Penn Center
St. Helena Island, South Carolina

The Butler Building

Until recently The Butler Building housed the York W. Bailey Museum. Named after Dr. York W. Bailey, who was born on St. Helena Island in 1881 on the Cedar Grove Plantation. Doctor Bailey received his elementary schooling at Penn Normal and Industrial Agricultural School. After graduating from Penn, Doctor Bailey attended John C. Smith University. He later attended Howard University where he received his Degree in Medicine. After receiving his Degree he returned to St. Helena Island and administered to the residents of the Islands until he retired in 1957. His home and office are on the Historical Register and they are located in the Corner Community. The York W. Bailey Museum exhibited Oral History, Photographs, Arts and Crafts that illustrated the rich Historical and Cultural lifestyle of the Gullah/GeeChee people on the Islands. The Butler Building is framed by beautiful live oak trees that depicts the environment in a untouched natural state of beauty. It is the most photographed building on the campus.

Copyright © 1998, All Right Reserved
This material, or any portion thereof cannot be reproduced without written permission

Penn Center is the only Black Historical land mark
on the National Register in the State of South Carolina
Copyright © 1993, all rights reserved
This material, or any portion thereof cannot be reproduced without written permission

Sometime in the year 1520 a Spanish explorer, Vasquez de Allyon found a cluster of islands off the coast of South Carolina. The very fertile ground, aesthetics, temperature, humidity, and diseases of those islands resembled that of Western Africa. De Allyon associated these similarities with Sierra Leone, home of the Mende Tribe. He instantly named those islands Santa Elena.

Because of the similarities on these islands with Sierra Leone, West Africa, principally the, marshes, climate and texture of the soil it was possible to grow rice, Indigo, cotton, and spices which brought a high price on the European market. The inhabitants of Sierra Leone, particularly members of the Mende tribe, and inhabitants of the surrounding nations were experienced in growing these crops and were able therefore to survive the climate, and diseases that were wide spread. They were brought here in 1526 against their will and retained on these islands for the sole purpose of growing these crops.

Near the end of the Civil War in November 1862, some 12,000 Union troops landed on Hilton Head Island, across the Port Royal sound from Lands End on St. Helena. The Union forces proceeded toward Beaufort, seizing control of the nearby Islands including St. Helena where more than 10,000 slaves were kept. As the plantation owners fled the area, the slaves were unofficially free. As previously mentioned, slavery began on Santa. Elena in 1526, it should be noted that when the Union troops landed on Hilton Head Island in 1861, that signaled the end of 335 years of slavery.

Historians characterize slavery as being introduced in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Jamestown was an English penal Colony, one of the Colonies that was to become the United States of the Americas. Since South Carolina was a part of the thirteen original English Colonies, it should be underscored that slavery in what is now recognized as the United States of America was introduced on Santa Helena island in 1526. Technical slavery ended on St. Helena Island, and in the United States of America, when the Union troops were poised on Port Royal Island in 1862. With the positioning of Union troops on Port Royal Island, the slave holders fled the area. Therefore, it would be accurate to describe St. Helena as the birthplace of slavery in the United States, and where it was abolished 336 years later in 1862. Slavery officially ended when the Emancipation Proclamation was read on January 1, 1863.

It should also be stressed that racism was not a component of slavery, slavery was a method of obtaining free labor to develop the new world. It wasn't until the late 1800 early 1900 at the end of the reconstruction period that racism entered the picture and was used as a means of suppressing the ex-slaves and denying them the equal rights that was guaranteed to all free people.

Since each tribe spoke their own dialect, it was difficult for those that were retained here to communicate, therefore a unique language was developed. The descendants of those slaves that were brought here in 1526 are still living on St. Helena Island, and have retained their unique Culture, and language, we allude to them today as the "GULLAH" people. St. Helena Island is the only authentic African American community in the United States. Because of its isolation from main stream America, the residents of this island have been able too retained their unique culture.

The newly Freedmen were eager to become self-sufficient, but lacked the two main ingredients of a free person, education and land. The abolitionists of Pennsylvania, along with a group of Churches created the Freedmen Association. Ms. Laura M. Towne was sent to St. Helena Island in April, 1862 by the Freedmen's Association of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to educate the Freedmen of St. Helena Island. A short tiime later Ms. Elen Murray joined Ms. Towne and together a school was started and named Penn Normal School, in honor of the State of Pennsylvania. It began as an agriculture school, later Industrial courses were added and the name was changed to Penn Normal Industrial and Agriculture School. In June 1862, Ellen Murray was sent to join Laura M. Towne. Ms. Charolette Forten (read the Port Royal Experiment), a Black teacher from Salem, Massachusetts, volunteered to come help teach the Freedmen, she left after one year when her health failed. Madame's Towne and Murray served the people of these Islands for 40 years.

