Friday, October 13, 2023

The Penn Center, St. Helena Island

Another item on my list of places to visit during my stay on St. Helena Island, SC.

I have a long time fascination regarding the Gullah/Geeche culture of the Low Country.

St. Helena Island has maintained an important role in assuring the continuation of the preservation of this cultural heritage for well over a hundred years.

The Penn Center is the hub.

It has served as a place of education, and refuge since 1862.

Martin Luther King, Jr. felt at peace and unburdened during his time here, and it's where he worked on his "I Have a Dream" speech.


St. Helena Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina
Reconstruction Era school and 20th century civil rights retreat and community center
National Historic Landmark District and part of Reconstruction Era National Historical Park

Founded in 1862 as a school for freed slaves, Penn School established a commitment to Black education, community welfare, and cultural heritage that has remained strong for over 150 years. Penn School functioned as an educational institution, health clinic, farm bureau, catalyst for community action, and a repository for preserving St. Helena Island’s unique Gullah heritage and written history.

The founders of Penn School were northern missionaries and abolitionists who came to the South Carolina sea island following the Union occupation of the area during the Civil War. Education was a top priority; classes for freedmen were held in barns, cabins, and deserted plantation houses scattered across St. Helena. The only school of this type to survive was Penn School, established by Laura Town and Ellen Murray, on land purchased from Hasting Gantt, a freedman and entrepreneur. A private charity composed mostly of Quaker abolitionists in Philadelphia supported Penn during its early decades. After the demise of the state’s Reconstruction regime, the school struggled financially. Rossa B. Cooley and Grace House, two northern white educational philanthropists, took over leadership of the school at the turn of the century and revised the curriculum to follow the Hampton-Tuskegee model of Black education. In addition to training students in masonry, carpentry, and the domestic arts, Penn School trained midwives and offered relief to St. Helena Island residents suffering from economic hardship during the Great Depression. Although the school closed in 1948, the community service and cultural preservation functions originated by the school’s founders flourished through Penn Community Services, Inc., organized in 1951. Penn opened South Carolina’s first day care center for African Americans, provided a community health care clinic, and began a Teen Canteen for local teenagers.

Under the direction of devout Quakers, Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff, Penn Center became a major facilitator for civil rights and social justice activism. The isolated campus was one of the few places in the Jim Crow South where interracial organizations met, and sometimes stayed overnight, without the threat of legal action. The Siceloffs embraced the movement after conversations with local residents who shared how unequal education, generational poverty, political disenfranchisement and segregation shaped their lives. According to historians Orville Burton and Wilbur Cross, the Siceloffs broke away from the condescending notion that the Black community needed to be “taught” citizenship to become “civilized” and “Americanized” and eventually understood the “Christian commitment and theological worldview” of their African American neighbors long before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought it into the mainstream.

Throughout the 1960s, Penn Center sponsored and hosted interracial conferences on civil rights organized by groups such as the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, Southern Regional Council, South Carolina Council on Human Relations, World Peace Foundation, and the Peace Corps. The Baha’i Faith also held religious meetings at Penn to avoid scrutiny due to the interracial makeup of its congregation and their opposition to segregation. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held citizenship education classes at Penn, taught by iconic organizers Andrew Young, Dorothy Cotton, Bernice Robinson, and Septima P. Clark. These integrated organizations stealthily met and strategized on this isolated campus, safely under the radar of local authorities, the public and the press.Young eventually introduced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Penn Center. King, his SCLC lieutenants, and countless unnamed activists met with the SCLC at Penn five times between 1964 and 1967.

The isolated campus on St. Helena Island became a bastion of peace and a place of refuge where King could unwind, breathe freely and express himself openly, saying things in front of groups at Penn that he couldn’t say on the national stage. Folk singer Joan Baez, who attended a retreat in 1966, recalled King saying, “he couldn’t take the pressure anymore, that he just wanted to go back…and preach in his little church, and he was tired of being a leader.” At Penn, King was able to voice publicly his unpopular anti-Vietnam War stance and express his concerns for the 40 million Americans living in poverty, which led to his strong opinions about the intrinsic evils of capitalism.

King organized retreats at Penn Center as opportunities for he and fellow SCLC members to debate the utility of nonviolence and the need to broaden the civil rights movement from a regional to a national focus. During a retreat in September 1965, SCLC leadership and staff became embroiled in fierce debate over whether to relocate the movement to Chicago. Septima Clark and other veteran staffers, as well as the Penn staff, felt that citizenship education should be the focus. They believed that protests and demonstrations had a place in the movement but should be secondary to laying the groundwork.

