Historic Penn Center

Home of Freedom’s Bell in the South

04/01/2012
Field Trip Destination

Tucked in the heart of the South Carolina Sea Islands between glimmering marshes and deep water, nestled beneath the silvery moss draped limbs of massive live oaks, you will find the Penn Center - the site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves and one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today.

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Located on St. Helena Island, one of the most beautiful and historically distinct of the South Carolina Sea Islands, Penn Center sits at the heart of Gullah culture, on the 50 acres of the historical campus of Penn School. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974, it is a part of the Penn School Historic District which is comprised of nineteen buildings related to and used by Penn School including Brick Church, Darrah Hall (one of the oldest buildings on St. Helena Island) and Gantt Cottage where Martin Luther King Jr. lodged. Old burial grounds, a nature trail, Chowan Creek, acres of pines and native flora and fauna also grace the property.

Penn Center, Incorporated is a non-profit organization designed to promote and preserve Sea Island history and Culture. Begun in 1862 as Penn School, an experimental program to educate Sea Island slaves freed at the beginning of the Civil War, it is the oldest and most persistent survivor of the Port Royal Experiment. The first principals were Northern missionaries Laura Towne and Ellen Murray. Both spent the next forty years of their lives living among and educating former Sea Island slaves – the Gullah people of the South Carolina Low Country. For a while, Charlotte Forten, the first African American teacher at Penn School, joined in this endeavor.

By 1900, the name changed to Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School when new principals Rossa Cooley and Grace House took over leadership. Providing teacher training, training in wheel-wrighting, carpentry, cobbling, blacksmithing, and the agricultural sciences, Penn educated students from neighboring Sea Island communities throughout South Carolina. When the school closed in 1948, it became Penn Community Services Center, an agency focusing on self-sufficiency and the advancement and development of the Sea Island community and its inhabitants.

During the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference chose Penn as a training site for retreat and strategic planning. By the early 80s, it became Penn Center, an agency linked to the past and connected to the future. Today, it fosters a vision of shared culture, preserved history and attainable world harmony. Its mission is to preserve the unique history, culture and environment of the Sea Islands 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 York W. Bailey Museum is named for a Penn School graduate and the first African American Medical doctor to serve St. Helena and neighboring Islands. The museum is housed in the Historic Cope Industrial Building. It is comprised of four Galleries and a Book and Gift Store. Open to the public, over 10,000 visitors come to the museum each year to take part in its Cultural Lessons and Demonstrations Educational Program, view its exhibits, for public programming, or to simply experience the unique blend of history, education and culture. The permanent exhibit, Education for Freedom: the Penn School Experiment 1862 showcases some of the oldest professional photographs of African American people. Also on display are the original 1863 school bell, and artifacts related to Sea Island and African American history and culture.

The Conference Center is comprised of four newly restored residential facilities, and a waterfront Retreat House. It accommodates 85 residential guests, has two meeting halls, Frissell Community House and Darrah Hall, and ten meeting rooms. Our state of the art Emory S. Campbell Dining Hall features traditional Gullah meals including local favorites such as Shrimp and Grits and Frogmore Stew.

The History and Culture Department maintains Penn Center’s historic collection and arranges cultural services and demonstrations for groups visiting Penn’s campus. Programs and demonstrations designed for students include:

  • York W. Bailey Museum Scavenger Hunt
  • Sea Island Sweet Grass Baskets
  • Casting the Net
  • Spirituals
  • Gullah Storytelling
  • The Patchwork Quilt -
  • “Who Dat Gullah?”
  • “Penn School and the Port Royal Experiment”
  • “Still Tongue Mek a Wise Head: Gullah Women as History Tellers
  • Culture Bearers”
  • “Family Across the Sea”

We are also partnered with the Lowcountry Estuarium in Port Royal to provide both an on campus presentation with live animals from local waters and on and off campus field adventures.

For more information visit our website www.penncenter.com. Get booking info at 843-838-2474 or email [email protected].
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  5/2/2013 8:02:05 AM
Alison Darby 


Education Specialist, BAMA 
I would like to suggest that you contact the Belton Area Museum Association to feature the several museums under our umbrella and our educational activities in an upcoming issue of your magzine. We have several interesting historical displays, annual educational events, and rotating exhibits of interest to teachers. We also produce lesson plans that can be used by teacher before and after a visit. Please contact Shirah Smith at 864-338-7400 or [email protected]

Issue 19.1 | Summer 2017

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