Duval High School, Downtown: the Last Living Student (2011) of the Last Graduating Class (1927)

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

Had not architect Ted Pappas renovated the abandoned building, Duval High School, Jacksonville’s Public School No. 1, would have been demolished. The last graduating Duval High School class was 1927. When the building became Duval Stevens Apartments for the elderly in 1980, some of those high school students who’d graduated 53 years before became its residents. The school’s last student, born a year before this building opened, died in 2011, 102 years old.

Every year, hundreds of high school kids wander the Annie Lytle School on Gilmore Street in Riverside, Public School No. 4, the grand edifice that ceased elementary education half a century ago. There are more rumors of ghosts and hauntings attached to School no. 4 than to any other place in the city. Decades of fires and neglect have advanced a slow but steady demolition. Thousands of young adults in this city want the Annie Lytle School saved, but few of them know about P.S. No. 1 on Ocean Street, Downtown.

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

The original Duval High School, built in 1877, burnt down in the Great Fire of 1901 and the present building of red brick and limestone rose in 1907 and ’08. In 1920 and ’22, additions were built on either side to accommodate an increased student population. Only five years after the school tripled in size, however, it closed. Wealthier white families were starting to move away from East Jacksonville and Springfield, the neighborhood just north of Downtown. Though the speed of the local school board’s changes in position still seems stunning a century later, maybe pictures of white students wearing blackface for Vaudeville performances in the 1927 yearbook help explain why Jacksonville shut its first high school down so quickly and urgently.

In 1995, 87 year old Martha Wells attended a Duval High School reunion at the Stevens Duval Apartments. When she walked through the door, she said, 68 years of memories of what the school building looked like inside were instantly disrupted. As though things could really look the same, she thought. “Everything has changed,” she said. Some strange disconnect jarred between the fact of the school still standing at 601 North Ocean Street and the fact that only memories remained of the school itself. Of such paradoxes are ghosts born.

Ted Pappas, with trustees Garnett Ashby and Dave Naughton on either side, in the old Duval High School Auditorium, courtesy The Jacksonville Journal, 1977

Architect Ted Pappas, who renovated Duval High School before the wrecking ball could arrive, posed in 1977, a century after the school first opened, with two trustees for a Jacksonville Journal photo on the old stage Martha remembered so well from half a century before. But then, perhaps, a place is not just a place. A place is a place in time. 601 North Ocean in 1995 is not the same place as 601 North Ocean in 1927, though both places own the same address.

Perhaps that contradiction reminded former students of something that happened at different times all along their long lives. For Martha, perhaps: those times when she saw her own reflection in a plate glass window or train window without recognizing it, thought the face that of some stranger somehow too close, too private, a stranger too knowing. It was the experience of meeting herself as an other, or meeting a stranger who turned out to be her, Martha Wells. Just what the experience of two times in one place felt like. Sigmund Freud called it “the uncanny.”

The past becomes foreign while remaining familiar until even its familiarity is foreign. And the past changes. Though the past is always present, the present was never present. And the past changes according to the way you’ve come and according to the way you’re going.

Martha Wells never married. She belonged to one church for more than 80 years. After graduating from that final class at Duval High School, she attended the University of Florida and became a teacher and then a school principal, working 40 years for Duval County Public Schools. And all the while, back in 1927, Martha was a member of the Duval High School Senior Girls’ Club.

from Duval High School’s final yearbook, 1927

“TAP! A Junior Girl transformed! But this time the word did not have quite the same meaning as it had in previous years, for the Senior Taps were to be the last to graduate from Duval. A sad and mournful thought—but a sad and weep­ing club? No, never! September 28 found the last Senior Girls’ Club full of enthusiasm, vim and vigor.” So said that final yearbook.

“The girls chose for their mascot Jack Hughes, whom they very fittingly welcomed with open arms as ‘Just a Flower From an Old Bouquet.’ Mrs. Bowers was elected honorary member and presented with a beautiful bouquet to express the love of the senior girls for her.”

from Duval High School’s final yearbook, 1927

Marjorie Hirons, a senior who belonged to the Literary Club, the Spanish Club, the Latin Club and the Chemistry Club, wrote for the 1927 yearbook, “The year 1926-27, overflowing with fun, joy, happiness and love, has been one that will never be forgotten by the last senior girls of Duval.” She died Marjorie Pridgen in 1997. She was 87 years old. And now the last senior girls have forgotten that last school year.

Marjorie Hirons’ senior quote was “Fair as lady ever thought of / Knight of a forgotten year.” Martha Wells’s senior quote was, “Volatile— / Impulsive, generous-hearted.” Senior quotes tended to be literary, but pompously so. They tended toward “purple prose.” George Tedder’s quote: “For there was nothing base or small / or craven in his soul’s broad plans.” The quotes of male students boasted of their bravery, knowledge, or potential for conquest, occasionally comparing the graduating senior to Alexander the Great. The quotes of female students praised their beauty and compared them to flowers or extolled their kindness or general virtue. About Helene Cooke, we’re told, “And she was fair as is the rose in May.” Yes, she was, and might remember her line from Chaucer many Mays later. For senior quotes all came from high literature, lines from John Greenleaf Whittier, from Franklin Pierce Adams, from Sir Walter Scott, from George Augustus Baker.

from Duval High School’s final yearbook, 1927

For the front of that last yearbook, Dana Summitt (“Angels are painted fair to look like you.”), member of the Senior Literary Club, wrote the school’s eulogy:

Oh mightiest of mothers, Duval High,

To know that thy fair name shall cease to be,

Falls like a death-blow on our bowed heads—

Why must this end untimely come to thee?

