The class and I had a fantastic time today, visiting the Penn Center in St. Helena Island, SC. We learned so much and had the opportunity to visit some very important historic places that hold significant meaning and history for South Carolina residents. We were able to visit the Penn Center, and hear Rosalyn Browne talk to us about the history of the Penn School and the events that occurred after Laura Towne and Ellen Murray came to begin their work with the emancipated “former slaves” of the area. We were able to visit the museum, hear about plans for future expansion and education for visitors and go on a tour of the surrounding area. We were able to gain insight into the importance of the Penn Center, the Port Royal Experiment, and many other facets of life in the time of the Penn School after the Civil War and the emancipation of the enslaved population of the area. One of the most poignant moments for me was when we were shown the trail that lead to the seaside “cabin” that was constructed for Dr. Martin Luther King and his family, that they were never able to take advantage of. Dr. King visited St. Helena and the Penn Center and spoke with the people there. He planned to come back eventually and take advantage of the area and its hospitality but, sadly, never got the chance. Our guide showed us the buildings, gravesites and other areas of interest that helped us to understand some of the significance of the people who attended the Penn Center. We learned that many former students, colleagues, professors and supporters of the Penn Center visited to help teach the local residents the value of maintaining the power they had in terms of the real estate they acquired and were granted as “heir’s property” in the St. Helena area.
We were treated to a wonderful meal of shrimp and rice, green beans, cornbread, bread pudding, tea, and salad. We were able to dine in the dining hall and then go on a tour to significant areas in St. Helena Island that were important in SC History. The Penn Center is attempting to expand and has a massive collection of photographs, letters and other significant documents of importance to all residents and visitors. The University of South Carolina was given the opportunity to house the artifacts that the Penn Center has collected but because of SC laws governing segregation of its citizens, the materials were sent to Charlotte, N.C. Hopefully, in the days to come, the University of South Carolina and the legislators of S.C. will see the benefit of housing, maintaining and promoting the artifacts from the Penn Center, and work in partnership with the Penn Center to help communicate the valuable historical lessons that will enlighten, inspire and encourage South Carolina and world citizens for years to come.
Charles Kirtley is the Assistant Principal at River Oaks Middle School in North Charleston, SC