For more than 150 years, the Penn Center, Inc., located on St. Helena Island, SC, has been at the epicenter of African American education, historic preservation and social justice for tens of thousands of descendants of formerly enslaved West Africans living in the Sea Islands, known as the Gullah Geechee people. The Gullah people have continued to survive to today and represent the most tangible living example of one of the outcomes of the Port Royal Experiment, a plan by the federal government to “test the capabilities of the Negro for freedom and self-support” during the Civil War.
Founded in 1862, the Penn School was one of the first academic schools in the South established by two Northern missionaries, Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray, to provide a formal education for formerly enslaved West Africans. In 1901, the Penn School expanded to become the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School after adopting the industrial arts curriculum taught at Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes. As a result, African Americans benefitted greatly from the quality educational training at Penn School, which stood at the forefront of progressivism and reform as it helped to advance an entire generation and community into the Industrial Age after slavery.
Later, in the 1960’s, Penn Center took up the mantle of social justice by ushering in the Civil Rights Movement and serving as the only location in South Carolina where interracial groups, such as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps, could have safe sanctuary in an era of mandated de jure segregation. Local citizens participated in training in voter citizenship and community empowerment classes.
To combat the threat of rapid commercial development and land loss along the Gullah Geechee coastal communities, the Penn Center’s leadership led to the institutionalization of one very important component of community sustainability—land ownership and retention. In 1972, Penn established the Land Use and Environmental Education Program to assist native islanders with issues of land retention and stewardship through education and legal services. As a result, the Center negotiated a unique landmark proviso with Beaufort County to institute an heir’s property exemption to preserve tens of thousands of acres of black-owned land. Penn also led the effort in land-use planning by working with Country officials and environmentalists to carve out zoning laws to protect and preserve valuable cultural and environmental assets on St. Helena Island and other parts of the county. More recently, under its environmental stewardship program, the Penn Center has placed more than 250 acres of its 500 acres in a conservation easement with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust.
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 became the first African American site in South Carolina whose primary purpose was to safeguard the heritage of a Gullah Geechee community, by preserving districts and landmarks that epitomize important elements of its culture, history, and vernacular history; and to promote the use and conservation of such landmarks for the education, recreation and enrichment of the residents of the county and state. In 1974, the Penn Center received recognition for nominating its own campus of seventeen historic structures and eight other sites on St. Helena Island as a National Historic Landmark District, one of only four in the state of South Carolina, and the only African American historic district so named. As a result of a substantial federal and state appropriation, along with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, funding was provided to convert the aging Penn School buildings into a modern-day conference center, a public museum and cultural center and an early childhood learning center.
In 1994, the Penn Center opened the York W. Bailey Museum, the first African American museum in Beaufort County, to interpret the history of the Penn Center, as well as that of the Gullah Geechee community of St. Helena Island. The Penn Center National Historic Landmark District site has attracted millions of dollars of heritage tourism revenue to the state of South Carolina over the last five decades. The historic preservation of material culture, architectural history, environmental stewardship, and ethnography of the Gullah people and their history are embodied in the Penn Center.
The U.S. Congress passed legislation in 2006 to establish the first Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, authored by Congressman James Clyburn, to enhance the preservation and interpretation of the Gullah Geechee cultural heritage corridor from Wilmington, NC to Jacksonville, FL. The Penn Center is well-poised to become one of the major sites along the corridor, due to its existing history of preservation and its prominence. This designation will inevitably be a boon to spur economic sustainability throughout the Lowcountry region of the state.
In 2008, the Penn Center, Inc. demonstrated its responsiveness in meeting the on-going and evolving needs of the community by entering into a unique public-private partnership 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 partnership will provide tremendous benefits of quality health care services, education, cultural programs access to technology, recreational facilities, and economic opportunities for the residents of the St. Helena Island and surrounding communities.