Penn Center is one of the nation's most historically significant African-American
educational and cultural institutions. It was established early in the
Civil War, before emancipation. The purpose was to educate the freed slaves on
the sea islands around Port Royal Sound that had been
occupied by the Union on
November 7th, 1861.
St. Helena Island
Beaufort Co., SC
Located on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, Penn School
was established as part of the Port Royal Experiment in 1862 by the abolitionists
of Pennsylvania and a group of churches. They created the Freedmen Association.
Ms. Laura M. Towne was sent to St. Helena Island in April, 1862. She was soon joined
by Ms. Ellen Murray in June of the same year. Dedicated to the cause, these two
continued to serve the people of the islands for 40 years.
The first classes were held in a single room on Oaks Plantation. Because of the
eagerness of the Freedman to become self-sufficient the enrollment grew rapidly.
The school quickly outgrew the small room and relocated to the Brick Baptist Church.
Three years later, in 1864, a prefabricated building was sent from Pennsylvania.
A 50-acre tract of land across from the church was purchased from a Freedman
Hasting Gantt The building was erected on this land and became the first Penn
School building. Penn Center remains on this site today.
Since then, the Penn Center has worked on many community-based projects, such as
bringing public water to the islands, helping farmers to buy and market co-operatives
and advocating better housing and health care for low-income people.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. held annual meetings for his organization, the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference on the Penn campus.
In 1974, the U.S. Department of the Interior named Penn Center a National Historic Landmark.
Penn Center celebrates Heritage Days each November.
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