by Tim Gilmore, 2/28/2020
1. Basketball Diplomacy
My father and I were the only white people on the basketball court. He was 40 years older, at least, than everybody else. The black boy with one arm made every shot. He hooked his arm against the sky, banked the ball off the backboard, sent it through the rim. In 1984, every black kid in the neighborhood came to the courts in back of Jefferson Davis Junior High School.
My father played fair, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t competitive. Even against 15 year olds. He was 60.
I can hear the grating swish of the ball sinking through the wire net, hear it in such a way as to feel it. “Nothin’ but net.” The nets were chain. The feel of that sound could only be made by the buoyancy of full inflation and the smooth threshing of rubber through chain mesh.
I find images of those same chain mesh nets from yearbooks printed 10 years before I was born. Sometime in the years since kids could walk from the neighborhood to the open courts, an anonymous brick building supplanted that open space in back of the school.
Sometimes my father and I joined separate teams. Once his team beat mine, a lean kid strong as iron, on my dad’s side, slamming the ball through the chains, hanging onto the ring, shaking that backboard. The littlest kid on the court said he had to tell his grandmother a 100 year old white man beat him playing ball.
My father told that story for the next 30 years. It made him laugh so hard. He praised those kids’ layups, their teamwork, their strength and prowess. He came close to his 100th, missed it by a nickel. I’m writing this story on his 96th. He died six months ago tomorrow.
2. Midcentury Modern Confederate
Of what beloved Jacksonville architect Taylor Hardwick thought of designing new schools with the names of Confederate leaders, there’s no record.
Hardwick designed J.E.B. Stuart High School in 1959, Jefferson Davis in 1961 and copied the design for Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in 1966 from his Wolfson High in ’65. Sam Wolfson was a Jacksonville businessman, but Stuart, Davis and Forrest were Confederate leaders. General Stuart died in the Battle of Yellow Tavern, near Richmond, Virginia, in 1864. Jefferson Davis served as president of the Confederate States of America. General Forrest commanded his forces to murder Union troops, already surrendered, mostly black, at the Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864. Three years later, a new organization comprised of Confederate veterans called the Ku Klux Klan elected Forrest their first “Grand Wizard.” In 1992, I graduated from Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.
Hardwick’s “Jeff Davis” design features long low wings with hallways on the outside of the school. Walking from math to science class, students walked exterior corridors looking out onto the neighborhood. It fit the midcentury architectural ethos of blending inside with out, but must also have tempted kids to skip school. In place of some students’ images, in early Jeff Davis yearbooks, a cartoon of a kid playing pinball bears the caption, “Absent when pictures were made.”
Rising from the ground in the central courtyard, stairs formed triangles on outdoor corridors. Triangles beat a constant rhythm on outside railings, in corrugated rooflines and on top of roofs. Kids hung on the big decorative shapes they called “clothes pins.” On metal rods, in front of second floor red brick walls, floated yellow and white and blue orbs, meant to suggest abacus beads.
In the first edition of the school’s yearbook, The Southernaire, a foreword outlined in one of those orbs said, “We of Jefferson Davis Junior High are proud of our fine new, modern school. It is a never-ending pleasure to look about us at the smart, contemporary design and the vibrant, lively colors which signify a lively student body and vibrant curriculum.”
As with most American public projects, the funding to build the school was never backed up with sufficient maintenance dollars. Within a few years, the orbs disappeared, and the triangles. Perhaps now they decorate some “midcentury modern” underwater kingdom where “separate” does not automatically mean “unequal.”
3. Blackface Southernaire
The U.S. Supreme Court made that determination with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but Duval County defied orders to desegregate public schools for two decades. All the kids in the Southernaires of the 1960s are white, including posed bullies, “Butch, Bob and Jeff,” photographed lifting “L’il Mike” via “wedgie,” holding him by the seat of his pants, tilting the runt of the litter into the water fountain, “to see if he’ll grow.”
