What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (2024)

Ever wonder how Chaires Elementary, Raa Middle or even Leon High School got their names?

For two months, the Tallahassee Democrat scoured its over 100 years' worth of archives to determine the origin stories and namesakes of the places that often become a second home for students. We also consulted "The Lions' Pride: A Pictorial and Anecdotal History of Leon High School," by Linda Teague, a book at the LeRoy Collins Leon County Library in downtown Tallahassee.

Over time, generations of students have graduated from these Leon County schools that are named after some of the city and state's most notable educators and influencers.

In honor of Tallahassee's bicentennial commemoration, we provide the stories behind the names of many of our local public schools:

Leon High School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (1)

Leon High School is named after the county, and the county after Ponce de Leon, a Spanish conquistador who was the first European to discover Florida in 1513. This deep dive into Leon County school names starts with Leon High for a myriad of reasons. It is the oldest accredited school in the state, founded in 1831, but most importantly, many of the names in this listicle are connected to this historic campus in some way.

Amos P. Godby High School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (2)

Amos P. Godby was born in Kentucky but considered himself a longtime Tallahassee resident. In 1934, he was named athletic director at Leon High and also coached football and baseball at the school for 10 years. Under his leadership, the school won five Northeast Florida football championships, two basketball championships and a baseball championship.

He served as superintendent of Leon County Schools from 1945-1965, during a school building boom and a period of explosive growth when the district swelled from 7,254 students to 18,700 and 256 teachers to more than 800.

Godby also oversaw the transition of Black students from 53 "ramshackle, one-room frame schoolhouses" to segregated schools for "better educational opportunities." He remembered the challenging period before consolidation as his "water bucket and dipper stage."

"When I issued equipment each year at the start of school, I'd give out a bucket and dipper along with a washpan," he told the Democrat in an article about his retirement.

Recognized as the father figure of Tallahassee education, Amos P. Godby, died at age 88 in 1992.

"He took everyone to heart, and treated everybody like they were his own kids," said Block Smith, a local businessman and star Leon lineman from 1937-40. "We had a party for him two years ago, and he remembered everyone of his players, from every sport, by name."

Augusta Raa Middle School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (3)

Augusta Raa moved to Tallahassee in 1900 after teaching in Minnesota classrooms for 10 years. She started teaching at Fort Braden School in 1905 and made the jump to Leon High in 1910. She retired from her role as dean of girls at Leon High in 1940, after 42 years of teaching. She was known widely for her hospitality and would hold annual chicken pilau supper send-offs for the senior class ahead of graduation ceremonies.

Aquilina Howell Building

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (4)

Aquilina Casanas Howell was an educator and administrator who "shaped the social consciousness of Tallahassee" in her over 43 year career.

She graduated from Lincoln Academy in 1934 and graduated from Florida A&M with a bachelor's degree in social studies in 1938. In 1982, she became the first Black woman to serve as assistant superintendent for the school district. She retired in 1985 and the district's administration building on West Pensacola Street was dedicated in her honor in 1995. She was inducted into the Florida Educators Hall of Fame in 2000 after her death.

Her calm demeanor and adept consensus building skills were legendary. "She had the extraordinary gift of making ordinary people feel extraordinary," said the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, in her her 2000 obituary written by Tallahassee Democrat columnist and historian Gerald Ensley.

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (5)

In the 1970s, she was a driving force behind integrated schools as she helped sell the change in the Black community and presided over numerous heated meetings with white and Black parents, teachers and administrators.

"Rare was the person who didn't fall in love with Howell, who charmed all with her energy, curiosity and interest in others," wrote Ensley.

Bond Elementary School

Bond Elementary is named after Benjamin Johnson Bond, who was among the oldest of the city's practicing physicians. He was widely known and respected throughout northwest Florida and actively practiced medicine up until a few hours before his death at age 58.

He also owned woodland and farmland on the southern border of town where he grew blueberries and blackberries commercially. That land would become the Bond neighborhood just west of Florida A&M University when he began selling land to African American workers on his farm at a low price. In the late 1920s, he donated land for a school to be built.

The original school was built in 1935, and to address population growth in the area, it was torn down and rebuilt to house more students in 2006.

Chaires Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (6)

One of the county's earliest high schools and the existing elementary school located in the heart of the Chaires community in eastern Leon County is named after Green Hill Chaires.

Chaires and his brothers – including Benjamin, who was dubbed Florida's first millionaire – were some of the earliest settlers to the area in the early 1820s. They built plantations with the work of enslaved individuals as they settled into the area spanning 20,000 acres of land of what would soon become the capital city of Florida.

Chaires' first wife and two children, along with several slaves, were massacred during theSecond Seminole Warof 1835–1842.

