A South Carolina Historical Legacy
An American Cultural Treasure

Tucked in the heart of the South Carolina Sea Islands surrounded by glimmering marshes and nestled beneath the silvery moss-draped limbs of massive live oaks, is Penn Center. It is the site of the former Penn School, one of the country's first schools for formerly enslaved individuals.

Penn Center is one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. We are located on St. Helena Island, one of the most beautiful and historically distinct of the South Carolina Sea Islands, and at the heart of Gullah culture. 


Words from Dr. Rodell Lawrence, Executive Director...

The Reconstruction Era National Monument

      St. Helena Island, SC—Penn Center, Inc., On behalf of the Penn Center Board of Trustees, Executive Director, Dr. Rodell Lawrence    would like to express great appreciation to President Barack Obama, for making history today and naming Penn Center and other historic sites of significance in Beaufort County a Reconstruction Era National Monument. 

     Dr. Rodell Lawrence states: “This day would not have been possible without the early efforts Congressman James E. Clyburn,   Congressman Mark Sanford, National Park Service Retired Director Jonathan Jarvis, National Park Service Staff, like Michael Allen and the historians Kate Masur and Greg Downs, who tied all of the nation’s collective histories together to bring much needed attention to the Reconstruction Era. Mayor Billy Keyserling of the City of Beaufort, Mayor Samuel Murray of the Town of Port Royal, Rev. Dr. Abraham Murray of Brick Baptist Church and the entire Beaufort County Reconstruction Era Team has worked tirelessly to make this all a reality.” 

     Penn Center, founded in 1862 as Penn School, a central component of the Port Royal Experiment, was one of the first schools in the South for formerly enslaved West Africans; this academic school reorganized in 1901 as the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School and existed for eighty-six years.  After the school was removed to the Beaufort County School District it became Penn Community Services, taking on the mantle of social justice and ushering in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences.  Dr. Lawrence states: “Today, is a proud moment not only for Penn Center, Penn School students and their descendants, it’s a proud moment for all of St. Helena Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina and for our nation as a whole.  I say, proud because now the Reconstruction story, our story will be told and shared nationally and internationally and at a time when our nation is honoring the great work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I believe, Dr. King would be very proud.”

Dr. Rodell Lawrence says, “The designation of National Monument is vitally important to Beaufort County, South Carolina and particularly Penn Center.  We are ready to share our mission “to promote and preserve the history and culture of the Sea Islands” with many visitors. Many firsts have taken place at Penn School, Penn Center and within our great Beaufort County.  Penn Center stands ready to share this story.”

Penn Center is a Proud Partner of the National Park Service. 

Learn more about the historic sites that make-up the reconstruction era national monument & how to visit.

reconstruction era national monument sites 


Penn Center is a multi-service 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

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