St Helena Island’s Historic Treasure
The Penn School was founded in 1862 as a part of the Port Royal Experiment. It was one of the first schools in the south to educate former slaves. 80 students were enrolled in the first year, and classes were held in the brick church. Just two years later, the school started acquiring more land, and by 1865, a three-room schoolhouse was built. This school building made history as the first schoolhouse built for the instruction of former slaves.
Between 1865 and 1877 Penn School was supported by a private charity started by Quaker abolitionists in Philadelphia. The school started experiencing financial difficulties and the Hampton Institute of Virginia provided sponsorship from 1901-1917. The academic school reorganized in 1901 as the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School. For eighty-six years the school educated African Americans of St Helena Island.
The Great Depression sunk the school into further financial hardship and by 1931 enrollment dropped from 600 to 262. By 1948 Penn School closed when the school was removed to the Beaufort County School District. The facility became Penn Community Services, focusing on social justice and the Civil Rights Movement. The center trained midwives, opened the first daycare for African Americans, started a Teen Canteen and developed a community health care clinic.
Penn Center was a very important retreat during the Civil rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other human rights advocates spent valuable time here. The center was used for religious and organizational retreats, Peace Corps training and the study of black history and culture during the 1970s.
The Penn School for Preservation was started in the 1980s with the establishment of the Land Use and Environmental Education Program. This promoted sustainability and economic development. Sierra Leone’s President Joseph Momoh even made a trip to Penn Center in 1988. The following year a group of Gullah community members traveled to his country for a reunion with ancestral families.
By 1990 the center was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation “Most Endangered Historic Places” list. The mission of this list was to focus on promoting and preserving Gullah cultural assets. Then in 2006 Congress created The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor along the coastal areas from Florida to North Carolina.
Many important buildings make up the Penn Center campus. Visit the Courtney P. Siceloff Welcome Center and Gift Shop to purchase your admission to the museum and self-guided walking tour map. The gift shop has Penn Center memorabilia and books such as the Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne, Penn Center: A History Preserved by Orville Vernon Burton and De Nyew Testament (Gullah Bible)
The York W. Bailey Museum began life as the Cope Industrial Shop. Built in 1912, this facility was used to teach harness-making, wheel-righting, blacksmith, basketry, carpentry and cobbling classes. The building was named after Philadelphia Quaker Francis Cope, who served as a trustee to the school for many years. African American Civil War hero General Robert Smalls spoke at the 1912 dedication. The building was rededicated in 1999 and repurposed as the York W. Bailey Museum. The museum was named for a prominent Penn School graduate who attended Howard University medical school, then returned to St. Helena to bring medical services to his community.
View the Education for Freedom exhibition in the museum, which interprets the 86-year history of Penn School beginning in 1862, Penn School during the Reconstruction Era, Penn Normal Industrial and Agricultural School, and the Civil Rights Movement at Penn Community Services. The museum also showcases many other temporary and traveling exhibitions. The museum is open Monday – Saturday 9 am – 4 pm.
Discover and learn how all 25 historic buildings and structures were utilized during the history of Penn School and Penn Center. Enjoy a self-guided walking tour of the 50-acre Penn School National Historic Landmark District. Maps are available in the welcome center. Groups can also enjoy a more engaging experience with a Penn School Guided Walking Tour.