The first classes were held in a single room on Oaks Plantation. Because of the eagerness of the Freedman to become self-sufficient the enrollment grew rapidly. It wasn't long afterwards the single room became overcrowded and in September 1863, classes had to be moved to the Brick Baptist Church. Brick Baptist Church was built by slaves in 1855. The enrollment continued to grow and soon outgrew Brick Baptist Church. A prefabricated building was sent from Pennsylvania, by the Freeman's Association in 1864, and assembled on the current site of Penn Center a 50-acre tract of land that was purchased from a Freedman Hasting Gantt. Mr. Gnatt later served in the House of Representatives.

Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray was succeeded by Miss Rosa B. Cooley and Francis Butler in 1904. Miss Butler served the Island people one month, having come October 1, 1904 and passed to the great beyond November 1, 1904. Grace B. House came in 1905 and saw the need for industrial education. The trades taught was carpentry, black smithing, wheel wrighting, harness making, cobbling , mechanics. Midwives were also trained at Penn. Agriculture was taught to the students and community people. An agriculture instructor was employed in 1909. Teacher training courses were also offered. After graduation, these students taught in the county schools on the Island.

In 1944 Howard and Alice Kester came to head the school. Theirs was a short stay of four years. The year 1948 brought a change. The Beaufort County and State of South Carolina assumed the responsibility of educating the indigeous people of St. Helena and surrounding Islands. Penn School Trustee Board allowed the classes to remain on campus until the public school was built. In 1951 Penn became known as Penn Community Services Incorporated. Courtney Siceloff became Director. The last graduating class on Penn Campus was in 1953. Since that time Penn has initiated several community development programs and facilities on Penn's campus, and housed many conference groups. The Penn Nursery School and the Rossa B. CooLey Health Clinic were started.

Penn Center was the only facility in South Carolina where bi-racial groups could meet during the 50's and early 60's without being harassed. Penn Center also became a major retreat for civil rights groups. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his staff met here often to formulate strategies for social change in the South and the rest of the Nation. The Historic March on Washington, D.C., in 1963 was partially planned on Penn Center campus.

Of three Historical Landmarks on the National Register in the State of South Carolina, Penn Center is the only Black Historical land mark in the State on the register. In spite of the Historical prominence of the Institution it has continued without the recognition it rightfully deserves. We hope to raise your awareness of the vital role this Institution has played in the development of Black History in this Country by sponsoring a Heritage celebration the second weekend of November each year. There are symposiums by several authors that have written books about this community. Artist display their arts and crafts, Dignitaries from across the country and around the world attend this Historical event.

The following Material was complied and submitted by
Ms. Tracy Stormer, Public Program Coordinator for Penn Center

Penn Center

Nestled beneath the live oaks and Spanish moss on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, Penn Center is one of the most significant African-American institutions in the United States. From its inception, this site has been the location from which a better future for former slaves and their descendants has been strategically prepared. One of the earliest sites in the United States where large numbers of African-Americans were freed from slavery and given autonomy, St. Helena Island and Penn Center are a testimony to the African American persistence in the pursuit of liberty.

A 50 acre National Historic Landmark District, the mission of Penn Center is to preserve the Sea Islands' history, culture and environment through serving as a local, national, and international resource center and by acting as a catalyst for the development of programs for self-sufficiency.

The history of Penn Center is vitally important to all Americans and we must collectively assure that this history continues to be available. The legacy of triumph and survival that characterizes Penn Center is also your history.

Mr. Emory S. Campbell, Executive Director of Penn Center

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Penn School

After Union forces shelled and occupied the Port Royal area in November 1861, Northern benevolent societies were called upon for support. This was the beginning of the Port Royal Experiment, the first large-scale government effort which was designed to assist newly freed blacks in making the difficult transition from slavery to freedom. The missionary/teachers organized approximately thirty small schools all across St. Helena Island. The first freedmen school, with nine adult enrollees, was established in a back room at the Oaks Plantation House in June 1862. This school, which later became Penn School was founded by Laura Towne and Ellen Murray. They were later joined by Charlotte Forten, the first black teacher to come to St. Helena. The school quickly outgrew the small room and relocated to the Brick Baptist Church. Three years later a prefabricated building was erected on grounds across from the church and became the first Penn School house building.

