Duval County

Black History Month: The hidden history of Hanna Park

HANNA PARK, Fla. — There’s a long held secret hidden in the dunes of Hanna Park.

In celebration of Black History Month, Action News Jax is taking you to the forgotten shores of Manhattan Beach. It’s known today as Hanna Park.

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This is one of the first beaches African American families were allowed to enjoy natural resources in the Jim Crowe south, in the early 1900s.

“It was legendary!” says Kenneth Lesesne. “There was a dance hall, a small restaurant. There was a small bar, where you could get beer, wine, soft drinks. There was game room where you could play pool and whatever else you wanted.”

Lesesne couldn’t be more proud of his roots here on the First Coast. His family owned a parcel of Manhattan Beach. He says it was a gift from none other than *The Henry Flagler, of Flagler College and Standard Oil.

“Henry Flagler was an avid hunter and my grandfather had a reputation of being the best guide in this region. The two ended up getting together.”

“When my grandfather found out (that) Henry Flagler was going to be spending more time in the state of Florida, he introduced him to his aunt, Capitola Washington. The two of them became very good friends over the years. Mr. Flagler gifted the property to Capitola.”

Many will be surprised to know, there was a sprawling 350 room guest hotel built on the shoreline of Atlantic Beach in 1901.

It was called the Contential Hotel. The mostly Black labor built a nine hole golf course, dance pavillon, fishing pier and even riding stables... all along a rail line.

For 60-cents a round trip, Black passengers could ride the train to the beach and travel a couple of miles down to enjoy the sand and surf of Manahattan Beach.

Beaches Museum Associate Director Brittany Cohill tells me Snowbirds from the North would bypass the Continential Hotel to enjoy the luxury accommodations further south during the winter. This created a problem for Henry Flagler.

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Professor Cohill shared her collection of history, which includes correspondence relating to Flagler selling off his property, after losing interest around 1913.

“So the goal was to make money on this property by renting it back to Black business owners, while they could, but these leases could be revoked without notice,” she says.

Eventually the new owners wanted all evidence of Black ownership and Black patronage gone. The string of sprawling resorts would be exclusively for whites only.

“It’s an important part of the story. This intimidation inacted on the community out here.”

“One year during the off season, someone came and burned my grandfather’s place down. Max’s Place burned to the ground My grandfather was distraught. Authorities told him his part had washed out to sea. He died not long after that, he was a broken man.”

Professior Cohill hopes to help right a wrong, by acknowleging the bitter sweet history of Manhattan Beach.

She’s organzing a celebration for a special marker to serve as a memorial and history lesson for years to come, a memory that she hopes will never wash away.

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Lesesne is looking forward to a reunion this year, when he gets to share the occassion with family members from all over the United States. They’ll all gather on his family’s old property to rededicate it.

“I’ve got family coming from all parts of the country for this presentation. We’ll be able to say to granddaddy--- man you got your place back. You got your place back. It took a while but you got your place back.”