Portrait of teacher Laura M. Towne, a founder of the Penn School, with students Dick, Maria and Amoretta.

School’s in

Penn Center on St. Helena Island was one of the first schools for freed slaves after the Civil War.

Story by B.C. Rausch

For hundreds of years education was outlawed for people of color. So when the Civil War ended in 1865, there was an immediate need for schools for formerly enslaved people. One of the very first still stands and is just an hour from Hilton Head Island.

Penn School — located on St. Helena Island — was built and developed by Northern missionaries Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray. It was among the initial schools opened as part of the movement to aid the difficult transition from slavery to freedom. They named the school after William Penn—leader of the Pennsylvania Quakers 100 years before the Revolutionary War—and it operated for nearly 86 years, educating children and families from the island and the many surrounding Gullah-Geechee communities.

The school began in 1862 when Union troops took control of Port Royal Sound, and frightened white plantation owners fled the Lowcountry sea islands. They left their homes, valuables and vast, highly profitable rice fields. They also abandoned more than 10,000 enslaved people. 

After the school closed in 1948, its sprawling campus was renamed Penn Center, and its priorities refocused on providing community services such as health training and day care to those in need. Eventually it became a multi-service nonprofit organization.

Penn School Sign
Gantt Cottage
©Timothy Brown

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Penn Center served as a peaceful, safe retreat where both individuals and groups — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — came to meet. Dr. King stayed at Gantt Cottage during his visits. The center’s retreat house was built for him, but he was assassinated before he had the chance to see it. 

Today, Penn Center is a 50-acre National Landmark Historic District comprised of 25 buildings and other structures. Its mission is to promote and preserve history and culture through its commitment to education, community development and social justice.  

The story of Penn Center is told through photographs and videos in the York W. Bailey Museum. Named for a Penn School student and Howard University Medical School graduate, Dr. York W. Bailey cared for St. Helena residents until his death in 1971. Born on St. Helena in 1881, Bailey graduated from Penn School and Hampton Institute, returning to the island in 1906 as its only resident doctor. Patients often paid him in trade with livestock or produce, which he sold in Beaufort.    

The museum features stories of the people whose lives were changed by this American institution. Photographs, some going back to the 1860s, of Penn School students at work, video of the school’s history and enlightening personal recollections are on display. Available tours include a historical overview of the school and of the Gullah culture. The museum offers individual, group and educational tours, in addition to self-guided tours, a seasonal events calendar and overnight accommodations.

A replica of the Liberty Bell hung in the school’s original bell tower, which stands today, and was rung at the start of classes, at mealtimes and to announce the death of a community member. The bell now resides in the museum adjacent to the welcome center, where visitors can purchase books, handmade sweetgrass baskets, works by Lowcountry artists, clothing and other souvenirs. 

Penn Center - Museum
Penn Center Museum Interior
©Penn Center

Visitors also can learn about Penn Center’s current Academic and Cultural Enrichment Program (PACE) that fosters youth development programs for the area’s sea islands and Beaufort County children from 8 weeks to 17 years old. Much more than a childcare facility, PACE creates an environment to enhance the physical, social and emotional development of children, with instruction focusing on education, social, environmental, cultural development and enrichment and provides tutoring for 4th- through 8th-graders.   

In addition to the oral histories collected from Penn Center members and community leaders, the center continues to collect oral history of the Civil Rights era and the stories of people who were there with Dr. King in the years between 1963 and 1967.  

Be sure to take time for a leisurely picnic on the grounds beneath massive oaks draped with Spanish moss, and reflect on the life-changing impact Penn Center continues to have on South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

Darrah Hall is the oldest building at Penn Center
Darrah Hall is the oldest building at Penn Center. Built in 1903, it has functioned as a community center, a gymnasium, a packing house and a meeting hall. ©Eric Muhr

Road trip 

Hilton Head Island to Penn Center (St. Helena Island) 

Drive time: 54 minutes (41 miles via SC-170 E and US-21)

If you go: Hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Plan on spending 2-3 hours there. Learn more at penncenter.com. While on St. Helena, visit the nearby Chapel of Ease, Fort Fremont, and try a famous shrimp burger from the Shrimp Shack. 

Shrimp Shack Sign

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