Riverside High School (formerly Robert E. Lee), Part 3: History According to Vaudeville

by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2022

cont’d from Riverside High School (Formerly Robert E. Lee), Part Two: Ted Pappas Becoming Ted Pappas

But even the specifics blur and grow ghostly in the frozenness of photographs. By 1955, when Joan was living on a Navy base in Texas and her first daughter was born, a graduating couple named Dutchy and Berkley posed in formalwear before azaleas, high school track star Jim Weitzel seemed to pole vault above the telephone wires above the third story roof of the school and Robert E. Lee’s and Andrew Jackson’s football teams tied at a single touchdown each.

yearbook, 1955

That year, Coach John Axton’s wife Mae, who taught at Paxon and Ribault High Schools, co-wrote the song “Heartbreak Hotel” with Tommy Durden at the Axtons’ house on Stimson Street around the corner in working-class Murray Hill. When Elvis Presley recorded the song the following year, it stayed at the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart for seven weeks.

yearbook, 1953

Axton taught Physical Education and coached the basketball team. The Axtons’ son Hoyt got in trouble for tossing Molotov Cocktails into abandoned buildings to set them on fire. Hoyt played football for Lee, signed a scholarship for Oklahoma A&M in ’56, then wrote hit rock songs for Three Dog Night, Ringo Star and Steppenwolf, including “The Pusher,” made famous by the 1969 movie Easy Rider.

Coach John Axton, yearbook, 1951

And in ’55 the Senior Fellows’ Vodvil chorus sang, “Back on the farm she thought the world came in a catalog. / A coupon brought her fryin’ pans or gopher traps or hogs. / Then one day at the carnival, the strongman up-and-smiled. / He showed his manly chest to her and she ran off plumb-wild.” Vodvil performers wore blackface, assumed names like Rastus and Hambone and held up signs, saying, “Go Nigger Go!”

yearbook, 1955

The year before, the U.S. Supreme Court, in one of its few liberal incarnations, decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Jacksonville responded to Brown v. Board by naming a new set of schools after Confederate leaders including Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

yearbook, 1951

Blackface spread like mold through the yearbooks of all-white schools. Blackface skits had been regular routines of Vaudeville, once performed regularly on neighborhood stages prior to TV and radio entertainment, which now survived primarily, nostalgically, as high school retrospectives.

yearbook, 1953

But Robert E. Lee came from an earlier generation than the post-Brown v. Board schools, designed by noted architects Victor Earl Mark and Leeroy Sheftall in 1926, built from the same plans as those of Andrew Jackson High School on Main Street north of Springfield the same year. Describing the design, The Jacksonville Journal wrote, “The exterior of the buildings is of modified Italian Renaissance style, with buff brick walls, trimmed with cast stone and having a Mission Style roof.” Southerners still considered both namesakes – the Confederate general and the seventh U.S. president – heroes. They wouldn’t start to question those names for almost a century.

Mary Bivins, later Matthews, early 1930s

In 1933, Mary Bivins was homecoming queen at Lee. In 2020, her son Donald Matthews, a retired judge, told me, “She made my dad, when they were courting, park half a mile away because he drove a pickup truck.” He remembered Lee High School as the “rich kids’ school,” attended by the wealthy children of Avondale and Ortega. When public schools desegregated, those same white families moved their children to expensive private schools.

Certainly, 35 years later, the longhaired redneck musicians rooming in the rundown old mansion that soon became famous as “the Green House” on nearby Riverside Avenue had no problem with General Lee. They could afford to stay in the old house because, through the toxic cocktail of “White Flight” – insurance redlining, racially exclusive suburbanization, white fears of racial integration, etc. – the neighborhood was deteriorating economically. These longhaired kids were rebelling, but not against the legacy of the Confederacy. Throughout the 1970s, they wore the Confederate flag on hats and shirts and belt buckles and hung it proudly behind them onstage.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1970, photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

They were rebelling against the square-headed, ruddy-faced Physical Education teacher Leonard Skinner who sent a student named Gary Rossington to the principal’s office because his hair was longer than school rules allowed. Though most of them dropped out of high school, four of the five founding members of the Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, including Rossington, had taken Skinner’s gym class.

Leonard Skinner, from Michael Ray Fitzgerald’s 2020 book Jacksonville and the Roots of Southern Rock

At five in the morning on the Monday before Thanksgiving, 1986, firefighters contained an inferno that threatened to destroy the school. The blaze, started by workers installing a new air-conditioning system in Room 207, destroyed the second and third floors, while the southside of the building, containing most of Lee’s classrooms, sustained heavy smoke and water damage. Though the fire caused $4 million worth of damage, the school remained structurally sound, kept its exterior, and doubled teachers and their classes into single rooms during renovations. Newspaper accounts ended with the school’s always central focus unwavering: “The fire did not disrupt practice for the Lee High School football team.”

from The Tallahassee Democrat, November 25, 1986

Lee soldiered on, increasingly forgetting the soldier named Lee. Duval County Public Schools had never included historical accuracy about the Civil War and the Confederacy in its curriculum, miseducating generations, so it’s not entirely surprising that by the 1990s many students at Robert E. Lee High School had no idea who Lee was.

yearbook, 1951

The majority of public school students in Duval County are “students of color.” White leaders have frequently, throughout Jacksonville’s 200 year history, countered possibilities of black pluralities and political power, early on through annexing surrounding municipalities and in 1968 by consolidating city and county governments. Now, with a third of Duval’s schools being majority-minority, education has increasingly become the arena of racial “culture wars” from revanchist politicians.

image courtesy Lon King

With wealthier white students zoned to attend Lee almost inevitably attending private schools instead, Lee years ago became a majority black school, as did Norwood Elementary, where the Scottish-born Margaret Carrick Fairlie, author of the textbook called History of Florida, was principal for years.

image courtesy Lon King

According to Fairlie’s History, published in 1935 but used in classrooms for decades, after Emancipation, “Many of the negroes loved their old masters and stayed on the old plantations, but others wandered away. Some thought that because they were free they would never need to work any more, so they dressed up in their best clothes and went to picnics and had a good time.” Fairlie’s Florida History says black and white people in the South always got along until “the Carpetbaggers” came down to stir up strife. Henceforth, “[S]ecret clubs were formed among white men, such as the Ku Klux Klan, to […] stop the negroes from making trouble.”

image courtesy Lon King

By the time this school named for a Confederate general was mostly black, Florida’s history curriculum could no longer indoctrinate students in Confederate hero worship, even as the effects of Confederate apologism and historical revisionism affected them daily in ways to which they were too inured to discern.

cont’d as Riverside High School (formerly Robert E. Lee), Part Four: Becoming Riverside High School