Green Chaires, who is credited with building the state's first plank road, died days after his second wife's death.

According to an obituary from 1860, he was "respected by all who knew him as an upright man, a good citizen and a kind and benevolent neighbor and friend."

Cobb Middle School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (7)

Elizabeth Cobb was a lifelong Tallahassee resident. To her friends, she was known as Bessie.

She was appointed in 1931 as the first principal of the former Caroline Brevard School on South Calhoun Street and held the position for 10 years. She started teaching in 1915 and worked for the school district for 21 years, including serving as the supervisor of elementary education in Leon County in 1935.

She numbered among her former students, doctors, attorneys, ministers and legislators. She was quick to admit that she did not hold an academic degree, and had never been a "degree chaser."

She spoke to a Democrat reporter in 1952 and looked back on her career and love of teaching with "an air of old fashioned, practical simplicity." She recounted how she became a teacher when she was widowed before the age of 30 and needed a source of income. Her reason for retiring was equally simple: "I wanted to stop while I knew the children still loved me."

Conley Elementary School

The school in the Southwood community is dedicated to John Michael Conley, a former educator and principal at Leon High School from 1973 to 1989.

Current Superintendent Rocky Hanna was a student at Leon High while Conley was in charge. In dedicating the school to him in 2008, Hanna said Conley was a role model who "gave 100% of himself every day and he expected the same of everyone else."

"He was unwavering in his belief that Leon High would not take a 'step back' on his watch,"Hanna said, noting Conley was known to even pick up garbage on campus, which signaled his humility and commitment to the entire school.

Conley graduated from Florida State University and was later inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame. He was also a former history teacher and head track coach at Leon High.

He currently lives in Tallahassee and serves on the Leon High School Foundation board as an honorary trustee.

Frank S. Hartsfield Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (8)

Frank Hartsfield was born in 1888 and raised in Tallahassee.

After graduating from high school, Hartsfield studied at several universities, including the University of Florida, the University of Chicago and the University of Chattanooga. He served a term as president of the Florida Education Association and as superintendent of Leon County Schools from 1917-1936.

In those two decades, he piloted the educational system through a doubling of the city's population and his administration built Caroline Brevard and Sealey Memorial schools.

He died of appendicitis at 47 and was remembered as "one of our most beloved and most trusted leaders in public school work. In thought and in action, he was one of the foremost county superintendents in the state."

Ghazvini Learning Center

The Ghazvini family is a well-known philanthropic family in Tallahassee, who is also behind some of the area's notable developments.

The school was dedicated to Mehrdad "Pepper" Ghazvini, a Realtor and philanthropist. Ghazvini fed those in need Thanksgiving dinner each year and once donated $15,000 to Leon County to help maintain a program for poor kids to play sports in the city league.

The family also gave $2 million to Tallahassee Community College to support a number of programs. The Ghazvini Learning Center was dedicated in 2007 after his death.

Gilchrist Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (9)

Timberlane School was opened in 1966 and James "Mack" Gilchrist was appointed its first principal.

Under his leadership, Timberlane was distinguished as a Blue Ribbon School and upon his retirement in 1979, the school was renamed in Gilchrist's honor. This was an unusual occurrence, according to his 2010 obituary, as previously schools had not been named for living people.

His staff considered him a "war hero" as he served in the Navy during World War II and spent four months on the island of Guadalcanal in a fox hole.

An Alabama native, Gilchrist graduated from Florida State University with his bachelor's and master's degrees. He taught at three other schools prior to Timberlane and landed a position as principal at Sealey Elementary.

"Parents were always turning to Mack for advice. He was truly one of the most universally respected people I ever had the opportunity to work with," then state Sen. Bill Montford said. "You could sleep well at night because Mack was your children's principal."

Gretchen Everhart School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (10)

Gretchen Everhart was an educator for over 41 years in the county, who devoted most of her life to teaching children with developmental disabilities.

An Escambia County native, she pioneered teaching exceptional students and was the first coordinator of special education in Leon County.

"In 1951, Miss Everhart moved to Tallahassee to teach a class of handicapped children," her 1973 obituary in the Democrat stated. "The one special class grew tobecome Prince Murat School, which housed several classes for special education."

After also teaching a class for "orthopedic" children in 1951 at Florida State University, she would become principal of the former Prince Murat School, which closed in 1962 and eventually became Leonard Wesson Elementary, which closed in 2007.

She was the guest of honor when the district dedicated the $250,000 Gretchen Everheart Trainable Center for mentally and physically disabled children. It opened in 1972 with seven classrooms and 68 pupils between the ages of 15 and 18.

