Penn Center: 
A South Carolina Historical Legacy, 
An American Cultural Treasure

By Diane McMahon

Penn Center has championed education and civil rights for African-Americans since the Civil War. In 1862, the U.S. Navy declared victory at Port Royal Sound, South Carolina and freed 32,530 slaves from plantations in the Beaufort District. White inhabitants fled the Lowcountry. Northern abolitionists recognized the need to educate the freed slaves, and the Philadelphia-based Port Royal Relief Committee sent funds and a progressive young woman named Laura Towne to teach former plantation slaves “habits of self-support” and to “elevate their moral and social condition.”

Towne was joined by Ellen Murray, a Northern Quaker. They settled on St. Helena Island, one of South Carolina’s largest sea islands. Their first class was held at Oaks Plantation with nine scholars. It soon expanded to The Brick Baptist Church, which survives today. Swelling enrollment and northern support enabled them to purchase land and build a separate three room school, the first in the South specifically created to teach freed slaves. The school was officially named Penn School, in tribute to the revered Quaker, William Penn. Its legacy continues today as Penn Center. 

Penn Center, with its 16 historic buildings—all registered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation—sits quietly on a rural side street on St. Helena Island. A carved post and sign commemorating the center’s 150 year anniversary, stands like a sentry at the entrance to the dusty grounds. There are cars in the gravel lot, but no other signs of people or activity. The first impression suggests an institution both venerable and gently wilted by time and financial struggle. 

Dr. Rodell Lawrence, Penn Center’s newly arrived executive director, may have the right formula of personal passion and corporate fund-raising expertise to infuse new vitality into the center’s grounds and physical structures and reinvigorate the Center’s purpose and future—a dose of human “miracle grow.” After a prestigious career with Xerox, Dr. Lawrence—who has Gullah roots in the Lowcountry—came out of retirement to be the eighth director of Penn Center. He has concrete plans for physically beautifying and modernizing the Center and strategic plans for fundraising. He describes his vision of brick walks, flower beds and architectural lighting to illuminate the ground’s massive oak trees at night with the same fervor as he talks about sustaining Penn Center as a living community center, offering adult literacy, child care and other services to the citizens of St. Helena. For over a decade, Penn Center has been a leader in the preservation, promotion and study of the Gullah culturein America and beyond. Dr. Lawrence intends to creatively finance the Center’s future through community support, major gift programs and endowments from corporations and foundations.

For the first 40 years of Penn School’s existence, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray taught according to the New England model of education, in which students in elementary school learned reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography and music. In the early 1900s two other northern white women—Rossa Cooley and Grace House—revised the schools curriculum and followed the Hampton or Tuskegee idea of “industrial education.” 

Classical studies, like algebra and Latin, were no longer offered. From the beginning, these well-intentioned white abolitionists, tried to “socialize” their African American students in accordance with euro-centric cultural values. Their devotion to the native islanders of St. Helena was unquestioned; still it reflected a paternalism that characterized the school’s white leadership until 1950. 

“Industrial education” didn’t mean learning to work in a factory, but prepared students to be “industrious” in practical endeavors. At Penn School it meant learning about farming, homemaking, health, finances, and debt avoidance. Women were taught domestic skills, presumably with the assumption that employment opportunities were primarily in domestic service.

In the mid 20th century, Penn Center again shifted focus. St. Helena’s cohesive and largely isolated population was changing. Two World Wars, bridges, electricity and migration of rural populations into American cities, altered the cultural isolation of the Sea Islands. Penn School, beleaguered by financial hardship, turned over its educational function to the public schools, which were substandard. In 1948 Penn School was redefined as Penn Community Services. The Penn Center Board of Trustees also changed, taken over by southern liberals interested in working with African Americans for racial equality.

Penn Center became a center and meeting place for interracial social activists—the only place in the south where segregated meetings were held without excessive legal and violent harassment. It was a safe haven and retreat for Martin Luther King, Jr. until his death in 1968. In recent decades, Penn Center took on a leadership position in land management and environmental sustainability on St. Helena. Starting in the late 1970s and 1980s corporate hotel chains and private developers bought huge tracks of ocean front and beach property on neighboring sea islands to build resorts (particularly Hilton Head) for thousands of northern retirees migrating south. Penn Center was instrumental in giving legal help and tax relief to native islanders in order to keep their land and retain free access to the beach areas.

Today Penn Center continues its leadership position in cultural preservation. For over a half-century, the Center has recognized that African Americans on St. Helena and along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor—established by Congress in 2006—have managed to keep their special identity, language, religious customs and African cultural heritage more than any other group of Black Americans. The York W. Bailey Museum, located in one of the historical buildings on the Penn Center grounds, and curated by Victoria Smalls, is a rich trove of artifacts and photographs that depict the history of Penn Center, as well as the Gullah Geechee history and the strong African cultural influences they’ve maintained. 

Karen Ward and Delores McBride, both St. Helena natives and employees at Penn Center, described growing up with community elders who only spoke Gullah. They knew adults who lived their entire lives without ever leaving St. Helena and they personally remember an old Gullah woman who lived near Penn Center and was known as “the storyteller.” There is still a street named Storyteller Road. Karen Ward recalled an occasion when Marine officers from Parris Island brought visiting African military dignitaries to Penn Center. A longtime caretaker at Penn Center—a man who’d never left St. Helena—was in deep conversation with a military officer from Kenya. He spoke Gullah, the officer spoke his native Kenyan dialect. They understood each other perfectly. “Nothing could have been a more powerful reminder of our people’s direct link to Africa,” she said. 

Penn Center has a long and distinguished history; its story and significance will continue into a far-reaching future.

For the most compelling and comprehensive history of Penn Center, please read: Penn Center: A History Preserved, by Orville Vernon Burton with Wilbur Cross

York W. Bailey Museum and Penn Center Gift Shop open 9-4 p.m., Monday through Saturday

This article originally appeared in the July 15 issue of Pink magazine.
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