JACKSONVILLE — Darlene Neal was at a Saturday luncheon to mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington when she heard the police sirens and saw rescue teams swirling past. Then, her phone started buzzing, again and again.
“Ms. Darlene,” one of her messages said, “it’s near you.”
Three Black people were killed after a racist gunman attacked a nearby Dollar General armed with an AR-15-style rifle and a handgun, moments after security officers chased him from a neighboring HBCU campus. Now, about 24 hours later, Neal walked up to the roses laid alongside the road near the store, their blood-red petals matching the stripes on the tape hanging above.
“POLICE LINE,” it read, “DO NOT CROSS.”
As president of the Grand Park Community Association, Neal was asking people near the makeshift memorial for the names of the victims. She wanted to figure out how the community might be able to support their families.
Authorities released their identities at a press conference Sunday afternoon: Angela Michelle Carr, 52; Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19; and Jerrald Gallion, 29. When she heard the names, none immediately rang a bell. Still, her heart broke for the community.
Grand Park and several adjacent, predominantly Black residential areas were developed in the early 20th century for railroad and industrial workers. It seemed as if nearly everyone here felt the tragic ripple effects of what authorities immediately labeled a hate crime.
Police cars blocked the neighborhood’s main road. Officers barricaded the area, and a line of news cameras were propped up to capture the scene.
Vic Hayes, 28, was at his cousin’s house Saturday when the news came in.
“I really don’t know how to feel,” he said. “It could’ve been me.”
On Sunday, he stood underneath the sun in Florida’s piping 90-degree heat outside a Family Dollar, a couple of minutes drive away from the scene of Saturday’s attack. The humidity in the neighborhood where he was born and raised felt suffocating. Hayes said he hesitated before stopping by the store, given the prior day’s news.
“We can’t live our lives in fear,” he added.
A community’s tears
There were no news cameras Sunday within the campus chapel’s walls when Edward Waters University students, staff, and community members wept together. They bent over in tears, releasing the trauma that came with knowing their campus could have been the target of a racist attack. Toilet paper rolls unraveled and tissue boxes made their way around the room as pastors prayed, mostly thanking God for protecting the school, which is Florida’s oldest HBCU.
They joined hands in a circle to sing, sway, and praise. Wrapped in one another’s arms, heartbreak and fear filled the room, along with a sense of gratitude that they had been spared.
The day prior, campus security officers had confronted the shooter, who was seen putting on an armored vest. They followed him until he was off campus and contacted the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, according to a university press release. Then the shooting occurred, less than a mile away.
“Greater is He that is in us than the hate that is in this world,” one pastor said.
“Racism is still very real”
Just after 5 p.m. on Sunday, a gathering began that brought Neal and some of the victims’ family members together. Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a rhinestone cross, Neal sat behind the family of one of the victims, Jerrald Gallion, as they cried. By then the piercing sun had begun to fade, though the shade offered little relief from the summer heat. An evening breeze flowed through the corner of Alameda Street and Kings Road.
As pastors preached, Jerrald’s 4-year-old daughter, in a bright pink dress with matching beads in her braids, hopped from lap to lap among those she knew, getting a lot of love. She didn’t understand all that was unfolding, but she welcomed the familiar hugs. When boredom struck, she started playing with her mom’s hair.
Her grandmother, Sabrina Rozier, hasn’t quite found the words to explain the news that she found out on social media. How could she explain such a crime to Jerrald’s one and only daughter?
“I don’t know how to tell her,” she confessed. “That was his heart, and she was his.”
Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said at a press conference on Saturday that the gunman “hated Black people,” as evidenced by racist writings that used racial slurs. One of his weapons was painted with swastikas. After the attack, he took his own life.
Neighborhood resident Patricia Carter, 70, lost her daughter, her only child, in 2019. These days, she prays over her five grandchildren and great-grandkids. She said she’s sick and tired of violence and death.
“I don’t understand why we can’t live in peace, as opposed to rest in peace,” she said.
Shakeria Simmons, 30, heard the news of the shooting in a phone call from her sister. It happened down the street from where she’s been living for about a year. A lot of the people she knows are organizing community prayers for the city and against racism.
“It’s sad,” she said. “Racism is still very real.”
Rozier will remember her grandbaby’s dad for never missing a beat. She holds close to her heart the moment he proposed to her daughter on New Year’s and the excitement he had when she went into labor around Halloween. Jerrald was so happy to be a dad, she said.
“We will miss you. I always told you, ‘I love you,’” she said as cameras hovered over her after the event ended. “You take your rest. We got your daughter.”
Capital B Editorial Director Simone Sebastian contributed to this story.
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