Students singing at St. Augustine, a school founded by free blacks and former slaves in 1858, and continues to thrive to this day.
In Lorrain Lee’s seventh grade social studies class, students are playing a game called King for a day. King, as in Martin Luther King, Jr. Lee asks her class, if they could change one thing right now, what would it be? A student’s hand shoots into the air. “The education,” he says.
It’s a popular sentiment at St. Augustine, one that stretches far back into the history of the school.
“The community was really started by freed African Americans in Washington, as well as emancipated slaves,” says Father Patrick Smith, Pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church, which sponsors the school. “At that time, there was no public education for African Americans. So even before parishioners had their own church, they decided to build a school.”
The school opened its doors in 1858, and for several years before the Civil War -- and through decades of legalized segregation after -- Smith says St. Augustine provided a safe space for students to pray and learn.
“It was a place you could celebrate your faith with your dignity intact,” he says.
Then, during the late 1960s, the school near U Street became a haven for students living in a community crackling with protest.
“I remember when the riots came to the District and seeing people running up and down 14th Street shattering storefronts,” says alum Andrea Stallworth-Verstraete.
She says the nuns worked hard to help students understand the transitions taking place in the neighborhood, “not only what happened but how that impacted us as a black people here in Washington.”
But the situation outside the school didn’t just seep into the classrooms. Father Patrick Smith says school leaders also took to the streets.
“It was not unusual during curfews to have the religious sisters riding shotgun in trucks telling people to go back inside,” he says.
Meanwhile, Stallworth-Verstraete says the school and its principal offered sanctuary from the stresses of home.
“My parents got divorced while I was here,” she says. “She would bring us in early and talk to us about it. And it was so positive because we were so very scared. She protected us.”
St. Augustine’s changes and challenges
St. Augustine has also faced its own challenges, especially in recent years as climbing costs and declining enrollments have made it difficult for many Catholic schools to survive.
“In 2007, it was announced that about eight schools, including St. Augustine’s, were going to be closed and converted into charter schools,” Smith says.
So, as it had more than 150 years ago, the church community swung into action.
“We decided we had no desire to close,” he says. “So the key was the financial contributions as well as the wisdom and talent of the community.”
Smith says St. Augustine Catholic Church is the largest benefactor to the school, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to help cover operating costs. Meanwhile, he says, parishioners help out by volunteering in classrooms, or by fundraising in the broader community.
“We have a legacy of people who had less than we do who did extraordinary things,” he says. “When we look at our ancestors, we can choose to applaud them, but they’d be much happier if we imitated them.”
Still, even its founders would be surprised to see the school that exists today. St. Augustine now serves about 200 students from pre-k through eighth grade. And a Nigerian order, the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, has taken the helm.
Principal Gloria Mary Agumagu says she and her sisters were called to preserve the mission of the school, and connect students to their peers across the globe.
“We are a group of people, a unique people, African and African American in a vast community,” she says.
So while St. Augustine remains predominantly black, it now serves a diversity of students from all over the world. Eighth grader Lello Negera is the school’s president.
“I’m from Ethiopia,” she says. “I came here in 2003. When I learned the history of the school, it made me realize how special it is. How hard people fought for us to go to school as African Americans, and not just go to school, but have faith in God.”
That’s why, as Lorrain Lee teaches about the fight for freedom, she tells students to look around, and learn from each other.
“And that’s why they call it The Table of Brotherhood,” she says. “Because we are people of all what?”
“Colors,” the students answer in unison.
[Music: "Old School (Instrumental)" by Dangerdoom from Old School VLS]
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