St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School

St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School is the oldest surviving brick school building in St. Augustine. In 1867, St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart arrived from France. The teaching order vowed to serve and minister to former slaves in Lincolnville. Up until that point, the state outlawed the education of Black Floridians. The society named their mission and school after St. Benedict the Moor – a Sicilian friar of African-descent known for his charity.

A black and white photograph of a class of Black children with two white nuns and a white priest posing in a field.
St. Benedict Catholic School class portrait photographed by Richard A. Twine around 1922. (Florida Memory)

The mission acquired part of the Yallaha plantation to build a church and schoolhouse. The school opened in 1898, and the church followed in 1911. Mother Katherine Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphia heiress and nun, funded the project. (Drexel later became the second American-born saint in 2000 for her philanthropy.)

A clip of a newspaper with the headline "Florida Nuns Will Test Unjust Laws."
“Florida Nuns Will Test Unjust Laws,” printed May 20, 1916, by The Monitor in Omaha, Nebraska. (Library of Congress)

Fifty years later, the Florida legislature prohibited white persons from teaching Black students. Lawyers advised the sisters to stop teaching at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School. In 1916, Governor Park Trammell ordered the local sheriff to arrest the teaching nuns. Making national news, a local judge quickly ruled that the law did not apply to private schools.

  • A black and white photograph of a brick two story building with a porch.
  • A color photograph of a brick two story building without windows or a roof.

St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School continued to educate about 100 students annually until the 1960s. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 began the desegregation of schools in St. Augustine. This contributed to the closure of Black schools in Lincolnville, including Excelsior School. St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School sat vacant over the next twenty years. In 1991, the schoolhouse became a contributing structure to the Lincolnville National Register Historic District.

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