Halfway through the Civil War, in March 1863, black Union soldiers occupied Confederate Jacksonville for nearly three weeks. It wouldn’t be the last time. Perhaps one of those United States Colored Troops first called the heart pine cottage at 328 Chelsea Street home. Though former slaves and black Union soldiers first occupied this western part of Brooklyn in the 1860s and ’70s, no records indicate the original owner of the small wooden house.
In February 1864, black soldiers manned a Union stockade, defending Jacksonville from the Confederacy, in the marshes of what’s now inner-city LaVilla down to Brooklyn, where Camp Foster stood near today’s Jackson and Magnolia streets, a couple blocks from what’s now considered by some the Last Buffalo Soldier’s House.
But further complicating the identity of the owner of this 770-square-foot cottage is the problem of who’s constituted a “Buffalo Soldier.” The term first applied to the U.S. Army’s black 10th Calvary Regiment formed in 1866, then spread, backward, to all black troops.
Joe “Hot Wing” Tillmon, president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Historical Society, takes offense at the confusion of terms and believes that only the black troops who fought native tribes in the American Indian Wars should be called “Buffalo Soldiers.”
“When people call United States Colored Troops ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’” he says, “they discredit the specific history of those other units by lumping them all together.”
As the Union occupation of Confederate towns like Jacksonville ended and the Reconstruction Era began, Confederate veteran Miles Price platted this former plantation into lots and sold them to former slaves and black Union soldiers. Why he called the district Brooklyn nobody knows.
328 Chelsea might be the last “hall-and-parlor” cottage in Jacksonville. Others stood elsewhere in Brooklyn at 344 Chelsea and 364 Spruce. Hall-and-parlor houses, which could be called, to denote order from the street, “porch-parlor-hall-and-bedrooms,” took root in the Southern countryside. Though rarely found in cities, this style fit Brooklyn, which was pretty much countryside in the 1870s,.
Most of historic Brooklyn has disappeared at this point. In the late 1970s, resident Les Paul Garner sold 200 copies of the black newspaper The Florida Star, walking door to door in Brooklyn, when its population had declined from more than 6,000 just 25 years prior to around 800.
Today, Garner’s little yellow-trimmed red brick house sits directly across Jackson Street from new three- and four-story luxury apartments, “The Brooklyn Riverside,” neither name aptly describing the structures. In his early 50s now, Garner moved into the house when he was five. In the midst of the apartments’ development in 2014, workers parked earthmovers and tractor tread cranes in Paul’s front yard and cracked the sidewalk in front of his house.
Garner has attended community meetings all his life. He’s read Jacksonville history extensively in the Florida Room of the Main library. He doesn’t trust so-called “progress” that disrespects communities deeply rooted and doesn’t attempt to sustain what exists already.
“These developers never cared about us before,” he says. “It makes it easier for them that most of us are gone. Everybody says they care about history, but my history is in this neighborhood. These developers — their history is just dollars.”
Meanwhile, standing before the Last Buffalo Soldier’s House —please forgive the anachronism and misnomer — Garner points to the sad and ruined enclosure of the original porch and the trash that surrounds the cottage. Most of Brooklyn has gone the way of LaVilla, which the City razed via eminent domain in the early 1990s. This house stands like the past beaten repeatedly and left for dead long ago.
Yet Garner remembers old Mrs. Linder, who sat on this front porch each evening when he delivered the Star.
“A house can be boarded up for years,” he says, “but all you have to do is live in the house and it returns to its human-shaped life.”
In a stalwart little hardwood cottage like this, “The floors tilt. The doorjambs and windowsills swell,” he says. “But when people move back into a house, the house comes back to life.”