Younger staffers, frustrated by the slow pace of progress, wanted more direct-action protests. SCLC leaders decided to take the movement to the North and begin training staff for activism in the Chicago campaign. At the same time, Diane Nash Bevel, a former Freedom Rider who had joined the SCLC staff in 1962, would continue to develop educational programs on nonviolence in the South.

Subsequent retreats revealed the continuing evolution of the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. King and the SCLC. In November 1966, during one of the only formal speeches he gave at Penn, Dr. King connected the long struggle for African American civil rights to the neglected fight for economic equality. Tying his antiwar stance to his broader focus on human rights, the civil rights icon pledged to use nonviolence to fight America’s three evil, “inseparable triplets”: racism, excessive materialism, and militarism. King’s speech and the sessions from this retreat became the basis for his 1967 book entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? A year later, King and the SCLC returned to finalize plans for a mass demonstration in Washington D.C. to protest poverty and the evils of capitalism. Dubbed the “Poor People’s Campaign,” the plan received mixed reviews and caused further division within the ranks of the SCLC.

King did his best to reaffirm the SCLC’s role of offering hope, determination, and a commitment to nonviolence. Four months later, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, the day after he arrived to support striking sanitation workers in the city. Penn had begun constructing a remote cabin on the marsh for future visits but he was killed before it was completed. It is still referred to as the Martin Luther King cabin.The historic campus, Brick Church, and surrounding areas were listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 9, 1974. In subsequent decades, Penn Center continued to serve as a site for church and organizational retreats, a training center for various organizations, and an educational site for Black history and culture.

In January 2017, President Barack Obama designated the Beaufort National Landmark District, Camp Saxton Site, Penn Historic District and the Old Beaufort Firehouse as the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park to preserve and commemorate activities during Reconstruction under management of the National Park Service.

In 2021, the Penn Center was added to the African American Civil Rights Network (AACRN), as well as the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network

Excerpt From Wikipedia:,_South_Carolina)

Penn Center (Saint Helena Island, South Carolina)

The Penn Center, formerly the Penn School, is an African-American cultural and educational center in the Corners Community, on Saint Helena Island. Founded in 1862 by Quaker and Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania, it was the first school founded in the Southern United States specifically for the education of African-Americans. It provided critical educational facilities to Gullah slaves freed after plantation owners fled the island, and continues to fulfill an educational mission. Leigh Richmond Miner photographed students and activities at the school.[3]

Penn School Historic District
Brick Baptist Church
Penn Center (Saint Helena Island, South Carolina) is located in South Carolina
Penn Center (Saint Helena Island, South Carolina)
Nearest citySt. Helena Island, South Carolina
Coordinates32.38830°N 80.57530°W
Area47 acres (19 ha)
NRHP reference No.74001824
Significant dates
Added to NRHPSeptember 9, 1974[1]
Designated NHLDDecember 2, 1974[2]

The campus was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1974.[1] Darrah Hall and Brick Baptist Church on the campus were declared part of Reconstruction Era National Monument in January 2017.[4] In spring of 2019, it became the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park, along with Fort Sumter.

Description and historyEdit

The Penn Center is located about one mile south of Frogmore on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The 47-acre (19 ha) campus is divided by the road, and includes a number of historic buildings related to the original function as a school, including classrooms, living spaces for students, teachers, and administrators. The dates of construction of many of the buildings is not known, and they are not considered architecturally significant. The oldest building on the campus is the 1855 Brick Church, built by the plantation owners of the island.[5]

At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Union Army forces quickly captured Saint Helena Island, prompting the local plantation owners to flee. The military administration of the island partitioned the old plantations, giving the land to the former slaves who lived there. The Penn School was established in 1862 by Laura Matilda Towne, an abolitionist missionary from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a school for the freed slaves, which was named for William Penn, Quaker champion for human liberty and founder of Pennsylvania. For many years the work was financed by Philadelphia Quaker abolitionists. Ellen Murray, a Quaker teacher, joined her in the work. Charlotte Forten, born into a wealthy free black family in Philadelphia, joined them as the school's first black teacher. The Brick Church was used as an early meeting, educational, and administrative space, and the school's first dedicated educational building was constructed in 1864, from prefabricated parts shipped from Pennsylvania. The school remained an active educational institution for the island's population until 1948, when the state took over public education on the island. The institution then became the Penn Center, and as continued an educational mission for the island's preschoolers and adults, as well as maintaining a museum, cultural center, and conference meeting space.[2][5] With the creation of the Reconstruction Era National Monument (which in spring 2019 was elevated to National Park status), Brick Baptist Church is protected by a Park Service building easement and Darrah Hall, on the campus of the Penn Center, has been deeded over to the Park Service, as well as the adjacent parking area Webpage - More information, including a soon to be opened on-line shop.

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