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Retired principal, former student remember last days of historic Black school in St. Augustine

The Sisters of St. Joseph are restoring the historic St. Benedict the Moore School where they used to teach.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Some nuns in St. Augustine are on a mission to resurrect a school building they had to leave in the 1960s.

The renovations is unearthing memories. Some are funny, others are hard to hear.

St. Benedict the Moore School is a shell of building now in the Lincolnville neighborhood, but people who used to spend time inside it every day remember it, and each other, fondly.

Sister Josephine Marie Melican was the last principal at the school, which taught Black children. It closed in 1964 when Catholic schools were integrated.

She met Dr. Martin Luther King when he came to St. Augustine during the Civil Rights Movement.

"He wanted to use the grounds of St. Benedict to organize the walks," Melican recalled. "But it was decided that wasn’t such a good idea." 

She did not participate in the nonviolent marches, but her students did.

"I came to school one day and my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders were not there," Melican remembered. "And where were they? In jail!"

Thomas Jackson was a student at St. Benedict. He was 13 when it closed.

The transition to an integrated school was hard at times.

"You didn’t know who was friend or foe," Jackson remembered.

There are some especially difficult memories about playing other schools on the football field.

"Some of their coaches practiced on black dummies with our numbers on them all week," Jackson said, "to build up the animosity and tension toward our team."

Sister Suzan Foster remembers integration and the tension before it.

"It was violent. I saw the KKK march," Foster said.  "There were men, women, and babies dressed as klansmen."

Now the sisters of St. Joseph and former students such as Jackson are together again, working to restore the old school and turn it into a community center to help single mothers.

The Sisters of St. Joseph originally came to St. Augustine in the 1860's to teach freed black children how to read and write.

"I feel like we left it abruptly." Foster said.

When integration happened, the school was never the same and has crumbled over the years. 

"And now we’ve come the a point, umpteen year later, that we are completing what we started," Foster said. 


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