The history that often falls to the wayside in St. Augustine is that of the past fifty to sixty years, particularly that which is tied to African Americans in our community and their struggles for equality. I myself never knew of St. Augustine’s important role in the Civil Rights Movement and its vibrant black community until well into my tenure at Flagler College. This history is largely not discussed, despite how well it is documented and how critical St. Augustine came to be in the national Civil Rights Movement. The Research Library’s collections as well as those of the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center host a vast number of resources on the story of black Americans in the nation’s Oldest City and the surrounding area. These items highlight the successes and the constant battles faced in everyday life by African American citizens. Many of these struggles continue to this day in the wake of desegregation and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Research Library commonly gets patron requests regarding the African American community in and around St. Augustine, with researchers often looking to examine life for black Americans during the Jim Crow Era. A fairly recent visitor to the Research Library had one of these requests, looking to examine the role of two prominent black educators in the community: Richard J. Murray and James A. Webster.
Richard J. Murray began his career as a teacher in 1925 at the Moultrie School. In 1929, he became principal of West Augustine School No. 6, a position he held until 1939. That year, he became principal of Excelsior Elementary and High School, and remained there until 1955. That year he was selected to be the first principal at Richard J. Murray High School, named in his honor. He remained there for much of the rest of his career, before retiring during the 1967-1968 school year. In total, Mr. Murray served as an educator, principal, and mentor for 43 years in the St. Johns County School District, with much of that time spent teaching in segregated schools. To honor such a long academic career, Murray Middle School was named for him. Many in the community considered Murray to be hugely influential, and they remember him as a warm and inspiring individual. Former St. Johns County Superintendent Otis Mason, once one of Murray’s students, had nothing but praise for the man he considered to be greatly influential in his life. Mr. Mason would go on to be St. Johns County’s first and only black superintendent, following in the footsteps of men like Murray. Interestingly, Mr. Mason was also the last superintendent to be elected rather than appointed.
James A. Webster too was an educator, beginning his career at Edward Waters College and Florida Normal Industrial Memorial College in Jacksonville, where he taught from 1937 to 1939. In 1939, he became principal of West Augustine School No. 6 after Richard J. Murray transferred to become principal at Excelsior. Webster remained the principal of West Augustine School No. 6 until the opening of Webster Elementary School (named in his honor) in 1959. Mr. Webster served there as principal until his retirement in 1973. In total, he spent nearly 34 years as a principal. Even after his retirement, he would almost always annually visit Webster Elementary to speak with faculty and students, remaining deeply involved with the education of black youth in the community. Despite such long careers in education and a deep community connection, both men are often overshadowed by the big names of the National Civil Rights Movement who were present in St. Augustine during the 1960s, such as Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr.
While the actions of Dr. King and Andrew Young are most certainly worthy of recognition, locals such as James Webster and Richard J. Murray are too. Individuals at the local level like Murray and Webster, as well as countless others, are often just as instrumental in driving change within a community. Mr. Murray and Mr. Webster inspired generations through their dedication to education and learning, inspiring leaders such as Otis Mason as well as the community as a whole to aspire for equal opportunity. Webster and Murray thus played a key role in forwarding the educational opportunities for African Americans in St. Augustine in spite of all the obstacles in their way, and are incredibly important individuals in the fight for equality for black Americans in the nation’s Oldest City.
Special thanks to Associate Director Kimberlyn Elliott and the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center for providing the images of Mr. Murray and Mr. Webster used in this post.
“A Moment in Black History- Episodes in the Rich Heritage of the Ancient City.” Published in the St. Augustine Record, February 2003.
“Longtime Educator Dies- Richard J. Murray Sr.” Published in the St. Augustine Record, Sept. 14, 1989.
“Editorial- Richard J. Murray Sr. Helped the Community.” Published in the St. Augustine Record, Sept. 15, 1989.
“Obituary- Richard Murray.” Published in the St. Augustine Record, Sept. 16, 1989.
“James Webster Dies; School Named for Him.” Published in the St. Augustine Record, March 25, 1993.
Written by Robert Covert