Florida Panhandle. After emancipation, the Wilson family eventually settled in the LaVilla neighborhood of Jacksonville.
Most found work with the railroad and the family eventually acquired their Manhattan Beach property from Henry Flagler’s Mayport Terminal Company as it began to sell off some of its land holdings. The family was among the last holdouts in the face of anti-Black racism and growing pressure to abandon their claim to the land.
According to Cohill, the response from the Wilson family was overwhelmingly positive.
“Throughout the project, Wilson’s grandson, Kenneth LeSesne and Wilson’s great-grand-niece, Dr. Yvonne Hicks — both Jacksonville residents — supported my research and were pivotal in elucidating Mack Wilson’s role in the history of Manhattan Beach,” said Cohill.
LeSesne and two other grandsons, Harold Wilson and Michael Wilson, were on hand to witness the marker’s unveiling. Granddaughter Norma June Wilson Davis of Kansas City was unable to attend, but had been in regular contact via email to assist with the project.
She did, however, speak warmly of her grandfather when sending her regrets for the occasion, and Cohill shared it with attendees during the unveiling.
“‘I deeply regret not being present for this wonderful occasion to honor my grandfather, Mack James Wilson. It helps take away the sting of the injustice he suffered those many years ago. He called me his “Little Chickadee” and in my heart I know he will feel my spirit with him when he is so highly honored with this plaque.'”
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