Sunday, March 12, 2017

School site echoes vibrant past

2011 Google Street View photo of St. Benedict the Moor School
Does this building still stand? This is
 a 2011 image of St. Benedict the Moor
School. (Credit: Google Street View)
Second of two parts

Six years is a long time in our age of instant communications. The turn-of-the-20th-century building at the core of today's post might not exist anymore. I can't find photos of St. Benedict the Moor School newer than a 2011 Google Street View, pictured first in this post. That's an ominous sign, for the school's history is rich. The physical remainder, as you can see, is in dire shape.

Built in 1898, St. Benedict school was "one of the first all-black Catholic schools in Florida," according to a 2014 article in the St. Augustine Record. The St. Benedict parish in St. Augustine's Lincolnville neighborhood was founded in the 1870s, during Reconstruction. St. Benedict's Church was built in the early 1900s. It's been restored and appears vibrant again. You can learn more on the church's Facebook page.

A few web resources linked in this post document the church and school history. As always, for me, the social history leaps out. Such as the time three Catholic nuns were arrested in 1916 because they were white women teaching black schoolchildren. Jim Crow laws forbade such interaction during segregation years in Florida (and probably in other states).

As a Catholic-owned educational institution, St. Benedict's was a private school. A judge ruled the law didn't apply to private schools, and the nuns were released. Their names deserve mention, though: Sisters Mary Thomasine, Scholastica and Beningus, according to the St. Augustine Record article. That news story also notes the arrests occurred on an Easter Sunday.

1920s photo of students seated in a truck decorated for a parade
St. Benedict's students ride in a school float decorated
for an Emancipation Day parade in the 1920s.
(Credit: State Archives of Florida/Twine)
The information about the nuns is listed in various websites and on a historical marker erected on the grounds of the church complex. Photos of the marker are below.

Lesser known are the photos by African-American Richard Twine, a photographer who's the subject of Part One of this post. He photographed St. Benedict class pictures, church gatherings and even the school's float in an Emancipation  Day parade in the 1920s. The images bring to life the human side of one of the decades when St. Benedict School thrived. The Twine collection may be viewed on the Florida Memory website.

The school closed in the 1960s, some 70 years after it was built with money from philanthropist and Catholic nun St. Katharine Drexel. In fact, a photo of the school appears on her Wikipedia page. Restoration efforts started, but stalled. In 2004, the school was considered one of St. Augustine's most threatened historic places. I wonder if restoration remains a goal. I sure hope so.

Front and back views of Black Catholic Heritage marker in St. Augustine
Credit: These closeup views of the Black Catholic Heritage historical marker are from a gallery on waymarking.com


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