Penn Center: A National Treasure

The Retreat House at Penn Center Photo: Stephen Morton for The New York Times
The Retreat House at Penn Center
Photo: Stephen Morton for The New York Times

If you ever decide to visit the Savannah/Hilton Head area, I highly recommend a visit to Penn Center, a true national treasure with a special place in Black American history that covers 150 years.  It dates back to 1862 when the abolitionist Quakers from Philadelphia established a school on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, for the purpose of educating recently freed slave children.  Penn School was the first such school established in the United States.  It was a labor of love for Laura Towne, who had studied medicine and education in Philadelphia and had only planned to stay at the school as its instructor for about ten years as a volunteer.  She remained there for thirty-nine years until her death.  The Penn Center museum notes her legacy with her meticulous records of her students and their progress and development with excerpts from her diary.  The school continued into the twentieth century under Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) as an industrial and agricultural high school for black men and women for over 50 years.

The school closed in 1953, but it evolved into an important community center on the island that served the needs of blacks throughout the southern counties of South Carolina.  One of the most important functions of the center was to provide legal assistance for blacks to overcome shady dealings from incoming developers who sought to grab land and property from the native residents.  To this day, the land titles of properties on many of the sea islands may be held by entire families instead of individuals, which can make the determination of property ownership a murky process.  Penn Center helped to resolve these issues and to prevent unscrupulous developers from taking advantage of family property owners.  The center continues to provide programs of education, job training and assistance for black residents today with the help of donations and volunteer efforts.

The other significant role of Penn Center was its role in the Civil Rights movement.  It was a place where Martin Luther King, Jr. spent a significant amount of time on the 50-acre campus as a retreat, and he also used the facilities there for many strategy meetings with fellow members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  A retreat house was also built for King and his wife for lodging and as a meeting place in 1968, but he never was able to use it as he was assassinated that year.  The house sits on a trail on the property facing a waterfront marsh to the west with a breathtaking view.  It just might bring tears to your eyes if you ever have the opportunity to see it for yourself.

It is seldom that you will find a place like Penn Center with its magnitude of significance in American history.  The campus is on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive (SC 45) east of Beaufort, South Carolina off U.S. Highway 21 on Saint Helena Island.

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