Last updated: February 24, 2023
Founded in 1862 as a school for freed slaves, Penn School established a commitment to Black education, community welfare, and cultural heritage that has remained strong for over 150 years. Penn School functioned as an educational institution, health clinic, farm bureau, catalyst for community action, and a repository for preserving St. Helena Island’s unique Gullah heritage and written history.
The founders of Penn School were northern missionaries and abolitionists who came to the South Carolina sea island following the Union occupation of the area during the Civil War. Education was a top priority; classes for freedmen were held in barns, cabins, and deserted plantation houses scattered across St. Helena. The only school of this type to survive was Penn School, established by Laura Town and Ellen Murray, on land purchased from Hasting Gantt, a freedman and entrepreneur. A private charity composed mostly of Quaker abolitionists in Philadelphia supported Penn during its early decades. After the demise of the state’s Reconstruction regime, the school struggled financially. Rossa B. Cooley and Grace House, two northern white educational philanthropists, took over leadership of the school at the turn of the century and revised the curriculum to follow the Hampton-Tuskegee model of Black education. In addition to training students in masonry, carpentry, and the domestic arts, Penn School trained midwives and offered relief to St. Helena Island residents suffering from economic hardship during the Great Depression. Although the school closed in 1948, the community service and cultural preservation functions originated by the school’s founders flourished through Penn Community Services, Inc., organized in 1951. Penn opened South Carolina’s first day care center for African Americans, provided a community health care clinic, and began a Teen Canteen for local teenagers.
Under the direction of devout Quakers, Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff, Penn Center became a major facilitator for civil rights and social justice activism. The isolated campus was one of the few places in the Jim Crow South where interracial organizations met, and sometimes stayed overnight, without the threat of legal action. The Siceloffs embraced the movement after conversations with local residents who shared how unequal education, generational poverty, political disenfranchisement and segregation shaped their lives. According to historians Orville Burton and Wilbur Cross, the Siceloffs broke away from the condescending notion that the Black community needed to be “taught” citizenship to become “civilized” and “Americanized” and eventually understood the “Christian commitment and theological worldview” of their African American neighbors long before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought it into the mainstream.
Throughout the 1960s, Penn Center sponsored and hosted interracial conferences on civil rights organized by groups such as the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, Southern Regional Council, South Carolina Council on Human Relations, World Peace Foundation, and the Peace Corps. The Baha’i Faith also held religious meetings at Penn to avoid scrutiny due to the interracial makeup of its congregation and their opposition to segregation. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held citizenship education classes at Penn, taught by iconic organizers Andrew Young, Dorothy Cotton, Bernice Robinson, and Septima P. Clark. These integrated organizations stealthily met and strategized on this isolated campus, safely under the radar of local authorities, the public and the press.Young eventually introduced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Penn Center. King, his SCLC lieutenants, and countless unnamed activists met with the SCLC at Penn five times between 1964 and 1967.
The isolated campus on St. Helena Island became a bastion of peace and a place of refuge where King could unwind, breathe freely and express himself openly, saying things in front of groups at Penn that he couldn’t say on the national stage. Folk singer Joan Baez, who attended a retreat in 1966, recalled King saying, “he couldn’t take the pressure anymore, that he just wanted to go back…and preach in his little church, and he was tired of being a leader.” At Penn, King was able to voice publicly his unpopular anti-Vietnam War stance and express his concerns for the 40 million Americans living in poverty, which led to his strong opinions about the intrinsic evils of capitalism.
King organized retreats at Penn Center as opportunities for he and fellow SCLC members to debate the utility of nonviolence and the need to broaden the civil rights movement from a regional to a national focus. During a retreat in September 1965, SCLC leadership and staff became embroiled in fierce debate over whether to relocate the movement to Chicago. Septima Clark and other veteran staffers, as well as the Penn staff, felt that citizenship education should be the focus. They believed that protests and demonstrations had a place in the movement but should be secondary to laying the groundwork.
Younger staffers, frustrated by the slow pace of progress, wanted more direct-action protests. SCLC leaders decided to take the movement to the North and begin training staff for activism in the Chicago campaign. At the same time, Diane Nash Bevel, a former Freedom Rider who had joined the SCLC staff in 1962, would continue to develop educational programs on nonviolence in the South.
Subsequent retreats revealed the continuing evolution of the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. King and the SCLC. In November 1966, during one of the only formal speeches he gave at Penn, Dr. King connected the long struggle for African American civil rights to the neglected fight for economic equality. Tying his antiwar stance to his broader focus on human rights, the civil rights icon pledged to use nonviolence to fight America’s three evil, “inseparable triplets”: racism, excessive materialism, and militarism. King’s speech and the sessions from this retreat became the basis for his 1967 book entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? A year later, King and the SCLC returned to finalize plans for a mass demonstration in Washington D.C. to protest poverty and the evils of capitalism. Dubbed the “Poor People’s Campaign,” the plan received mixed reviews and caused further division within the ranks of the SCLC.
King did his best to reaffirm the SCLC’s role of offering hope, determination, and a commitment to nonviolence. Four months later, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, the day after he arrived to support striking sanitation workers in the city. Penn had begun constructing a remote cabin on the marsh for future visits but he was killed before it was completed. It is still referred to as the Martin Luther King cabin.The historic campus, Brick Church, and surrounding areas were listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 9, 1974. In subsequent decades, Penn Center continued to serve as a site for church and organizational retreats, a training center for various organizations, and an educational site for Black history and culture.
In January 2017, President Barack Obama designated the Beaufort National Landmark District, Camp Saxton Site, Penn Historic District and the Old Beaufort Firehouse as the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park to preserve and commemorate activities during Reconstruction under management of the National Park Service.
In 2021, the Penn Center was added to the African American Civil Rights Network (AACRN), as well as the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network