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St. Benedict the Moor School | Photo © 2023, www.abandonedflorida.com

St. Benedict the Moor School

Location Class:
Built: 1898 | Abandoned: Unknown
Historic Designation: Historic District (1991)
Status: Under Renovation
Photojournalist: David Bulit


St. Benedict the Moor School is a former Black Catholic primary school located in the Lincolnville Historic District of St. Augustine, Florida, named for Saint Benedict Manasseri, the patron saint of African Americans.

The Lincolnville community in St. Augustine, Florida, has a history that stretches back to the years immediately following the American Civil War. In 1866, a group of freedmen and women, including individuals such as Peter Sanks, Matilda Papy, Harriet Weedman, Miles Hancock, Israel McKenzie, Aaron DuPont, and Tom Solana, leased land for a nominal fee of $1.00 per year. This land was situated on what was then the western bank of Maria Sanchez Creek, opposite the more developed part of St. Augustine. The rest of the peninsula was developed as two large orange grove plantations: the Dumas plantation “Yalaha” (Seminole word for orange) at the northern end and “Buena Esperanza” (Spanish for “Good Hope”) at the south.

Originally referred to as Africa or Little Africa, this settlement began to take on the name Lincolnville after streets were officially laid out in 1878. This naming choice, with its clear reference to President Abraham Lincoln, symbolized the community’s appreciation for the man who played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery in the United States. Interestingly, the northwest corner of what is now modern Lincolnville was a 5-acre orange grove owned by John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, who later went on to serve as the Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt.

In the early years, Lincolnville’s development primarily encompassed the northeast area, covering present-day Washington, Oneida, Dumas, St. Francis, St. Benedict, and DeHaven streets. As the settlement expanded, local businessmen invested in developing the entire peninsula. The architectural layout and style of Lincolnville during this period mirrored the colonial St. Augustine style, featuring narrow streets, small lots, and houses constructed close to the street line. This design approach reflected both the historical context and land-use patterns of the time.

St. Benedict the Moor School in St. Augustine, Florida. Governor’s House Library

Flagler’s Influence and Development of Lincolnville

In the late 19th century, Henry Flagler, the Standard Oil magnate, arrived in St. Augustine with a vision to transform the city into a luxurious winter retreat for the wealthy, often referred to as a “Winter Newport.” His ambitious development plans extended to the area that would later become Lincolnville, and his impact on the neighborhood was significant.

One of Flagler’s transformative actions was the filling in of the northern reaches of Maria Sanchez Creek, creating elevated ground for further development. This reclamation project included soil that contained archaeological remains excavated from the site of Fort Mose, an important historical site associated with the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in what would become the United States.

Flagler’s partner, William Warden, also played a role in shaping the landscape. He oversaw the dredging of the southern part of the creek, which led to the creation of what is now known as Maria Sanchez Lake. This expansion of the eastern boundary of Lincolnville extended to the Ponce de Leon Barracks, located at 172-180 Cordova Street. Today, the Barracks is considered a major building within the historic district of St. Augustine. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it served as housing for African American servants and other workers employed at Flagler’s hotels in the city.

Pioneering African American Baseball and Notable Figures

The African American waiters employed at Flagler’s hotels in St. Augustine played a pivotal role in the history of professional baseball. They formed what is recognized as the first professional black baseball team in the United States. Locally, they were known as the Ponce de Leon Giants, and when they traveled to play in the North, they adopted the name the Cuban Giants. Frank Grant, a member of this pioneering team, was later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, leaving an enduring legacy in the world of sports.

Renowned writer James Weldon Johnson, originally from Jacksonville, Florida, documented the story of this groundbreaking baseball team in his 1933 autobiography, “Along This Way.” Johnson’s work provided valuable insights into the African American experience in the early days of professional baseball and contributed to the broader cultural narrative.

Butler Beach: A Haven for African Americans

Frank Bertran Butler, a Lincolnville businessman, made a significant contribution to the African American community by establishing Butler Beach, Florida. This beach resort was created as a sanctuary for African Americans who were excluded from other beaches in the area due to the racial segregation policies of the time. Butler Beach became a place where African American families could enjoy the sun, sea, and leisure activities without the restrictions imposed elsewhere.

