On its 150 anniversary, Penn Center's looks to its past, future

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On its 150 anniversary, Penn Center's looks to its past, future

By ANNE CHRISTNOVICH
achristnovich@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, June 23, 2012   |  517 Words  |  

The Penn Center wrapped up its two-day 150th anniversary celebration Saturday with an eye on both its past and its future.

Founded in 1862 by Laura Matilda Towne and Ellen Murray as a school for the children of freed slaves, it was named after Pennsylvania founder William Penn and was one of the first schools of its kind in the country.

Beaufort County Councilman Paul Sommerville said his family was a part of that early effort. The family came to the area to work on a project that became know as the Port Royal Experiment in which newly freed black Americans took over abandoned plantations to make a new life for themselves.

"The Port Royal Experiment was just that -- an experiment," Sommerville said. "Nobody knew what they were supposed to do or how to do it."

Over the next 80 years, churches, buildings and other infrastructure were added to the site, said former Penn Center executive director Emory Campbell. The school closed in 1948, but the center continued the work of educating the community.

It became a safe haven during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, serving as one of the few places in the country where movement leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. could safely meet with black and white activists to plan strategy.

"(Penn Center's) history has been one of problem solving," Campbell said. "For black people, it became a beacon to the world."

The anniversary celebration included educational events and exhibits representing different eras of American history.

On Saturday morning, reenactors portraying the storied 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment raised the flags at the center. The 54th was one of the first black regiments allowed to fight in the Civil War, and was composed of freed slaves who volunteered to go to war. Many of the regiment's members fell at Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863 and though that battle was lost, it proved that black Americans were willing to fight and die for their country.

Re-enactor Terry James has been donning the heavy wool Union uniform since 1995 as a way to share the regiment's role in U.S. history.

"These men didn't have to fight... a lot of them joined knowing they were going to die," he said. "They wanted to make sure others were free, too."

Friday and Saturday's anniversary events, coordinated by the Penn Center Board of Trustees and the Penn Club, are the first part of a three-year celebration, event coordinator Victoria Smalls said. This year's focus was on the founding of Penn School.

Next year will focus on Penn Center's role in the Civil Rights movement.

In 2014, the focus will be on the center's role in the future of St. Helena Island, Smalls said.

Throughout its history, Penn Center has survived war, racism and occasional funding woes.

"Penn gave 'perserverance' a new meaning," Campbell said Saturday.

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