But to thy ever-faithful boys and girls,

The task shall always be, “To Carry On!”

To honor by our lives thy memory,

When thou, beloved mother, shall have gone!

central skylight, 2021

And so finally had departed the belovèd mother, as so also were fading the lives meant to honor her by living. Sometimes the weight of the years fell heavy on Martha’s shoulders. Sometimes she didn’t feel like she’d lived one life, but several, sometimes three or four, sometimes dozens. She was 87 when she came back to Duval High School for the 1927 class reunion, but she still had a number of years left to live. Astounding enough that officials with Cathedral Foundation, an arm of St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral, which operated the Stevens Duval, believed 100 former Duval High School students still lived in the Jacksonville area almost 70 years later! Martha found the worst thing about getting old was that everyone was always dying. In high school, everyone was always just about to live.

It astounded her how long things lasted; it amazed her how fast things changed. Martha was born but a few years after the Great Fire of 1901. In fact, Martha was born the year the old Duval High School building opened. All that grand construction occurred so quickly, first the central building, and then 12 and 14 years later, the two noble annexes winged it, and just five years after that, the school held its last graduating class. Was it really all so fast?

But the city was new. Just more than 100 years old, new enough, the city had been destroyed by the Civil War, several times, and destroyed by the Great Fire, and after each destruction, the city started over. So new, the city didn’t know in which direction it was changing.

Many of Duval High School’s students lived in Springfield, the elegant Victorian neighborhood just north of Downtown, but Springfield also changed quickly. It burgeoned into blossom and immediately began to decay. Maybe Springfield was like Helene Cooke who was “fair as is the rose in May.” What follows May in Northeast Florida is a brutal season of the relentless withering of all that became beautiful in the spring. Much such beauty has little chance of even making it into autumn.

And as with Duval High School, Springfield’s booming and declining demographics had everything to do with race. In 1895, Paul Brown’s The Book of Jacksonville said Springfield was “exclusively for white persons,” with magnificent Victorian homes “of a superior character at once artistic and ornamental.” Springfield escaped the 1901 fire that destroyed almost everything downtown, but by the ’20s was faltering, waiting for restorations and resurrections 70 or 90 years later. So Duval High School expanded one minute and closed the next.

In 1931, four years after the school closed, The Comprehensive City Plan of Jacksonville, Florida suggested the city had given up on Springfield already. “Many former residents, during the past four or five years, have left Springfield to live in other areas where property is restricted [by race],” the plan said. “Tenement dwellers have entered Springfield and the property, generally speaking, is depreciating and when this state starts its rate of progress is rapid.”

Duval High School, 1978, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

The final Duval High School yearbook offers a fairly detailed description of a Vaudeville minstrel show sponsored by the Senior Fellows’ Club. The show incorporated the usual racist minstrel schtick of blackface and pantomime, though you wouldn’t know just by reading about it.

“In the evening of March 25, the 1927 edition of the annual S. F. C. Vodvil and Minstrel was presented at the Temple Theatre. Mr. Wetzel as director was assisted by Miss Hazel Fuller and Miss Maude Wood­ward. Following the overture came an address in which James Nolan, the club’s president, introduced the program and thanked the merchants of the city and others who contributed to the success of the Vodvil. At the conclusion of the speech the curtain rose.

“The setting was a garden with chairs and tables at which sat the members of the chorus, who sang, ‘Because I Love You’ and a selection from ‘The Student Prince.’ The solos by Thomas Russell, James Moore, Clarence Smith, Irwin Roth, and Albin Hearing, were received with appreciation. The interlocutor, Stuart Richeson, acted as host, introducing the fun-makers. Their songs, excellently accompanied by the S. F. C. Orchestra, created much laughter.

“Carl Cesery sang ‘Sadie Green,’ accompanying it with a skillful dance. Johnny Bryson wasn’t in the mood for singing, but made up for it with a clever line of jokes. ‘She’s Still My Baby,’ by T. H. Johnson, received much applause. Jack McKinnon, seated on a toy fire wagon and singing, ‘Fire,’ came out amid a roar of spontaneous laughter. Jack Hugh brought out a jazz number by singing ‘Clap Yo’ Hands.’ Those in the audience rhythmically inclined wanted to get up and dance. The orchestra wasn’t needed when ‘Hank’ Ladd sang, ‘I Never See Maggie Alone,’ because his ukelele proved sufficient to entertain. Hank was given encore after encore. The curtain came down on the minstrel act as the chorus sang ‘Jacksonville.’”

