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Living History: Freedom Park will memorialize local Gullah Geechee people, veterans with PTSD in Jacksonville

A soon-to-be-built park at the intersection of Fort Caroline Road and McCormick Road will honor the impact of people descended from slaves who called the area home.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Pastor Joe Cooper sums up what he believes to be the foundation of the community of Cosmo in two words: "fishing and love."

Over the coming months, the empty triangle lot at the intersection of McCormick Road and Fort Caroline Road in the East Arlington area will be transformed into a permanent memorial of those who call the area founded by freed slaves home.

Freedom Park, which just recently received final approval from the city council, will be the first permanent marker commemorating a Gullah Geechee community in Jacksonville.

"They want to make sure this park has a living memory of everything that is going on out here," said Councilman Al Ferraro, who sponsored the park in council. "I'm sure that you'll see people out here working and doing things in the park as part of their neighborhood and part of their home."

With a state grant of around $525,000 and the land acquired by the city, the park has an estimated completion date of October 31. When finished, it will honor the local Gullah Geechee of Cosmo and veterans with PTSD.

"The important thing is to get the story told out here," Ferraro said.

Credit: WTLV
Rendering of the completed Freedom Park at Fort Caroline Rd. and McCormick Rd.

Growing Up in Cosmo

Darlene knew at the age of eight that Joe Cooper was the one for her.

"Our fathers were talking about which young man in the community would make a good husband," Joe Cooper said. "She called my name."

"I said 'That's mine!" Darlene Cooper said. 

Although at the time, she did not understand the magnitude of what she said, it would be the start of a long, loving relationship. This year, Darlene and Joe will celebrate 55 years of marriage.

Growing up in the small community of Cosmo, Darlene and Joe Cooper are a story of love that transcends time. The feeling of closeness is older and deeper than the inhabitants of Cosmo themselves, and it anchors the community.

"We never felt like we was poor. It was just so much love being poured on us," Darlene Cooper said. "It enriched us in everything we needed." 

Darlene and Joe Cooper described a simple way of life: fishing on the St. Johns, attending the tiny school in the town where Darlene's father taught, and going to church every Sunday. 

"We, in a sense, didn't have transportation. There was just one bus, 51 Beach," Darlene Cooper said. "Or if someone in the community had a car, they were known as the 'taxi.' We had the help that we needed." 

Like others they grew up with, Darlene and Joe Cooper would continue their respective families' traditions, planting their own roots in Cosmo.

"This community, the members that are here now, they're going on strong," Joe Cooper said. "Because we all stick together."

Credit: WTLV
Joe and Darlene Cooper in an old Florida Times-Union clipping.

Descended from History

The Gullah Geechee are a people descended from slaves who share cultural African influences. Spanning four states, the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor has an estimated population of five million people.

"It is a living history that is a national heritage area," said Saundra Morene, President of the Jacksonville Gullah Geechee Nation. "The historical sketch of Jacksonville is very broad, and we have between 300,000 and 750,000 people who are Gullah Geechee descendants here in the Jacksonville area."

In 1877, James Bartley was deeded 40 acres of land in the area where Freedom Park is now being constructed and Cosmo came to exist. Over time, freed slaves would find comfort in settling on the land, forming their own home along the St. Johns River.

The descendants of those former slaves would continue the legacy of their parents and grandparents.

"Cosmo has been a premier community for us in Jacksonville," Morene said. "It tells the story of how we came from enslavement to emancipation, land ownership, creating cities and towns that were actually industrious."

Cosmo is just one Gullah Geechee community in Jacksonville, along with other areas like Fulton, Sunbeam, Greenland and LaVilla. The Jaxson has a longer breakdown of the individual histories of some of these communities.

Credit: WTLV
This map shows some of the other Gullah Geechee communities in Jacksonville.

"I always want to come back home here," said Dennis Cooper, born in 1952 in a family of seven. 

Drafted to serve in Vietnam, Dennis Cooper would eventually come back to Jacksonville to watch his hometown of Cosmo grow.

"Everywhere I go around the city, they ask me where I'm from and I mention the word 'Cosmo,'" he said. "They have a relationship with Cosmo that brings them back and brings me back. It is so dear to our hearts. They remember how nice it was back then, and how nice it is now."

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Dennis Cooper gathered at the spot where Freedom Park will be built, along with friends and neighbors he has known for years. 

"Everything that happened to me in the past will still be here," he said. "Our existence here will still be acknowledged."

The group gives much of the credit to the late Rev. Ethel Delores Demps, who was descended of the original settlers in Cosmo and was a driving force behind having Cosmo registered as a Gullah Geechee Heritage Community.

"I can't express, really, the way I feel. Because I'd be crying," said Darlene Cooper. "But it's not tears of sorrow, it's tears of joy. Here we are. It's here, it's really happening. And it makes you feel real, real good. You can't buy this in the store."