Griffin Middle School

The original St. Mary’s Primitive Baptist Church was founded in 1873 by a number of local Black clergymen, including Rev. Henry Griffin, who led the charge for the church to open its own private boarding school. The school was originally called the Griffin Normal and Industrial Institute.

The current structure of Griffin Middle sits on Alabama Street, in the Griffin Heights neighborhood. "Local oral history suggests that the neighborhood derives the name Griffin from the school and Heights due to the school’s original location on one of Tallahassee’s highest hills," according to the city's Griffin Heights Neighborhood plan.

James S. Rickards High School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (11)

James S. Rickards was a former school principal and superintendent in Broward County before moving to Tallahassee and spending 20 years as the secretary of the Florida Education Association from 1929 to 1948.

During his tenure there, he authored the Florida instructional unit law in 1931 which paved a way for the state to fund more than just teachers' salaries for public education support. He is also responsible for constructing a teacher retirement system and was an advocate for teacher credit unions.

His son was killed in Belgium in 1945 while serving during World War II. Rickards would retire a couple years later.

Kate Sullivan Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (12)

Kate Sullivan was an inspirational educator for almost a half century in Tallahassee and retired in 1948, the same year the school was dedicated to her.

She was appointed to teach elementary students at what was then called Leon Graded and High School in 1903 by the Board of Public Instruction of Leon County, which would soon become the Leon County Public School District.

"Affectionately known as 'Miss Kate,' the kindly teacher taught in elementary grades and particularly English classes for most of her 47-year teaching career. One of the greatest rewards of her life was seeing former pupils become leading citizens in this and other cities," her obituary in 1953 stated. "As a hobby, Miss Kate counseled students about their life's work and urged them to decide early on their careers. She kept college catalogs handy in her office for the reference of pupils."

Lawton Chiles High School

The late Gov. Lawton Chiles was a well-known health care and children's' advocate.

Serving in the Florida House from 1958 to 1966 and in the U.S. Senate from 1971 to 1989, the Lakeland native famously referred to himself as the "ole' he-coon," a prime representation of his rural roots.

Chiles went on to become Florida's 41st governor. He died in office in 1998. A few days after his death, the Lakeland Ledger reported that more than 300 Florida children, ranging from toddlers to high school students, remained quiet for almost a minute in Chiles' honor during an outdoor ceremony across the street from the governor's mansion.An estimated 2 million more in Florida schools observed the moment at the same time and watched a 10-minute video about Chiles' legacy.

''Gov. Chiles gave our generation a voice, and he made sure our voice was heard (by) anyone with the power to help kids get what they need to thrive. He was our hero and our champion," said Samantha Sachs, the then 15-year-old daughter of Chiles' former communications director Ron Sachs.

Lincoln High School

Lincoln High is dedicated to the 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

According to many historical accounts, the school served Black students up until the current structure was opened in 1974 at Trojan Trail as an integrated school.

The original Lincoln Academy opened in 1869 by the Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency tasked with post-Civil War recovery efforts and assisting former slaves. The school was opened to educate freed slaves in North Florida and had an enrollment of 200 students.

Originally located at Lafayette and Copeland streets, the school moved three times. In 1872, the building burned down and was rebuilt four years later a few blocks away. Thirty years following that the school moved again to West Brevard Street, which is now the Lincoln Neighborhood Center.

Lincoln Academy closed in 1969, after 100 years of educating Black students, just as desegregation of schools began.

Lively Technical College

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (15)

Lewis M. Lively, a local businessman and former city councilman, established Lively Technical School in 1937 “with the hope that the vocational school would provide individuals with the education and training needed to obtain gainful employment and earn a living,” according to the school’s website.

The school opened with one full-time and one half-time instructor and 52 students. Today, It’s now known as Lively Technical College and serves thousands of students annually, with a faculty and staff of almost 100.

Lively was a veteran who served during three wars – as a captain of the Governor's Guard during the Spanish-American War, a captain in the finance department during World War I and chief of the aircraft warning service in Leon County during World War 2.

In 1901, he was manager of the Florida Ice Company. He bought the company in 1904 and sold it many years later. He was one of Tallahassee's largest property owners having acquired his first piece of property from his father when he was just a year old.

Nims Middle School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (16)

A native of Leon County, Robert Frank Nims attended Florida A&M University for his high school and college education. Nims first started teaching at Industrial High School in West Palm Beach and was principal at the all-Black Lincoln High School for 17 years. He also served in the Army for three years during World War II.

His death at the young age of 47 in 1958 cast the community into mourning. He was remembered as "a man of convictions and integrity; a man dedicated to the very highest of ideals."

