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The Historic Penn Center of South Carolina's Gullah Islands


There are hidden treasures in and around Beaufort, South Carolina, and finding a gem or two perhaps not on the well worn areas, like the beaches, shopping and museums, is a treat.  I found one such gem - particularly a propos for Black History Month - while visiting Beaufort recently in the historic Penn Center. 

In 1862, in the then remote area of Frogmore, South Carolina  a school was about to be opened for children of recently freed slaves along the Gullah-Geechee corridor. This would be the start of the legendary Penn School, now known as the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands off of coastal Beaufort, South Carolina.

The Civil War was in its early years, and the Union Navy had made a point of capturing the Port Royal and Beaufort ports in late 1861 to cut off the supply routes for the Confederacy and also blockade them as well. Many of  the slave-owning plantation owners had left their homes for safer pastures, and their newly freed slaves were given their land by the Union forces to cultivate as their own.

Education of slaves being outlawed in the South prior to the Civil War, and a Pennsylvania Quaker woman by the name of Laura Matilda Towne and and her friend Ellen Murray, along with other missionaries, came to St. Helena Island in 1862 to establish a school for the children of former slaves. They would call it the Penn Normal and Industrial School, after Towne's native state. The Penn School, as it became more commonly known,  would be a source of education for area children as well as the cultural enrichment of this largely African American community until 1948.

It then became the Penn Center in 1950, and is still active serving as an educational center, for preschoolers and adults, also offering a museum, cultural programs, and conference meetings. You can see here a detailed 86-year timeline of the center and more generally the trials and tribulations and struggle of African Americans to gain their full civil rights. It is a very interesting story - and one that needs to be told today more than ever. 

Ironically, considering that educating slaves was forbidden, the first building used as a classroom is an 1855 church known as the Brick Church. Built by the plantation owners it would became a combination one-room schoolhouse, meeting center, and administrative headquarters..Eighty students were enrolled in the first class. In 1864, the school bought land from a freedman, Hastings Gant, and added more classrooms buildings and cottages for teachers and administrators. As well as the three “R’s” being taught students were engaged in learning many crafts both domestic and industrial - and yes boys learned to knit and girls learned to build!

When the Civil War ended and slavery was definitively abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, a period of growth was experienced at the school, mainly funded by Quakers from the Philadelphia area. Protected by the efforts of the federal government during Reconstruction after the war the majority of the voters in the area were formerly enslaved people and congressmen , judges, and other elected positions were filled by people of color. Even better, the Penn School would receive monies from taxes to buy books and for school operations. Sadly this period of wellbeing would decline sharply with the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and many of the hard gotten rights of the community would be taken away.

As Jim Crow came into being and many civil rights were lost by intimidation and worse, the Penn School, too, suffered. St. Helena citizens were forbidden to raise money or levy taxes for the school, and so once again it relied on private donations.This period of tribulation lasted until the early 20th century when school officials decided to model their education programs after the Hampton Institute programs known as the Tuskegee Model in Virginia, another traditionally black school where, although the model was controversial among Civil Rights leaders, it was adopted at Penn. The Tuskegee Model emphasized many industrial arts along with traditional education.

These programs allowed the school to raise money in other creative ways, as well as using government programs to their benefit.  Additionally the opening of a bridge to connect Beaufort and the rest of the Low Country area to St. Helena Island brought with it more people and jobs and financial considerations as the islands developed.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit the nation in the early 1930’s and devastated the regional and national economies.. Families unable to afford sending children to school caused the enrollment at the school to drop dramatically from over 600 to just over 200 students.. Unable to continue financially as a school the Penn Center would suspended operations in 1948. But this was not the end of the story - in fact, far from it.

In 1950, the Penn School was renamed the Penn Center to again serve the largely African-American community. Throughout the 1950’s, many new programs were initiated The first day care center was opened, midwives were trained, a health clinic established, a  teen program, the Teen Canteen, was opened. And Thomas Barnwell became the center's first professional African American manager.

As the march for civil rights heated up the the 1960’s, the Penn Center would hold interracial conferences and would serve as a retreat for many of the great leaders in the Civil Rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King. The 1970’s would also bring training for Peace Corps initiatives overseas, especially that which was agricultural in nature, the Penn had a long history in agricultural education. The Center became a leader in the 1980’s of land use and environmental education programs  to promote sustainability and economic development. Members of the Gullah community also visited Sierra Leone, West Africa, the land of their ancestors.

The 1990’s brought the development of preservation programs for both cultural and the built environment along much of the Sea Islands. The school is a must stop along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor enacted by Congress in 2006. The entire campus is a National Historic Landmark District.  

The real story of the Penn School and Center, however, is the people that have passed through the classrooms, had their lives enriched and who  later in their lives told their stories of the importance of the experience in their lives. One such person is Robert Middleton. I met 83-year-young Robert when I visited the Center, where he is a guide, storyteller, and “man about campus” while volunteering almost everyday there at the York W. Bailey Museum.  “Bobby” even narrated and had written a book relating his story about growing up on St. Helena’s Island and attending the Penn School, as well as his years in the United States Air Force. He is a treat not to be missed when you visit. You can purchase his book as I did and get it signed by this unique gentleman.

Many of the buildings that were part of the school and center are still standing and most in operation in one form or another. Many architectural styles are represented and the 1855 Brick Church is the highlight of touring the campus. To be sure, your visit will give you a clear understanding about the relevance and importance to this day of the Penn Center. It is alive with stories and history.

Please visit the website for visiting information and other questions answered at Further information on about Beaufort’s many charms can also be found at


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