BENEDICTINE SPOTLIGHT: BENEDICTINE MONASTERY AND FREEDMEN SCHOOL ON SKIDAWAY ISLAND
Benedictine Military School has a rich history that dates back to 1874 when two Benedictine monks came to Savannah from Europe by way of Saint Vincent Monastery in Latrobe, Pa. These two monks came at Savannah Bishop William Gross’ request. Bishop Gross sought to educate and convert the recently enslaved peoples in accordance with the directives of the Council at Baltimore and the Catholic Bishops. True to the Bishop’s commitment, the founding of St. Benedict’s parish occurred soon after the monks’ arrival and a school followed in 1875.
Laura Seifert, Savannah Archaeological Alliance director, presented her findings from archaeological digs at the ruins of the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School on Skidaway Island during a Jan. 30 presentation at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Six days earlier, Seifert was interviewed by Benedictine Military School regarding her findings from the past few years when she was a professor at Armstrong State University.
Several BC graduates, when they were Cadets, volunteered in the field including Michael Dolor, Jimmy Ware, Robby Fenney, Vivan Ragusa, Gavin Lambert, Zachary Tate, and Evan Page. Ethan Marshall, son of BC English department chair Mrs. Karen Marshall, also participated.
“Ethan was one of my students and he actually helped coordinate to get some of the BC students out to our site for two different semesters,” Seifert said. “There were BC students who actually got to dig on the site.”
The Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School operated from 1878-89 on Skidaway Island. Savannah’s Catholic diocese invited European Benedictines to start schools for African-American children. Hampton Place, a plantation on Skidaway Island, originally was purchased by Savannah’s Catholic diocese to start an orphanage but when the main house was destroyed by fire, the diocese turned over the property to the Benedictines to build a manual labor school. Students spent part of their day taking classes and the rest working in the fields. They did not pay tuition but the crops they produced and harvested were sold to support the school.
BC: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE BENEDICTINE MONASTERY AND FREEDMEN SCHOOL AS A PROJECT?
SEIFERT: “There were two reasons. No. 1, most importantly, part of the site was going to be destroyed. There’s a lot that is being preserved in perpetuity by The Landings but there was an adjacent lot that everybody kind of thought was all one big lot but it turned out not to be when it got sold. And so part of the site was and, frankly now is, destroyed because somebody bought the lot and put a house on it. That’s the purpose of The Landings. We went out and did two years of archaeology before the house was built to save as much as we could of that part of the archaeology site. We haven’t done any archaeology on the part that is being preserved. We’re keeping that for future archaeologists. We just did what we did because we were on a deadline to dig it before it was destroyed by the new landowner. And he was really open to us doing it. He said ‘Have at it’ and gave us two years before he built his house. That was the No. 1 reason. Part of the site was endangered and we needed to do it immediately and not later. And the other part was that it is such a unique site. There have been very few African-American Freedmen schools that have been rescued, archaeologically, in the U.S. and, to my knowledge, there has been no archaeology on any Benedictine sites in the U.S.”
BC: WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE THAT YOU FACED? WAS IT THE ACTUAL DIGGING?
SEIFERT: “I could have spent a lot longer out there. But someone bought it to build their house so you can’t stop them. But I could have spent another 10 years out there digging. It was very limited in the amount of time that I had out there both because of the time crunch with the site that was being developed and the fact that I also had a full-time job teaching at Armstrong at the time. I had a young son. I still have a young son (he’s 5), of course. Just a lot. The students, at the time, we didn’t have any that were majors so we just had students who were all brand new, all the time. We were constantly dealing with students on site who didn’t know what they were doing but that was also such a fantastic learning experience. It was very positive in that respect because we exposed so many students to this opportunity. But at the same time it was a lot of juggling, a lot of supervising. And then the whole Armstrong merger (with Georgia Southern University) really exploded my life, personally, as well. I’m not at Armstrong anymore because of the merger. That was also very challenging. I am continuing my research on my own, from a historical aspect, to try and continue the project as much as I can as an independent person.”
BC: WHAT CAUSED THE RESIDENTS OF THE BENEDICTINE MONASTERY AND FREEDMEN SCHOOL TO LEAVE?
SEIFERT: “I’m not 100 percent sure. If you guys (BC) could hook me up with Belmont Abbey (in Belmont, N.C.), I think there are records there that might tell us what happened. There’s been a couple of stories over the years. It seems like it was never wildly successful in getting enough students out there. There were a lot of challenges in keeping folks out there mostly because of the heat, the yellow fever, the malaria, somewhat the isolation. It was not the easiest place to work. Some of these guys would come down and they would get sick and they’d be sent back within several months. And then they’d go on to have perfectly good lives back in Pennsylvania (home of Saint Vincent Archabbey). It was a challenging place. I’m not exactly sure. That’s one of the things that I’m still trying to figure out. Sometime in the 1890s, it seems like Belmont made a decision to just close it. And I can say from the archaeology it seems like there was a definitive decision to close it and to pack up their stuff and leave based on the amount of stuff we have left over. It’s not like they just kind of walked away and left everything in the building. The archaeology indicates it was a conscious decision to pack everything up and we’re pulling out. We thought that we’d find more but we really didn’t. We found artifacts but nothing that would indicate that they left stuff behind (intentionally).”
BC: WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST REVELATION FROM THIS PROJECT?
SEIFERT: “Part of it is just pulling together the whole story. Part of that comes from the archaeology. We found pieces of harmonicas, which is kind of interesting, I’m learning more about harmonicas now. And being able to tie that back to some of the African-American students who were there, it’s likely that they were the ones who were using the harmonica. There’s a whole interesting history. Slave musicians were very high status and this kind of rolls into the whole blues music, and harmonicas being used in that. I think that sort of speaks to the lives of the students. One interesting omission from the archaeology is we never found any toys, which is incredibly unusual for a school. There’s almost always toys found on sites because children are everywhere. And yet here is the site of a school, and 8-year-old kids, and we found zero toys, which is kind of sad, actually. I’m sure they still had games and played with things but it’s interesting, their material poverty. I think putting together the whole story, too, of the evolution of the relationship between the African-American community and the monks, too, is something I’m very interested in. Early on, there were letters that Fr. Oswald Moosmuller writes back where some of his animals were poisoned, likely in an attempt to force them off of Skidaway Island, to make them want to go away. You see this push during Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction of wanting to build a black community that was strong in and of itself and somewhat isolated in a protectionist way, and so wanting to form those barriers and strengthen their own community. And the monks were not part of that plan. And yet, going from that in 1877 to five, 10 years later and the monks have more than 100 baptisms on their register. Seeing that relationship evolve is really interesting. To go from one group trying to force people out to joining the church, to see that relationship evolve is pretty cool, too.”
Seifert has visited Saint Vincent Archabbey and BC to conduct research on the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School.
“This past summer, I was out there (at BC) and spoke with Fr. Ronald (Gatman, O.S.B.) and he helped me look at some of your archives for more detailed research,” she said. “I co-hosted with y’all when I was working at Armstrong. We had David Hurst Thomas, who works as an archaeologist on St. Catherines Island. We hosted him in your cafeteria, speaking. That had to be 2014 because I was pregnant with my son at the time.”
Seifert said she hopes to visit Belmont Abbey to continue researching the Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen School.
“I would like to write a book on it, a scholarly book,” she said. “I have started that process but I’m working on multiple projects right now. But, hopefully, I’m looking to get a book contract to write it up formally.”