The historic Penn Center of St. Helena’s Island has been a center of African American education, cultural preservation, and social justice for over 150 years.
Founded in 1862, the Penn Center, then called Penn School, was one of the first institutions in the South that provided a formal education to the Gullah-Geechee people, former West African slaves who lived on the islands and coast of South Carolina. The school was established by Northern missionaries and would help to advance an entire generation into the Industrial Age, with skills and knowledge that had been denied to them as slaves.
In the 1960’s, Penn Center would come to serve as one of the only safe havens for groups and people involved in the Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Leadership Christian Conference, and the Peace Corps, to meet. The Center also provided training for local citizens in voter citizenship and community empowerment, to help advance the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina.
Penn Center also played a major role in preserving Gullah Geechee coastal communities and culture, when rapid commercial development and land loss along the coast threatened their surrounding areas. Penn Center’s creation of land retention and educational programs established in the 1970s would lead to the protection of tens of thousands of acres of land held by Gullah Geechee communities, and its recent environmental stewardship program has led to the preservation of valuable cultural and environmental assets on St. Helena’s Island and in Beaufort County.
To honor the long and impactful history of the Penn Center, U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn has proposed a bill that would designate the campus a National Monument.
The proposed bill, called the Penn School-Reconstruction Era National Monument Act, was cosponsored by Rep. Mark Sanford. The center would be managed by the National Park Service.
“Penn Center is one of the most significant historical institutions in America,” said House Assistant Clyburn. “Throughout the Reconstruction Era, Penn School helped African Americans of the Sea Islands of South Carolina thrive and take advantage of opportunities denied them by slavery. This bill would establish a National Monument dedicated to the history and interpretation of the Reconstruction Era. The National Park Service would partner with Penn Center to manage the National Monument, but Penn Center will continue their mission on their historic campus, as they have for over 150 years.”