Frank Butler standing behind the front desk of his College Park Realty Office on 54 ½ Washington St. in Lincolnville. 1920s. State Library and Archives of Florida

Civil Rights Movement and Lincolnville

During the Civil Rights Movement, Lincolnville played a pivotal role as the base of operations for activists working to end racial segregation in schools and public facilities in St. Augustine. Local activists, facing escalating violence from the Ku Klux Klan, sought assistance from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This appeal for help brought Dr. King and other national activists to St. Augustine to join local protesters in non-violent demonstrations.

The peaceful protests led to hundreds of arrests and garnered significant national attention, contributing to the passage of key civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The civil rights activists of Lincolnville and their allies played a crucial role in advancing the cause of civil rights in the United States, and their legacy remains an integral part of the neighborhood’s history.

Post-Segregation Changes and Preservation Efforts

With the end of legal segregation, African Americans in Lincolnville, like many across the United States, began to explore opportunities in newer suburban areas. This demographic shift was part of a larger postwar trend in the country. As residents left, both employment opportunities and the population in Lincolnville declined.

The city of St. Augustine recognized the importance of preserving the rich history and architectural heritage of the Lincolnville neighborhood. In 1991, a significant milestone was achieved when the Lincolnville Historic District was officially documented and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The boundaries of this historic district were defined by Cedar, Riberia, Cerro, and Washington streets, along with DeSoto Place, and contained 548 historic buildings.

As new residents migrated to Florida from various parts of the country, including the Lincolnville area, the city of St. Augustine faced the challenge of balancing redevelopment with historic preservation. To make way for new housing and other uses, the city supported the demolition of deteriorating buildings in certain sections of Lincolnville. While these redevelopment efforts aimed to revitalize the neighborhood and promote economic growth, they also resulted in the removal of numerous historic buildings.

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St. Benedict Catholic School class portrait. c. 1922. State Library and Archives of Florida

St. Benedict the Moor School

Located in the Lincolnville neighborhood, the St. Benedict the Moor School began as part of a Catholic mission in 1871 to serve and minister to newly emancipated slaves. Its physical location is at 86 Martin Luther King Avenue, and its construction was completed in 1898.

The funds required for the school’s construction, totaling $7,500, were generously donated by Mother Katherine Drexel, the founder and superior of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order of nuns dedicated “to serve Indians and Colored People.” Katherine Drexel, hailing from an affluent Philadelphia banking family, was the niece of Anthony J. Drexel, the founder of Drexel University. Katherine Drexel was later made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Built with brick, the school was named in honor of St. Benedict the Moor, the patron saint of African Americans, and was one of Florida’s pioneering institutions for the education of black students. The nuns from a local convent belonging to the Sisters of St. Joseph undertook the task of instructing the students. Each year, the school enrolled between 90 to 100 students during its operational years from 1898 to 1968. The school premises encompassed a piece of land housing the school itself at the southern end, the parish house in the center, and the church of St. Benedict the Moor at the northern end, which was administered by the Josephites.

The incorrupt body of Saint Benedict the Moor, enshrined in the Church of Santa Maria di Gesù in Palermo, Italy. Following a fire on July 25, 2023, it was announced that all but the skull of Saint Benedict was lost in the blaze.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. utilized the rectory as a meeting venue for strategizing marches. Subsequently, the school closed its doors, partly due to the repercussions of school desegregation legislation stemming from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The events that unfolded in St. Augustine, with Martin Luther King Jr. playing a pivotal role, were instrumental in catalyzing the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Notably, in 1916, well before the Civil Rights Era, three white Catholic nuns faced arrest for violating a 1913 Florida law that prohibited white teachers from instructing black students. These nuns were ultimately acquitted on the grounds that the law did not pertain to private schools.

Despite its recognition as a contributing property within the Lincolnville Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the school building stood exposed to the elements, lacking a roof or windows, since 2006 when the roof was removed as part of an ongoing restoration project. It wasn’t until 2022 that construction began again beginning with the demolition of the interior and the addition of a new roof. The Sisters of St. Joseph plan to restore the building and turn it into a community center for single mothers.

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Headline in the May 20, 1916 issue of Omaha, Nebraska newspaper, The Monitor

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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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