Opinion

Black History Month: The Penn Centre (1862-)

  • Educational centre: Laura Towne and the first Penn School students in an outdoor classroom in 1862

February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.

Formerly The Penn School, The Penn Centre is an African-American cultural and educational centre located on St Helena Island, South Carolina. In 1862 during the second year of the Civil War, the United States Navy captured the island from Confederate forces.

With that capture, 32,530 enslaved African-Americans suddenly found themselves free people. Northern abolitionists recognised the need to educate the freedmen and believed that what they did here would become a model for helping freedpeople to become full citizens across the US.

Abolitionists raised donations, which were sent to the island, and some Northerners arrived to oversee what would be one of the first examples of Reconstruction, even as the Civil War continued. The donations allowed schools to be set up to educate the former slaves.

The first classes were held in the living room of the abandoned Oaks Plantation before a schoolhouse was built. As more donations came in, land was purchased from plantation owners who had abandoned the island, and buildings were erected. The Penn School, named after Quaker William Penn, was the first building completed. It was also the first school founded in a Confederate state specifically for the education of African-Americans. Eventually, other buildings were added and the Penn Centre became a 50-acre campus, which now includes 19 historic buildings such as the original Brick Baptist Church, Hampton House and Darryl Hall.

The first classes beginning in 1862 were taught by white abolitionists Laura Towne and Ellen Murray. For a time, Charlotte Forten taught at the Penn School and was the first northern African-American there. Students were instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography and music.

In the early 20th century, Grace House and Rossa Cooley joined the staff, and revised the school curriculum to fit Booker T. Washington’s model of industrial education. Algebra, Latin and other classical studies were eliminated, while carpentry, masonry and domestic service classes were added. The state of South Carolina through the Second World War years required African-Americans to be educated up to seventh grade, but the Penn Centre gave training through the twelfth grade and provided adult education for others.

By 1948, the great migration of blacks from South Carolina to the North and wartime employment opportunities in Charleston and Savannah reduced the population of St Helena Island. Young people, in particular, moved away.

The Board of Trustees in response redefined the school, making it the Penn Community Service Centre. The centre became one of the few places in the South in that era where non-segregated meetings could be held without the threat of legal action or violent harassment. Martin Luther King Jr often used the Gantt Cottage at the centre as a retreat or safe haven during the 1960s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as hotel and residential developers began to transform the island and the region into an upscale retirement and vacation centre, the Penn Centre was instrumental in assisting local African-Americans, the long-time residents, in keeping their homes and farms that were threatened by development.

The Penn Centre became part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor established by the US Congress in 2006. The Gullahs are descendants of African slaves who were brought to the region as early as the 1600s.

They are now recognised as the oldest African-American group successfully to preserve their language, religious customs and cultural identity within the US. The Penn Centre is one of three National Historic Districts in South Carolina, and the only one that is African-American. It continues to be a vital part of its surrounding community, continuing in its legacy of cultural preservation.

Sources: Diane McMahon, “Penn Centre: A South Carolina Historical Legacy, An American Cultural Treasure”, Pink Magazine, July 15 2005; Keith Schneider, “A Historic District in South Carolina Struggles to Preserve Black History,” New York Times, May 26, 1991), http://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/26/us/a-historic-district-in-south-carolina-struggles-to-preserve-black-history.html: Shaila Dwan, “Through Trying Times for Blacks, a Place of Peace,” New York Times, April 4, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/26/us/a-historic-district-in-south-carolina-struggles-to-preserve-black-history.html<;/i>