Florida’s first African-American School Superintendent Otis Mason does


Dr. Otis A. Mason, an educator, veteran and community leader, died Jan. 9 in St. Augustine at the age of 95.

Born and raised in St. Augustine's Lincolnville neighborhood, and the youngest of three boys, Mason is highly regarded by his peers as the consummate educator. He dedicated his life to his family, education and community service. He served the St. Johns County community as a teacher, a supervisor of elementary education and a principal, and holds the distinction of being the first African-American elected school superintendent in the state of Florida; he was the St. Johns County Superintendent of Schools for eight years before retiring in 1992.

Mason earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education with honors from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in 1950. While there, he also pledged the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, making lifelong friends at FAMU, throughout Florida and nationwide.

In 1958, he obtained his master’s degree in education administration from New York University. And in 2022, he was conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from FAMU.

Determined to pass it forward, he also worked to send many students from St. Augustine to FAMU who later returned to St. Johns County as teachers. In his position as supervisor of elementary schools, Mason was instrumental in implementing the full integration of St. Johns County Schools. During his administration, more African-Americans were appointed to key positions, such as principals, assistant principals and administrators, than ever before. He also focused on improvement. He directed significant renovations to St. Augustine High School: the auditorium in 1986 and the media center, B Hall, and cafeteria in 1991.

During his tenure as superintendent of schools, Mason was inducted into Florida A&M’s Gallery of Distinguished Educators and named to the university’s Sports Hall of Fame for baseball. He was also a member of Sigma Pi Phi, Beta Xi Chapter in the Orlando area.

An aspiration fulfilled

Mason’s backstory is as impressive as his life’s work.

He was an ambitious student at a young age. He graduated from Excelsior High School, St. Augustine’s first African-American public high school, in 1946. In the high school yearbook, he listed his aspiration to one day become the superintendent of schools, totally unheard of during the height of segregation.

Later, he put his dreams into motion when he began teaching at his alma mater, Excelsior, in 1950. Due to the Korean Conflict, his first teaching year was cut short and he was drafted into the U.S. Army. This did not deter him, and after serving two years in the Army, he returned to the classroom at Excelsior.

The following year, he was assigned to work at the new Murray High School as a science teacher and assistant football and baseball coach. In 1960, he was named principal of W.E. Harris School in Hastings, where he remained until joining the staff of the St. Johns County School District as supervisor of elementary schools in 1966.

Today, the Otis A. Mason Elementary School in St. Augustine bears his name and is a testament to his achievements and his service to the community.

Highly involved

Mason was a staunch community advocate. His passion for education and his love for the community extended into community service. He served on the boards of several organizations, including the Buckingham Smith Benevolent Association, Flagler Hospital Board of Trustees, the Dr. Martin L. King Celebration Committee, the Fort Mose Historical Society and the Venetian Club.

He also served as a middle and elementary school accreditation evaluator for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

He was a member of the Kiwanis Club of Historic St. Augustine, the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board, the Drug Education and Prevention Center and the state’s Community Health Purchasing Agency, District 4. He was appointed to the St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board in 1995 representing the Lower St. Johns River Basin and the Upper Coastal Basin.

Mason was honored and revered for his accomplishments. Throughout his career, the accolades continued to come his way.

His honors included induction into the FAMU Sports Hall of Fame for baseball in 1988, as he participated in baseball and football while a student at FAMU. He was also inducted into the St. Johns County Sports Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was honored by the St. Johns Welfare Federation as Volunteer of the Year. In 2014, he was honored by the Salvation Army of St. Johns County Advisory Council with the Gus Craig Award. Mason was also recognized with the “Red” Cox Award for his accomplishments within the community.

In recognition of the life, legacy and community service of Otis Mason, the City Commission of the City of St. Augustine proclaimed June 20, 2014, as Otis Mason Appreciation Day in the City of St. Augustine. This recognition celebrated Mason’s contribution to society. It also recognized his efforts to improve education for local youths through his roles as teacher, principal, instructional supervisor and superintendent. 

Mason also received the St. Johns County School District’s Learning Legacy Lifetime Achievement Award, the City of St. Augustine’s de Aviles Award, the Edward Waters College Public Service Award, Alpha Phi Alpha Education Leadership Award, St. Johns Welfare Federation Volunteer of the Year Award, Phi Delta Kappa Service to the Community Award and the M. L. King Award for Educational Leadership, among others.

Lasting contributions

Mason was a noted community leader and volunteer who dedicated his life to service. He and wife Myrtis founded the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center. The museum promotes and educates the public on the more-than 450 years of African-American history in St. Augustine. Nearly a century before the Lincolnville Museum began its educational mission, this building served as the educational center for the Black youth of Lincolnville.

As a president of the Fort Mose Historical Society, Mason worked to bring the history of the first African-American settlement to the public. Fort Mose is a living history museum commemorating the legacy and achievement of America’s first free Black community. Mason served as an advisory board member of the Fort Mose Historical Society.

Mason was nearly as busy in retirement as he was when he was as superintendent of schools. Although he had been retired for more than 30 years, he didn’t stop. He continued to work with community and regional groups. He maintained a special connection with education through the school named after him. He continued to impact the lives of the school’s students through his presence and involvement in special events and award ceremonies.

A leader in public service

Dr. Otis Mason was a man of irresistible humanity who helped guide educational achievements against all odds. For his pivotal role in education and his valiant devotion to educating future generations, he will always remain an exemplary role model for today’s graduates.

All of his life, Mason put the needs of others above his own. His humility in doing so set an example to everyone of what public service truly means. His leadership laid the groundwork for the foundation of educational excellence.

Mason was a lifelong member of St. Paul A.M.E. Church of St. Augustine, where he served as a steward, class leader and finance committee member. His personal motto was to “Do the best you can to help as many as you can.”

Mason enjoyed spending time with his family and going fishing. His favorite scripture was Psalm 23.  As his loved ones prepare to say goodbye to him, they want to think of him fondly as: “He’s gone fishing.”

Mason is survived by his wife of 73 years, Myrtis; daughters Pamela and Deidre; and grandson Jamil. He is preceded in death by his mother, Mildred Parsons Larkins, father, Robert L. Mason, stepfather, Frank Larkins, and brothers Robert and Reginald Mason, plus numerous aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.

The Wake Service will be held on Friday, Jan. 26. Viewing by the public is from 4 to 5:30 p.m. The Wake Service begins at 5:30 p.m. at St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine.

The Celebration of Life Service will be held Saturday, Jan. 27. Viewing by the public is from 9:30 to 11 a.m. The service will begin at 11 a.m. at Anastasia Baptist Church in St. Augustine. This service will broadcast livestream and can be viewed online at https://www.stjohnsfamilyfuneralhome.com. Funeral arrangements are handled by St. Johns Family Funeral Home.

To continue Mason’s legacy of service, the family has established the Dr. Otis A. Mason and Myrtis H. Mason Scholarship Fund at Florida A&M University for students from St. Johns County majoring in education. For more information, go to https://fundraise.givesmart.com/form/f1ZiRw?utm_medium=qr&utm_source=qr&vid=13ga56 .