Dr. Alexander H. Darnes isn’t a particularly well-known figure today. But during his time, he was revered as one of the First Coast’s best physicians.
He also holds an interesting city milestone: he was the first African-American doctor in Jacksonville’s history.
Darnes was born in St. Augustine in 1840, during the midst of the slavery era in the South. He was the son of a servant in the household of Judge Joseph L. Smith – and his father was believed to be a relative of Judge Smith. He held a passing resemblance to Edmund, the judge’s youngest son.
When he turned fifteen, Darnes began serving as Edmund’s personal valet. Edmund served first as a captain in the U.S. Army, then later as a general for the Confederacy when the Civil War began. He would even become somewhat of a Confederate folk hero, as he was the last general to surrender during the war.
The whole time, Darnes was by his side. The two had a positive, but complicated, relationship.
Following the South’s defeat, Darnes found himself a free man. And as luck would have it, Edmund Smith’s sister Frances Smith Webster wanted to help Darnes with starting his new life. Webster, a loyal Union supporter, was the widow of a former Army general and therefore had the funds available to help Darnes pursue an education.
Darnes attended the historically black Lincoln University, then went off to medical school at the newly-founded Howard University.
By 1880, he had earned his medical degree.
Darnes then ventured back south to the First Coast, setting up a private practice in his house in downtown Jacksonville. He became the city’s first black doctor, as well as just the second in the state of Florida.
He came to Jax at a time when physicians were in particularly high demand. An outbreak of yellow fever was gripping the city, and most of its affluent population – including many physicians – had fled elsewhere to wait out the pandemic.
Darnes was one of the few heroic physicians who stayed behind and treated patients during the outbreak. This, combined with his successful private practice, afforded him an increasingly lofty position in the local community. He became a high-ranking Freemason and a prominent church member.
Unfortunately, Darnes’ adulthood prosperity was cut short when he passed away in 1894 at the age of 54. Contemporary accounts of his funeral describe it as having been the largest ever in Jacksonville at the time, with community members of all races gathering to celebrate his life.
Today, Darnes’ legacy lives on in St. Augustine, where a sculpture of him and Edmund Smith sits in front of the Smith family’s former house. The statue, added in 2004, made Darnes the first black man to be honored with a permanent sculpture in St. Augustine.
And of course, he continues to serve as inspiration for future generations of black community leaders in Jacksonville.