The Civil War had just ended, and the South was in tatters. Poverty was rampant, and there were a great many needs.
“But what touches me” is that the Sisters of St. Joseph in France “saw that one of the greatest needs in this area was to educate the children of former slaves,” says Karen Droege, board member of the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society.
When the Bishop of Savannah sailed to his hometown of LePuy, France in 1866, and asked for sisters to volunteer, 60 women offered to make the voyage, although he only needed eight, Droege says. “Eight tough and faithful women came over, who didn’t speak English,” she says. “They were seasick all the way across the ocean. They had to deal with the heat and mosquitoes, and the language. What courage and commitment they showed.”
Two years after the nuns arrived in St. Augustine, two of the sisters traveled by oxcart to what is now Mandarin to educate the children of freed slaves living there. “Because they’d had no opportunity for schooling,” Droege says. “It had been illegal before the Civil War.”
Within three months of their arrival in Mandarin in 1868, they had 80 children, a combination of freed slaves and poor whites, who they taught separately, because that was the law. They also taught girls as well as boys, which was unusual for the time.
“What satisfaction these poor children bring us,” one of the sisters, Sister Julia, wrote home in a letter. “I have never seen more quiet children, more obedient, and more desirous of learning.”
Illness drove Sister Julia and her co-worker back to St. Augustine three months after they arrived, but sisters returned several years later and the mission continued. The children attended school in a church building, with the children segregated by race into different classes. In the 1880s, the state passed a law prohibiting blacks and whites from being taught in the same building. “We are theorizing this schoolhouse was built because of that law,” Droege says. School records were destroyed in a fire in the 1960s, so they can’t know for sure. The building was moved twice after it was no longer used as a school, to two other locations in Mandarin before being transported last year to the museum grounds.
The story of the brave sisters and the resilient children they educated is being preserved thanks to the dedication of Mandarin Museum volunteers and community supporters. Volunteers have worked to restore the schoolhouse, and a grand opening celebration is planned for April 30. The interior will feature a restored 1889 schoolroom and an exhibit which includes photos and hands on activities. Its latest move and restoration cost $100,000, Droege says, and it was possible because many generous people got involved to help save a vital monument to perseverance and American history.
Visit madarinmuseum.net to learn more about the Mandarin School House and the upcoming celebration.