Sunday, April 29, 2018

Hardly perfect

partial cover of El Scribano journal
Detail of the cover of the 2006 El Scribano.
I didn't want to write this post. So I delayed, and delayed, and procrastinated some more. Why? Because I like to write about the strengths of the pioneer Catholic community in Florida. Not its weaknesses.

But the Holy Spirit prodded me to post. Humans are flawed. Amid the many people trying to do right in pioneer Florida, some did wrong. Possibly, they didn't realize it. One can hope. But just as we stumble along on our paths today, so did the Catholics establishing a foothold for the faith in Florida. They, like us, hopefully realize(d) faults and make/made amends.

In this case, the positive is that the Church and its representatives in Florida educated children of color in an era when it wasn't popular and when laws made it difficult. The negative is that within that educational system, some people engaged in racist behavior. That truth emerged from recollections written by a former pupil of St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School in St. Augustine. They are published in the 2006 issue of El Scribano, the St. Augustine Journal of History.

I wrote about the St. Benedict the Moor school in this blog in March 2017. I particularly noted how three religious sisters were jailed in 1916 because they were white women teaching children of color. The memoir in El Scribano reflects the late 1920s and early 1930s. The article's author, Barbara Vickers, was born in 1923 and attended St. Benedict school from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The overall article is about family and neighborhood life in Lincolnville, with school a part of it. Some elements are familiar to Catholic schoolchildren everywhere and in every era: "The sisters stressed catechism, multiplication tables, and literature, and they were very stern." I remember as much from my years of Catholic school. Other aspects, however, were worlds apart. Listen to what else Vickers writes: "Items discarded from the white Catholic school, St. Joseph's Academy, were considered good enough for black children." That included desks and schoolbooks, which were about three years behind, "but sold to black students nonetheless."

Part of me rises to defend those early religious sisters. I imagine their funds were severely restricted. Vickers writes how the sisters would varnish the old desks before sending them to St. Benedict's. But there's no excusing some things. Vickers remembers that only light-skinned children of color were chosen to crown a statue of the Blessed Mother each May. And that a choir teacher, a Sister St. Matthew, told Vickers that "all colored people can sing," when the young pupil tried to explain that she couldn't carry a tune.

Vickers doesn't write with bitterness. She includes details about happy times, in fact, the memoir is more positive than negative. She tells how everyone in the community crowded into the school yard to decorate floats for the Emancipation Day parade each year. And she remembers that: "It was always a pleasure to attend the nine o'clock mass at St. Benedict's and see the sunlight coming in from my favorite stained glass window..."  Her grandmother and great-aunts had donated the window in memory of their mother. 

In its contributor notes, El Scribano lists Vickers as having been a "vocal leader in the town's civil rights movement." I don't know if she is still alive, but I thank her for penning her remembrances of school years. I like to think at least some of the sisters were free of prejudice, but have to accept that some weren't. As with all history, we have to know of past wrongs in order to learn from them.

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