In 1862 Southern whites fled the Lowcountry Sea Islands as Union troops took control the Port Royal Sound. They left behind their plantations, many of their belonging and some 10,000 enslaved people who found themselves suddenly free. With nearby Beaufort under the control of the Union army, Philanthropists and abolitionists from the North set up schools for those newly freed to help them in the transition from slavery to freedom. Slavery had outlawed the education of people of color in this country; setting up schools to teach them everything from reading to cooking to wheel-wrighting seemed an “experiment” at the time.
The Penn Center was one of those schools. The York W. Bailey Museum chronicles the center’s important history as a place of education, activism and community-building.
Named for Quaker William Penn and situated under a grove of moss-covered oak trees on scenic St. Helena Island, The Penn Center was set up by Northern missionaries Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray. For some 80 years the center operated as a school for African-Americans.
The school closed in the 1940s, but it went on to play a role in the struggle for Civil Rights. During the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the Penn Center as a safe haven for retreats and strategic planning. The center also was used during that time as a training facility for President Kennedy’s newly formed Peace Corps.
Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1974, the Penn Center is still an important cultural institution. It assists local community members with education, health care and legal assistance and works to preserve the culture of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands. The annual Penn Center Heritage Days, held each November, celebrates the Sea Island culture with music, dancing, historical presentations and traditional foods.
The York W. Bailey Museum, named after a Penn Center student who went on to practice medicine on St. Helena Island, offers a look into the stories of the people whose lives were changed by this important American institution. Especially inspiring are the many photographs of students at work, some of which were taken as far back as the 1860s. A helpful video offers history and personal recollections of the Penn Center’s past, and local artists fill the gift shop with handmade sweetgrass baskets and colorful, original artwork.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by special appointment. Admission is $5 for adults; $4 for seniors; $2 for youth (up to age 16); and $3 for groups of 10 or more. Click here for more information.