The first wave of naming public schools for Confederate leaders had occurred in the 1920s, when the Lost Cause Movement tried to reframe the reasons for the Confederacy as noble defense of Southern independence against Northern tyranny, instead of Southern economic investment in slavery.
This Southern “Lost Cause” revisionist history replaced the sentiments Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens expressed in his Cornerstone Speech of 1861 with the kind of sentimental deception engraved in Confederate monuments newly placed around the South. Stephens had said, “Our new government is founded upon […] the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,” and “that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Schmaltzy monuments like Jacksonville’s “In Memory of Our Women of the Southland” in Confederate Park, however, bore dedications like, “Let this mute but eloquent structure speak to generations to come of a generation of the past,” honoring mothers “who sacrificed their all upon their country’s altar.” Of course, “their country” was the Confederate States of America, in defense of slavery, not the USA.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, public school systems around the South again began naming schools for Confederates. The Lost Cause Movement had coincided with the second incarnation and highest membership levels of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow legislation across the South. In the 1920s, Jacksonville had named schools for Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Kirby Smith. The second wave of Confederate naming came in response to the Civil Rights Movement.
It never occurred to me, when I was 10 years old, playing basketball with my father and two dozen black kids at Jeff Davis Jr. High, or “J.D.” as we called it, to ask the questions that would have granted me such answers. In one of my earliest memories, when I was four or five years old, my parents took me to Morrison’s Cafeteria. I was new to the world and its words were new to me.
“Look!” I said, when the couple sat down at a nearby table. I used the word I’d heard at home and demolished that couple’s evening. I’m sure the whole restaurant heard me. Small as I was, I could tell how deeply I’d embarrassed my parents, who told me “they” didn’t like to be called “that word.”
The only black faces in 1960s Jeff Davis yearbooks are those of the custodial staff—Hattie Mae and Sallimae and Eleanor and Florence, the 10 black “lunch ladies” who had their picture taken separately from the five white “lunch ladies,” and:
The school principal. In the front of the yearbook, Wilmer C. Johnson, first principal of Jefferson Davis Junior High, stands bowtied and smiling beside a Confederate flag. In this later picture, the camera leers up from underneath as Principal Johnson wears white gloves, a giant red bowtie with white polka dots, and blackface, the racist caricature of the dandified “darky” in the dying years of Jim Crow, unreconstructed old Zip Coon himself.
The same year my father and I played basketball with those black kids at Jefferson Davis, Jesse Jackson ran for president.
I didn’t yet know that Jesse Jackson was there in the room at the Lorraine Motel when James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King in Memphis in 1968. My dad said Jackson was “a preacher who never had a church and a politician who never held office.” He’d heard a white Baptist preacher say it.
For three years, I attended Trinity Christian Academy, the church’s namesake school, from just after my mother’s death when I was 12. My parents had met and married at Gray’s church. That fact will haunt me, my entire life.
My older sister Katie had attended Jeff Davis, where a pole that held up one side of a Volleyball net, its base encased in cement in the center of a car tire, swung from another kid’s hands into her face and broke her nose. The school dismissed her, bloodied, face shattered, and she walked home down Melvin Road past Biddy Lane and Firestone Road, where she turned left down Redstone Road to Proxima, then past Andromeda and Sprite Roads to the little concrete block house at 7532, not quite a decade before I was born.
I first attended public school in the middle of 10th grade. My mother had died, but since my father hadn’t yet painted it, our house remained pink. Though I never attended Jefferson Davis, I did attend Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Taylor Hardwick design the exact copy of his 1965 Wolfson High across the river.
By that time, most students at Forrest were black. They knew about General Forrest and the KKK. Violent desperations seethed in that neighborhood. Once, after a football game, a black kid whose face I never saw ran at me and hit me above the left eye with a metal combination lock. It wasn’t uncommon, nor was it my first time being “jumped.” (I was already over six feet tall, “skinny as a bean pole,” my father said, and I wore my hair long.) I ran across 103rd Street, and by the time I got to my black friend Wendell’s house on Redstone, the blood stung both my eyes, had run into my mouth and draped my neck. I still have the scar.
