Penn Center: A Little-known Haven of the Civil Rights Movement

Penn Center, MLK
Penn Center, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, has served as a bastion of peace and a place of refuge since post-Civil War reconstruction through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Today, it functions as an important cultural resource center. Screen shot from YouTube/HowStuffWorks

Nestled off the beaten path in the heart of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Islands of South Carolina's lowcountry, is an American treasure waiting to be discovered by lucky vacationers and passersby. Situated beneath ancient moss-laden live oaks and tucked between glimmering salt marshes and the Atlantic coast, Penn Center, located for 156 years on sleepy St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, may be the most important African-American historical landmark and educational-cultural center you've probably never heard of.


Penn and Reconstruction

Established six months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and three years before the 13th amendment legally abolished slavery, the Penn School was founded in 1862 by Pennsylvania Quaker and Unitarian missionaries as a main component of the Port Royal Experiment, an early example of Reconstruction in progress, even as the Civil War raged into the spring of 1865. Financed from donations raised by abolitionists, Penn (named after Quaker activist William Penn) was the first school founded in a Confederate state for the sole purpose of educating ex-slaves.

What began in the living room of the abandoned Oaks Plantation before the first school house was built, eventually grew to become a 50-acre campus (the land was donated by freedman and future businessman, Hastings Gantt) with 19 now-historic buildings, including the York W. Bailey Museum, which showcases an archive of rare photographs of African-Americans as well as scarce artifacts related to Gullah/Geechee history and culture.


In 1862 when the U.S. Navy seized the Port Royal Sound from Confederate troops, wealthy plantation owners fled St. Helena and the surrounding Sea Islands, reluctantly abandoning their prized crop of world-renowned Sea Island cotton and liberating between 10,000 and 32,000 slaves, who suddenly found themselves free and autonomous. Northern abolitionists and humanitarians saw the need to educate the freed slaves in hopes that their efforts would become a model for helping formerly enslaved people gain citizenship.

The first classes were taught by white abolitionists Laura Towne and Ellen Murray and briefly by Charlotte Forten, who was the first northern African-American teacher at Penn. The earliest curriculum followed the New England, euro-centric model of "socialized" education that included reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history and music.

In the early 1900s Rossa B. Cooley and Grace House, two other northern white women, revised the curriculum to follow Booker T. Washington's Hampton-Tuskegee model of industrial education. (Cooley, a photographer, documented the school in more than 3,000 photographs that now reside in the Penn School collection). Under the tutelage of Cooley and House, classical studies like algebra and Latin were eliminated and courses such as masonry, carpentry and the domestic arts were added. Although up to the end of World War II, the state of South Carolina required that African-Americans be educated only through the seventh grade, Penn provided schooling through the twelfth grade and offered adult education classes as well.

By the late 1940s, the population of St. Helena had dwindled significantly, as native islanders, young people in particular, moved from isolated Beaufort County to states in the North, or sought better employment opportunities in the larger cities of the South. In response, the Board of Trustees at Penn redefined the purpose of the school, and launched the Penn Community Service Center in 1948. As such, Penn Center became one of the few places in the Jim Crow South where interracial activist groups could convene overnight in integrated facilities without the threat of violence or legal consequences.


The Civil Rights Movement

During the 1950s and '60s, under the direction of devout Quakers, Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff, the Penn Center became a major, though somewhat secret, facilitator for civil rights activism and social justice, not just for South Carolina, but for the entire nation. In the 2014 book, "Penn Center: A History Preserved," authors Orville Burton and Wilbur Cross tell us that the Siceloffs listened to the islander's concerns and broke away from the condescending notion that the black community needed to be "taught" citizenship to become "civilized" and "Americanized." And that they came to understand "the Christian commitment and theological worldview of the southern African Americans before Martin Luther King, Jr. brought it to the attention of the world."

During the 1960s, Penn Center hosted numerous interracial human rights conferences with groups including the NAACP, the World Peace Foundation, the SRC, SCCHR, CORE, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Peace Corps, to name a few. Because of its isolated location, these integrated groups could stealthily meet to organize and strategize in a clandestine setting, safely under the radar of local authorities, the public and the press.


Baez, King
Martin Luther King, Jr. (right) with famed nonviolence advocate Ira Sandperl, singer Joan Baez and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson (partially hidden) at the Penn Center in 1966.
Screen shot from YouTube/HowStuffWorks.

It was former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, in his role as leader of the SCLC, who introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to the serenity and security of the coastal backwater that was Penn Center. King and his lieutenants, other luminaries of the civil rights movement and countless unnamed activists met with the SCLC at Penn five times between 1964 and 1967. It became a bastion of peace and a place of refuge where King could unwind, breathe freely and express himself openly, saying things in front of groups at Penn that he couldn't say on the national stage. Folk singer Joan Baez, who attended a retreat in 1966, recalled in "Penn Center: A History Preserved," King saying that "he couldn't take the pressure anymore, that he just wanted to go back...and preach in his little church, and he was tired of being a leader."

King composed many of his speeches at Penn, including his "I Have a Dream" speech, which he wrote while staying in the Hastings Gantt cottage where he often retreated. At Penn, King was able to voice publicly his unpopular anti-Vietnam stance and his concerns for the 40 million Americans living in poverty which led to his strongly held belief that there was something intrinsically wrong with capitalism. It was at the Penn Center that King explained what threatened the Beloved Community, the "three basic evils in America: the evil of racism, the evil of excessive materialism, the evil of militarism," which he called the "inseparable triplets" that any movement would necessarily have to address in order to elicit change.

According to Burton and Cross, even though Penn Center was remote, it still faced opposition from some white people regarding King's visits.

Walter Mack, a future executive director of Penn, told the authors how the community worked together to keep King out of the public eye: "The record of him coming was kept secret, even from the local sheriff ... They wouldn't tell anybody. You never knew who would want to hurt Dr. King."

Gantt Cottage, MLK
The Hastings Gantt cottage at Penn Center, where MLK wrote his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.
Screen shot from YouTube/HowStuffWorks

Joseph McDomick, retired Magistrate of St. Helena Island, said, "Even when he came here, it had to be kept secret ... We couldn't notify any law enforcement people because we didn't know who would be in that little group that would be after doing him in."

In December 1967 King held his fifth and final meeting with the SCLC at Penn. They discussed the Poor People's Campaign, and King told the gathering, "I don't know if I'll see all of you before April, but I send you forth."

Four months later, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the day after he'd told striking sanitation workers, "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end."

Late lowcountry author Pat Conroy, who attended high school in Beaufort, South Carolina and wrote lovingly and extensively about the Sea Islands in books like "The Water Is Wide" and "The Prince of Tides," and who'd met Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond and other civil rights leaders at Penn, said in a 2010 speech on its campus, "I watched my whole country change because of meetings that had taken place at Penn Center."

In a Nov. 11, 2016 article published in The Hill, current executive director, Dr. Rodell Lawrence, wrote, "Most Americans came from somewhere else to this continent and Penn Center provides us with a direct link to the African origins of slaves that occupied America's southeastern seaboard. It is a window to a place in which many African Americans emerged from bondage, and set out on a new journey as free men and women. It is a place and a time to celebrate. Penn Center vividly embodies the American ideal of "liberty and justice for all" and in every sense is a true historic national monument."

To that end, President Barack Obama, by executive order, made a swath of Beaufort County, South Carolina, including the Penn Center, a National Historical Monument to the Reconstruction Era one week before he left office in January 2017.