In the early 1900's, the school adopted the Tuskegee curriculum and began operating as a normal, agricultural, and industrial education institution. Penn School closed as an independent school in 1948 when the state of South Carolina began to take an active role in providing a public education for African Americans of the sea islands, incorporating Penn School's curriculum and utilizing it's facility until 1953.

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The Sea Island

The Sea Islands form a slender, subtropical line hugging the American coastline from the Carolinas to north Florida. An uncommonly fertile complex of thickly wooded islands and blackloamed mainland, the sea islands are punctuate*by broad savannahs and salt marshes. Interlacing inlets, rivers and winding tidal creeks separate island from island, deep swamp from pine forest.

Isolated by the hauntingly beautiful physical barriers of tidal marshes and salt water creeks, the Sea Island of St. Helena, near Beaufort South Carolina, evokes a feeling of stepping back into time and nature. St. Helena is a land of small farms, village like family neighborhoods and bordering dense forests of palmetto, pine and oak; of swift, black top roads punctuated by dusty, treeshrouded dirt roads. The nuance of Africa resounds in "lowcountry" life and the culture of a people lives on. Once scenes of plantation life where slaves "made land" from wilderness existed here. In many ways, St. Helena still maintains a 19th century aura, when the island was prized for her plantations which grew the finest cotton ever known long staple Sea Island cotton. St. Helena's true prize, however, still remains: Her people and their heritage.

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Gullah Culture

Descendants of former slaves who inhabit the sea islands maintain a culture rich in African heritage. Thousands of enslaved Africans survived the middle passage to reach the sea island shores. Their ancestral traditions survived as well. With the people, Mende and Kissi, Malinke and Bantu came the soul of Africa, in their language, their music, their skills and their foodways, the rich legacy of a hundred tribes. The words "Gullah" and "Geechee" have come to describe that legacy. The Gullah language, a Creole blend of European and African tongues was born in the holding pens of Africa's slave coast, and matured on the isolated plantations of the coastal South. Gullah accents, words and intonations echo across the sea islands today. Here, survive the Gullah "shout", the Gullah rhythms translated from forbidden drums and the oldest of plantation melodies, reminders of a saved and sacred past. Still standing are the Praise Houses, revered since their slavery day beginnings. Within the walls o f these small buildings, religious worship and African elder culture combined to uplift and console the people. Sweetgrass basket weavers make their exquisite wares in the ancestral ways. African "long strip" quilting continues and chefs keep to the flavors of African rice coast foodways. Storytellers speak their ftin and wisdom. This is the heritage of a people who have survived.

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The African Culture

Located just under the hump of West Africa on the Atlantic Ocean, the sovereign republic of Sierra Leone is one of the smaller African countries, only a bit larger than South Carolina, with a population of approximately four million people. Sierra Leone is in the center of what is called the Mano River region, a tri-state area including Liberia to the south and Guinea to the north.

It is from this region that thousands of Africans were stripped from their homeland and families to be transported across the sea. Their first stop was Bunce Island located on the Sierra Leone River near Freetown. This was a holding place for Africans being sold as slaves and specialized in sending slaves to the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Slaves from this region had direct experience in agriculture, particularly rice farming and were often sold at a higher price. They brought not only their labor and knowledge of rice but their culture a culture that still thrives today.

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ef oona ent know weh oona da gwine,
Oona should kno weh oona come from


If una nah no usai una dey go,
Una foh no usai una kohmoht


If you don't know where you are going,
You should know where you came from

The following material was contributed by Ms. Marquetta L. Goodwine of the Afrikan Kultural Arts Networkx(AKANx)

We thank you for your interest in Gullah and Geechee cultures. We have now formed an organization to preserve these cultures and we hope that you will support our endeavors. Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition.

Gullah Language

Ef oona dey frum de lowcountree an de
islant, lookya, e da time fa go bak. Disyah
da wey fa cum toggedda wid wi peepol fa
hold on ta de tings wa wi peepol lef wi.

If you are someone that is concerned about the preservation of the branch of Africa's tree that has grown in America, this is a way for you to assist in nurturing and protecting that branch. Please join our coalition today, contact us to find out details on our current activities and what is to come.

We can be contacted at:
Extended Kinship Appeal, Inc. and the Afrikan Kultural Arts Networkx (AKANx)
Post Office Box 40-0199
Brooklyn NY 11240-0199 (212)439-1026 or Email:
"Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree."

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