Anyone who's spent any time in the Florida Keys knows the local symbol is the conch (pronounced konk) shell. The island chain is the Conch Republic. People who were born there are Conchs. It’s the Key West High School sports mascot.
So why, in front of Key West City Hall, is there a proud giant statue of … a tiger?
It turns out the answer has to do with segregation — and integration — of local schools.
The building at 1300 White Street that is now the Key West City Hall was built in the 1930s as a high school. By the 1980s, it was an elementary school, Glynn Archer Elementary, which had a school mascot: a tiger.
But that tiger started at a different school, Frederick Douglass High School. That’s where the island’s black students went when the Monroe County schools were segregated.
“We were the Douglass Tigers. Go Tigers, go!” said Phyllis Allen, who grew up in Key West, graduated from Douglass High School and returned to the Monroe County school system as a teacher and administrator.
She was teaching fifth grade in 1965 when Monroe County schools integrated. The students at Douglass High School started going to Key West High School.
Some of the black elementary school students wound up going to Glynn Archer Elementary School on White Street.
"They became the Glynn Archer tigers," Allen said.
In the 1980s, George Carey taught auto body repair and welding at Key West High School. Carey was also an artist, who painted and built sculptures.
With his classes, he started building sculptures of mascots for the island schools. There’s a giant Conch shell in front of Key West High School and a Buccaneer in front of Horace O’Bryant Middle School. Glynn Archer Elementary got a tiger.
The materials were “anything that he found laying around Key West High School campus,” said Joy Nulisch, Carey’s stepdaughter. “There’s Dumpster and all kind of car parts and hoods and spark plugs.”
The tiger became a local landmark in front of the school, at the corner of White and United streets.
“I still have friends that will send me a text with a picture of a tourist getting their picture made” with the tiger, Nulisch said. “It’s become a part of Key West and a landmark for tourists and for locals.”
Allen, who eventually became a deputy superintendent with the school system, said she was always glad to see her old school mascot still standing.
“At one point we were all segregated and now we are integrated. But yet we did not get rid of all of Douglass,” she said. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it — now we brought some of Douglass into this integrated situation. And to me, that’s what life’s about, how we grow, how we change, how we can begin to see each other not just as some black kids over here and some white kids over there, but we begin to see these are our kids.”
Glynn Archer Elementary School closed in 2013 and the city took over the building and renovated it to serve as City Hall. There was a lot of discussion — and disagreement — about whether the tiger should remain with the building or move to the new elementary school built on the Horace O’Bryant Middle School campus.
Eventually, the City Commission decided to keep it with the building. Joy Nulisch was delighted with that decision.
“This is where he put it and this is where it belongs,” she said. Even though sometimes people think it’s a little weird that the island where the Conch is such a prominent symbol for local businesses, schools and organizations has a tiger in front of its city headquarters.
“Sure – but there’s a lot of weird things in Key West,” she said. “It is the unexpected. Things change with history and with time and the story changes, but this is where he stood the first day and this is where he should remain.”
Phyllis Allen was also strongly in favor of keeping the tiger where it stands.
“That shows growth for this community. That shows the kind of thinking that goes on in this community, that we can live together,” she said. “We can take the tiger from Douglass School and make it the tiger of Key West.”
Phyllis Allen died in 2017. The tiger’s sculptor, George Carey, died in 2010.