ST. HELENA ISLAND — In its first 150 years, the Penn Center has served as a school for freed slaves, a Jim Crow-era industrial school and a retreat center for leaders of the civil rights movement. Now it looks to tell the story the African-American sea island culture and to protect that heritage.
Today the center is kicking off a three-year celebration to mark its 150th anniversary.
The Penn Center was one of the nation's first schools for emancipated blacks. It was founded in 1862 after Union troops captured the area early in the Civil War and two missionaries from Pennsylvania came south and named the school for William Penn. Just after the turn of the 20th century, the Penn School became the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School with an industrial arts curriculum.
Later, when public schools began educating blacks as well as whites and the industrial school was phased out, the Penn Center became a retreat and meeting location for leaders of the Civil Rights movement, most notably the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Penn Center has gone through a lot of historic evolutions and cycles and we really try to focus on the wants and needs of the community during that period,” said Walter Mack, the center's executive director who has been at Penn a quarter century.
The center, with 19 buildings including a museum clustered amid moss-shrouded oaks on this South Carolina sea island about a two-hour drive southwest of Charleston, is the only national historic landmark district owned and operated by a minority, Mack said.
Today, the center is enjoying an increase in visitors sparked by renewed interest in the Gullah culture, the culture of sea island slave descendants in the Carolinas. Also called Geechee along the Georgia and Florida coasts, the culture is based on farming and fishing and has its own creole language, history, cooking and crafts such weaving sweetgrass baskets but is threatened by rapid coastal development.
“There's a new interest,” Mack said. “Penn Center is in the middle of it and we view this as a great opportunity for the Penn Center to survive another 150 years.”
“People are becoming more aware of what Gullah and Geechee is,” agreed Victoria Smalls, coordinator for history, arts and culture at the center. “The culture encompasses much more than the language and the dialect. It encompasses the agriculture and crafts we are talking about at the Penn Center.”
During the first year of the anniversary commemoration, the center is focusing on its founding and its role during Reconstruction.
In November it hosts a program titled “Slavery by Another Name” discussing journalist Douglas Blackmon's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the way that Jim Crow laws and segregation moved blacks back into virtual slavery between Reconstruction and the civil rights era.
Next year the center plans a reunion of civil rights leaders. Details are still being worked out but Smalls said she hopes the group might include such people as U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In 2014, the focus will be on the Penn Center's work for the future.
“The Penn Center's mission is to promote and preserve the culture of the sea islands, not just the geographic area, but its people too,” Smalls said, adding that part of the job is making sure the past is remembered.
“We're the people,” she said. “We're the storytellers.”