While principal, he hired the school's first full-time art teacher, converted Lincoln into a four year high school, hired a full-time supervisor for guidance and curriculum, and added radio and electricity and practical nursing and dry cleaning to the vocational department's teachings.

"The impact of his sudden passing has left an awesome scar in the hearts of the Lincoln High School faculty and student body," the Democrat wrote in his obituary. He also always made time for students. "He was a very frank man, strict, and did everything possible for the student body," one graduate said.

Riley Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (17)

The school was originally named Northwest Elementary in 1951, and was renamed in 1954, after the death of John Gilmore Riley, a Black educator and community leader in Leon County.

Riley landed his first teaching job in 1877. He taught throughout Wakulla, Gadsden and Leon counties. From 1893 to 1926, he served as principal at Lincoln Academy.

Riley was born a slave in 1857 but was taught to read by his aunt leading to a 49-year career of educational excellence and leadership.

"Riley rose to a place of prominence during a time when such a thing was all but unthinkable and, along the way, he acquired a significant amount of property," the daughter of Gerald Ensley, Amanda Karioth, wrote in 2016. "Among the few African Americans in Tallahassee to own land at the turn of the century, he was known for improving the homes on his property and renting them to other African Americans. The community that arose from this practice was known as Smokey Hollow."

Riley’s own home was built on the edge of Smokey Hollow and it has been preserved as a museum and a historic landmark after the community was displaced by the construction of Apalachee Parkway.

Roberts Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (18)

The Roberts family owned and operated a large cattle farm near present day Roberts Road in the 1830s and also taught young Black children reading, writing, and mathematics in the late 1800s.

Thomas Jefferson Roberts donated an acre of land to the school district to build a school for Black children which was completed in 1897 by deacons at St. Phillips African Methodist Episcopal Church. The current structure stands about a mile away from the original school site, which was opened in 2001.

Ruediger Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (19)

Lilian Cross Ruediger was the elementary supervisor of Leon County Schools from 1945 to 1951. She was a dedicated educator for decades and started teaching in 1917 in Columbia County and moved to Leon County in 1922. In 1930, she graduated from FSU with her bachelor’s degree in education, and became a state employee at the FSU book store until 1937.

She devoted her life to her students and was also administrator of the county's milk fund, which raised money to provide milk to needy white and Black children.

After her death at age 54 in 1952, the teachers put out a resolution honoring her life and service.

"The children who knew her gentle teaching or her ready smile or touch of encouragement will grow, nurtured by memories of her love and understanding. The teachers who worked with her or followed her unassuming guidance will remember constantly her tiring efforts and her unshaken faith in education. Her soul goes marching on in our ranks, the soul of a great teacher."

Sealey Elementary School

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (20)

Romero Mitchell Sealey, whom the school is named after, was a principal at Leon High from 1917 to 1924. He also served as state schools inspector for a few years and was secretary of the Florida Education Association, which he helped establish.

During his career, he standardized high school curriculums and testing requirements.

While en route to the National Education Association convention in Boston in 1928, the 39-year-old Sealey suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Washington, D.C.

“Few men have had such an overwhelming and beneficial impact on a city [Tallahassee] in such a short amount of time,” Florida State College of Women President Edward Conradi wrote upon Sealey’s death in 1928. “His accomplishments as both a leader and a friend are truly unparalleled.”

His namesake school was originally named Sealey Memorial at East Seventh Avenue, where the Tallahassee Police Department is currently headquartered.

W.T. Moore Elementary School

Walter Taylor Moore Jr. was a local county judge from 1923 to 1933. Born in Tallahassee, the attorney graduated from Leon High as valedictorian of his class in 1916. He also served two terms in the state House of Representatives. The attorney was elected to the city commission, was the first chairman of the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital Board and was chairman of the school board for 20 years.

He was the guest of honor at the school's dedication in 1968.

William J. Montford III Middle School

William J. Montford III first entered the world of education when he started teaching at the former Tallahassee school, Belle Vue Middle, in 1969.

He served as principal at Godby High from 1977 to 1980, and at Lincoln from 1989 to 1996, when he was elected superintendent. He served in the Florida Senate 2010 to 2020. He currently is CEO and founder of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

In a 2020 profile of Montford on the occasion of his retirement from the legislature, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that "his background as a small-town country boy and as a teacher and superintendent of schools compelled himto craft defensive schemes that often blocked GOP-promoted reforms on testing, charter school promotion and taxpayer-funded vouchers."

He was also a master of compromise.

"Some people are all about making a flashy statement," one lobbyist said. "He's about getting things done."

Alaijah Brown covers children & families for the Tallahassee Democrat. She can be reached atABrown1@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter/X:@AlaijahBrown3

What's in a name? The historic figures and educators behind Leon County school names (2024)
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