Our walking tour of Downtown Jacksonville begins in the heart of the urban core at Hemming Plaza. Established in 1857, Hemming Plaza is Jacksonville’s oldest city park. The acre-and-a-half square is lined with lush trees, statues and fountains, and has a number of tables and benches which are full on most afternoons. The West edge of the plaza is adjacent to the JTA Skyway – Jacksonville’s “sky train.”
If the sheer beauty of Hemming Plaza isn’t enough to excite you, consider this: Its grounds have been walked by Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Each of them gave speeches in the plaza, as did civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
Hemming Plaza has a dark side as well, which sheds light on Jacksonville’s once-tense racial relations. In 1960, a group of 200 white men attacked a large group of blacks in the plaza with axe handles and other weapons. The attack was in response to a series of sit-ins at segregated local restaurants. No one was fatally injured, but many were severely hurt. That day, August 27, largely forgotten by most of the nation, is now known as “Ax Handle Saturday” by Jacksonville residents.
Today, Hemming Plaza holds a farmer’s market on Fridays year round. It’s also the center site of Jacksonville’s Downtown Art Walk – a festival held the first Wednesday of every month.