5. My Father’s Childhood Crush
As of 2018, according to Education Week magazine, almost all schools named for Confederates operated in just 15 states. Two thirds of those schools served only five states: Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. Non-white students made up 62 percent of the population attending schools named for Confederates. The vast majority of schools named for Confederate leaders dated from a century after the Civil War, from the onset of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 2014, when my father heard the Duval County School Board had finally changed the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, from which I’d graduated, he called their decision “disgusting.” I’d grown up hearing about his Uncle Phil Gilmore, the cop in Americus and Oglethorpe, Georgia, who’d swung his nightstick at the legs of black men he caught walking by whites on the sidewalk, who once shot a black man through his own hand, in the midst of a fight, and killed him. My Great Uncle Phil was my father’s childhood hero.
A century before Jefferson Davis Junior High School offered its first classes in Jacksonville, Florida, the very real question about whether the United States, if it won the Civil War, might execute the president of the Confederate States for treason, spread like poisonous pokeweed throughout the landscapes of sand and pines and snakes.
“Glory, glory, hallelujah,” United States troops sang, marching against the Confederacy. The song began as a camp meeting hymn in the 1850s: “Say, brothers, will you meet us? On Canaan’s happy shore?” The abolitionist Julia Ward Howe adapted the tune and its “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” into The Battle Hymn of the Republic, perhaps the most famous American song of the 19th century, its lyrics published on the front page of The Atlantic Monthly in 1862. In between those versions, Union soldiers sang the tune with lyrics commemorating John Brown, the abolitionist who advocated burning plantations and was hung at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.
And here’s something I’ve never understood. In elementary school, just outside Oglethorpe, Georgia, with a 1930 population of 953, a music teacher instructed my father’s class in singing, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave. / John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave. / John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave. / His soul is marching on!”
All throughout my childhood, my father shared this story. He laughed when he told it. He never knew who John Brown was, nor why a teacher would instruct children to sing of a rotting corpse.
The fact of my marrying a Latina would have shocked my dad when he was younger. Even 40 years ago, when I was a little boy and frequent witness to his racist thinking, he treated real people kindly. He loved playing basketball with those black kids. And he loved my Panamanian wife. He loved showing us around his garden. He’d open the little wooden houses where bluebirds nested every year and hold the nestlings gently in the palms of his hands. He didn’t see the dissonance between the ideas he fell back on and his kindness, but I sure did.
In 2014, five years before my father died, I interviewed him at length, every Saturday morning for seven or eight weeks. Deep in that process, he told me “a lot” of his teachers “were old maids, but they were good teachers. They were dedicated.”
Traces of my father’s feelings persist now only in my mind, my persistent fever dreams late at night, and in his words. I’d felt sad but pleased to catch them, images of his school, no budget, no record, central Georgia in those first years of the Great Depression.
“I had a music teacher that was a nice-lookin’ lady, and I kinda had a secret crush on her,” he told me. “She never did know it. I think her name was Miss Purvis. And I took Music one or two years, believe it or not. And we learned all this Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do. That’s about all the good it did me, I guess.”
I’ve looked for “Miss Purvis” in the Macon County directories of a century ago. She might have been Edna Purvis of Marshallville, who was 12 years old when my father was born, but I still don’t know how she’d come to teach Union marching songs honoring John Brown to white farm kids in Central Georgia. Perhaps, in her early 20s, she’d read, as I did in my early 20s, the book-length epic poem by Stephen Vincent Benét, published when my father was four years old, 1928, called John Brown’s Body.
And I can’t help but wonder if she taught them the verse about executing the president of the Confederacy. The University of Pennsylvania Glee Club has sung their version of “Hang Jeff Davis” as “The Field Cry of Penn” since before my father was born. Whenever their football team kicks an extra point, the band plays, “Hang Jeff Davis.”
Says this particular verse of the marching song, “We will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree. / We will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree. / We will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree, / As we march along!” And then, the refrain, once again:
Glory, glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, glory! Hallelujah!
His soul goes marching on!