A century ago, three Catholic sisters in St. Augustine, Fla. were arrested for something the state Legislature had recently made a crime: Teaching black children at what, in the parlance of the time, was known as a “negro school.”
The ensuing trial propelled a 266-year-old French Catholic order and America’s youngest Catholic Bishop into the middle one of the wildest and most racially charged gubernatorial campaigns in Florida history. A hundred years ago today, the white sisters won their legal battle, vindicating the rights of private institutions like the Saint Benedict the Moor School that fought to create educational opportunities for black children in the era of Jim Crow segregation.
Black parents’ demand for quality education didn’t begin with Brown v. Board, but hundreds of years before, in chains and in secret. But near the turn of the twentieth century, as Jim Crow laws reversed the progress made under post-Civil War reconstruction, public institutions intended to uplift freed blacks became increasingly inadequate and unequal. Black parents often turned to their own churches or to missionary aid societies, like the Sisters of St. Joseph, to educate their children.
The story of the three white Catholic sisters has been examined over the years by multiple scholars, whose work informs this post. And while details in the historical record are at times murky and ambiguous, the episode sheds light on the countless struggles across the South to educate black children who were pushed to the margins by oppressive public institutions.
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Founded in 1650 in Le Puy-en-Velay, a rural mountain town in southern France, the Sisters of St. Joseph took up a mission to serve, educate and care for the poor and disadvantaged. For the next 200 years, the sisters pursued their mission throughout France until they were invited to Florida by Bishop Augustin Verot after the end of the U.S. Civil War.
Verot, a native of Le Puy, recruited eight sisters for a new mission: To educate newly freed slaves and their children.
The sisters established Florida’s first Catholic school for black students in 1867 along St. George Street in St. Augustine. They would go on to establish schools in Key West and in Ybor City. With the financial backing of a wealthy heiress, Saint Katharine Drexel, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened St. Benedict the Moor School in 1898.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, along with other religious groups like the Protestant American Missionary Association, educated black students in private and public schools in Florida for several decades. But then the legislature lashed out against their efforts. “An Act Prohibiting White Persons from Teaching Negroes in Negro Schools” unanimously passed through both chambers without debate, and was signed into law on June 7, 1913.