After the intermission, “‘Two Crooks and a Lady’ was presented next. Mrs. Simms-Vane, a paralyzed old lady, is robbed of her jewels by Miller, The Hawk, and his accomplice, Lucille, Mrs. Simms-Vane’s maid. The clever old lady outwits the two and recovers her jewels, sending the thieves to jail. The entire cast showed unusual ability in acting this difficult play […] The atmosphere then changed to comedy and dance by the Revue of 1927. ‘Dope With Lime’ started the revue, being presented by Carl Cesery and Johnny Bryson. These two ‘bell hops’ did a lock-step dance that would have done credit to any show.

“Henry Ladd showed the makings of a professional entertainer in a short curtain act, ‘The Perfect Fool.’ He held the attention of the whole audience, which received him with much applause.

“The S. F. C. Orchestra, attired in convict stripes, next gave a number of the latest song hits. They were accompanied by Jack Toomer, the only junior in the Vodvil, who did a novelty jig and buck dance. Chester’s dance, splendidly executed, was a great addition to the show as a whole. The members of S. F. C. Orchestra are: John Andrews, Kenneth Dyson, Elwood Hemming, Ed Norris, and Hill Wolfe. Henry Ladd came back for another round of applause and laughter when he and Garner Hammond appeared in a burlesque of the play, ‘Two Crooks and a Lady.’ Garner proved to he a ‘chic’ young flapper while Henry literally brought down the house as Miller.

“The Mascot of the club, Miss Annette White, was introduced to the audience as the minstrel chorus sang The Drinking Song from ‘The Student Prince.’ She was pre­sented with a beautiful bouquet of roses as the audience applauded. The ensemble of the chorus singing, ‘Cheer for the Red and White’ brought to a close Duval’s last Vodvil.”

from Duval High School’s final yearbook, 1927

The last Duval High School Vaudeville sounds like a great time. It resonated more powerfully still because everyone knew it was the last. The yearbook uses no racist epithets. It’s only when you see the official Senior Fellows’ Club Vodvil photograph, taken of the full troupe on stage in the school auditorium, and you notice the exaggerated racial Golliwogg features, the white teen faces painted black, the broad and bloated white and pink lips, the striped jackets, that you see the “darky” iconography normalized in the first high school in the city. It was only a decade earlier that the Lubin Film Company produced silent “Rastus” and “Zulu” movies within walking distance of the school.

from Duval High School’s final yearbook, 1927

Shortly after Martha Wells graduated, the economy collapsed and the Great Depression began. World War Two. The Civil Rights movement. The impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon. The growing military hegemony of the country. The idolization of the “Roaring ’20s” and Zelda Fitzgerald. Then, 68 years later, a high school reunion. Were there really 100 former Duval High School students still living in Jacksonville? Martha was 87 years old when she came back and said, “Everything has changed.”

Ralph Lyle (“I may record thy worth honor due, / In verse as musical as thou art true.”) died in 1980, the year the former high school opened as Stevens Duval. Bernice Walston died in 2006. She was 97 years old. She was Bernice Richardson back in 1927 (“Blessed are they who have the gift of making friends.”). When she died, she’d earned a doctorate and lived in Athens, Greece, and the Canary Islands. In 1987, she posed with her 1927 yearbook on the school’s original stairwell.

from Duval High School’s final yearbook, 1927

In 1927, when Ruth Washburn was 18 years old, and her children and her husbands and her travels to New Orleans and Mexico and her landscapes were all in the future, she was art editor for the last yearbook of the last graduating class of Duval High School. Ruth left Jacksonville several times and returned several times, the pattern for so many of this city’s artists throughout its history. She came from a family of women artists, including her sister Jeanette Washburn and her mother, Louese Bunnell Washburn, whom Alfred Frankel’s 2015 book The Artists of Old Florida calls “an important figure” in the early 20th century “art history of Jacksonville.”

“North of Jacksonville,” by Louese Bunnell Washburn, year unknown

Louese listed her studio address at the family’s home at 136 West 10th Street in Springfield. Ruth’s drawings, her silhouette profiles of fellow students, her cartoons and illustrations permeate that last yearbook. From her photograph, she looks out beneath a scalloped flapper hairstyle with unflappable intelligent eyes and what people once called a graceful neck and chin, sizing up our dimensions to draw us. She wasn’t in Jacksonville when Duval High School reopened as apartments for the elderly. She died in Transylvania, North Carolina in 1984, returned to Jacksonville to be buried beside her sister and mother. At the end of the last yearbook, an illustration shows a young woman with flapper curls and jester shoes, tipping a feathered hat and taking a final bow on stage, the initials “RW” in a corner underneath her.

from Duval High School’s final yearbook, 1927

Martha Wells died in 2011. She was 102 years old. She was born the year this brick and limestone Duval High School building opened, she graduated the year Duval High School closed, and she died the very last student to have graduated from the oldest high school in the city. Things to be remembered forever were remembered no more. Except perhaps in this story.