Welcome to Penn Center
Tucked in the heart of the South Carolina Sea Islands surrounded by glimmering marshes and nestled beneath the silvery moss-draped limbs of massive live oaks, is Penn Center - the site of the former Penn School, one of the country's first schools for freed slaves. It is one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. Penn Center is located on St. Helena Island, one of the most beautiful and historically distinct of the South Carolina Sea Islands, and at the heart of Gullah culture. The 50- acre historic campus of Penn School was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1974, and is the only African American landmark district in the nation. Established 150 years ago in 1862 as Penn School, an experimental program to educate Sea Island slaves at the beginning of the Civil War, it is the oldest and most persistent survivor of the Port Royal Experiment. The two founders were Northern missionaries: Laura M. Towne, a Unitarian from Pennsylvania, and her friend, Ellen Murray, a Quaker from Rhode Island, who spent the next 40 years of their lives serving the people of St. Helena in so many ways, in spite of numerous severe hardships. Charlotte Forten (1862-1864) of Philadelphia was the first Northern African American teacher at Penn. Upon Ms. Towne’s death in 1901, the school became incorporated under a Board of Trustees, and was heralded as a showplace as the new Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School, influenced by the Hampton Institute, until it closed in 1948.
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