June 28, 2019, St. Helena Island, SC-
I am of the opinion that there should be no child left behind-and I don’t mean to throw us back to the Federal educational initiative by that name, which only met the need in a limited fashion.
Truly meeting a child’s needs is something that no “one size fits all” program can possibly address. The basis for any effort to improve a person’s well-being is love for that person, as an extension of one’s love for humanity.
Penn Center, in the heart of this Sea Island near Beaufort, is a shining example of the true meaning of “No Child left Behind”. Its genesis was the implementing of the Emancipation Proclamation. One thing that was ever in Abraham Lincoln’s mind, when he contemplated freeing the slaves in the Confederate States, was the immediate unleashing on Southern society of millions of illiterate people, the majority of whom were also not trained in any skilled trade. “Forty acres and a mule”, the mantra of freed enslaved minister Garrison Frazier, turned into a scattershot attempt to relieve that society of its immediate burden, once it became actual Federal policy. Lincoln himself, hamstrung by his own conviction that any given White man was inherently superior to any given person of another “race”, had no coherent plan to alleviate the situation.
So, it fell to Rev. Frazier and a council of educated Black men, in the Lowlands from Savannah to Charleston, to devise and implement a plan to establish a school for the children of the Sea Islands region. Penn School, established, as its name implies, with the support of the Society of Friends, became just such a school. It was initially established in 1862, even before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Truth be known, word had reached the Black community in Savannah that many slaveholders in Virginia, Louisiana and Georgia were teaching their male slaves how to read and write. Many others had been taught, surreptitiously, by the wives and children of their masters. The former estate of a freed slave, Harvey Gantt, became the site of an expanded school, in 1864. By 1865, Quaker abolitionists in Philadelphia began supporting the school, and it was named Penn School. In 1901, