A one-room schoolhouse built in 1898 to educate the children of freed slaves opened as a museum in Jacksonville on Saturday. Its new home is Walter Jones Historical Park in Mandarin.
Nuns called the Sisters of St. Joseph built the 600-square-foot school, which stood at the corner of Loretto and Old St. Augustine roads for many years. Used until 1943, it then changed hands, moved around and landed —after thousands of dollars and volunteer hours—at the woodsy park site on the St. Johns River in January 2015.
At Saturday’s ribbon cutting, Pat Wojciechowski of the Mandarin Museum and Historical Society described what people will see in the small schoolhouse: An original teacher’s desk, benches, chalk boards and religious relics befitting a Catholic School.
“These nuns originally came from France at the direction of the Bishop of the St. Augustine diocese specifically to teach the children of freed slaves,” she said. “They felt those children were being neglected and were not being taught, but at that time, there were no public schools. So, something that’s interesting about all this is the families that worked to get schools for their own children, (the freed men) actually petitioned the government for free public schools for all children, so we wouldn’t have public schools today if it were not for those freed slaves and their insistence on free education for all.”
Hundreds came out for the celebration, where Sister Thomas Joseph McGoldrick read an account by the original nuns about the early progress of their educational mission.
“The children were taught in the day and the adults in the evening. This was right after the Civil War—the war really ended in 1865—so we lost no time in getting here. We were flourishing in Florida and Georgia by 1889. The building of this schoolhouse verifies we were having our share of success, educating in Florida for some 23 years. That’s not very long to have been able to accomplish this building.”
Now, more than a century later, the community came to speak on the importance of preserving and restoring this interpretive exhibit.
Dana Myers was among them. She says the schoolhouse is a “treasure” that reflects the African-American history of the area.
“As a lifelong Mandarin resident myself, it saddened me that the footprint of a people, my people, who pioneered this area, was nowhere to be seen. They lived, thrived and raised their families," she said.
Sam Burney was also in the crowd. His mother, father and their sisters and brothers were educated in the one-room school.
“Thanks the Lord they were lucky enough to go there, that’s where they went to school,” he said. “They [were] glad that it was there, or else they wouldn’t have been able to learn how to read and write.”
The Philip R. Cousin AME Church Choir led the crowd in singing 'Lift Every Voice and Sing’, written by Jacksonville native James Weldon Johnson. The song, sometimes referred to as the Black National Anthem, was first sung in 1900 to commemorate Lincoln’s Birthday.
The St. Joseph’s School for African-American children, on Mandarin Road, is now open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.