Penn Center: 150 Years of Education, Preservation & Economic DevelopmentHistoryCivil War Period
Today as we honor and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, we will take a look at one of the most historic places in all of the Lowcountry. The Penn Center is located on St. Helena (Helen-uh) Island and is seven miles east of downtown Beaufort. St. Helena is eighteen miles long and two miles wide and sits in between Beaufort, SC and Fripp Island.
The fertile soil on the island was similar to the rice growing region of West Africa. Rice, indigo and cotton were easily grown here. In the early 1800s, plantation owners quickly realized that they could grow long staple cotton and make a fortune. This was a Persian cotton that once spun, resembled silk. At this time, thousands of slaves were brought over from West Africa to work on the 55 cotton plantations on St. Helena Island.
In 1862, during the civil war, there were over 10,000 slaves living on St. Helena Island. They were known as the Gullah Geechee people. Due to their isolation, they were able to keep the West African culture and traditions alive. To this day, the island is still inhabited by mostly Gullah people and their West African culture, traditions and language is still alive and thriving.
This is largely due to the Port Royal Experiment, which was a plan by the federal government to “test the capabilities of the Negro for freedom and self-support” during the Civil War.
In 1862, two female missionaries, Laura Town and Ellen Murray, arrived in St. Helena from Boston to educate the Gullah slaves. Up until this point it had been illegal to teach the slaves to read and write. They started the Penn School with nine adult students. They weren’t sure if these people, who were born into slavery and had been enslaved their entire lives, would be able to be taught . Of course they learned very easily and very quickly and the school moved into the Brick Church with ninety students. With the Penn School’s success and popularity among the newly freed slaves, more and more missionaries from Boston began arriving, and forty-four small schools popped up all over the island. The main school, became one of the country’s first technical schools which taught blacksmithing, cobbling, nursing and basket weaving. The students would attend the satellite schools first to learn reading, writing and arithmetic and then finish up their schooling at the technical school. In the 1900s, the trades changed to automotive, electrical and plumbing, among others. The Penn School stood at the forefront of reform and progression in helping an entire generation and community enter into the Industrial Age after slavery.
The Penn Center then became a safe place during mandated segregation and the only place in South Carolina were interracial groups including Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders were able to come together with The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps to train the local citizens in voter citizenship and community empowerment classes. Martin Luther King, Jr lived at the Penn Center for nine months and wrote part of his “I have a dream” speech there and practiced delivering it in the Brick Church, the same church where slaves were first educated.
The Penn Center’s leadership was able to protect the Gullah community by supporting land use and retention by the Gullah people. In 1972, Penn established the Land Use and Environmental Education Program. This enabled the Gullah people to retain the tens of thousands of black owned land lots. More recently, Penn Center has been able to place more than 250 of the 500 acres into a conservation easement with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust.
Today, the Penn Center’s mission is “to promote and preserve the history and culture of the Sea Islands.” After the school closed in 1948, Penn Center became the first African American site in South Carolina whose main objective was to protect, preserve and promote the heritage of this Gullah Geechee community. The Penn Center is now a National Historic Landmark District.
In 2008, the Penn Center, Inc. partnered with the Beaufort County Library and the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. to build a multi-million dollar library and health center complex on property leased and/or donated by the Penn Center. This provides quality health care services, education, cultural programs access to technology, recreational facilities and economic opportunities for the residents of the St. Helena Island and its surrounding communities.
Come see for yourself why the Gullah Geechee heritage is alive and thriving today in the Lowcountry!
1. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 with then Penn Center executive director Courtney Siceloff , wife, Elizabeth, and son, John Siceloff, who now serves on the Board of Trustees, after a planning session for the historic march on Washington, D.C.
2. Slaves at Drayton Plantation on Hilton Head Island.
3. Brick Baptist Church, St. Helena Island, SC.
4. Geechee-Gullah Ring Shouters