“Strike, Jazz Birds, Strike.” On the surface, something is terribly amiss with the opening chant.
An examination of Florida A & M University’s mascot history provides insight into such a perplexing call. There are several differing accounts on how the current ‘Rattler’ name came into being. The University’s annals reveal that at least two school nicknames preceded the Rattler.
The Jazz Bird name was derived from Franz A. “Jazz” Byrd. In 1925, Byrd assumed a dual role as athletic director and head football coach. Byrd earned his moniker during his college playing days. Leedell W. Neyland’s “Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University: A Centennial History 1887 – 1987,” said that Byrd’s name and his vigor embodied the school spirit so much that Jazz Birds served as a fitting nickname.
Florida A & M College – as the school was then known – became the ‘Tigers’ under the leadership of John Robert Edward Lee. President Lee serves as the common thread between two of the tales. During the mid-1920s, FAMCEE was set to play in-state rival Edward Waters College. According to the University’s athletic website, both teams carried the name Tigers. During this time period, the striped cat was quite popular as a school mascot. In this scenario, Lee reasoned that the Edward Waters Tigers could not take the field against the FAMCEE Tigers. In order to quell confusion, Lee changed the name from Tigers to Rattlers.
Another account, said that Lee sought a nickname that would “strike” fear and elicit immediate respect from opponents. The venomous serpent satisfied Lee’s requirements.
The third supposition actually dates from the University’s early days – circa 1891. When the current site of the campus was cleared, there was said to “be nothing there but palmetto trees and rattlesnakes.” Those that subscribe to this report believe that the Rattler name eventually evolved from the above sentiment.
Janean R. Dixon, once managing editor for The Famuan, highlighted one view shared by the elderly. The late James Eaton, founder and director of the Black Archives Research Center and Museum, researched the theory for 15 years to no avail. William Pope DuVal, Florida’s territorial governor, owned a slave plantation. DuVal’s plantation rested on the highest elevation in Tallahassee. The legend revealed that as the fields and brush were cleared, the rattlesnakes sought more elevated soil. Eaton, a long time professor at Florida A & M, was never able to validate the belief.
As the University’s athletic website points out, no resolute theory exists on the adoption of the Rattler name. The combination of each scenario may yield a more complete truth. The Rattler moniker has endured throughout much of FAMU’s history. In fact, the nickname has been in place for nearly a century. Florida A & M was not officially declared a university until 1953. Thus, this institution has operated as the FAMU Rattlers for a little over 50 years.
The contributions of Byrd, Lee, and the Tallahassee folk community have helped shape the pride of the University. From Jazz Birds to Tigers to Rattlers, FAMU faithful have continued the tradition of orange and green. The school mascot has endured several changes. Additionally, the stories behind the actual progression are even more plentiful. Lee is generally credited with originating the school sobriquet. The University has now fashioned a more familiar call. “Strike, Rattlers, Strike.”
Contact John Marsh at firstname.lastname@example.org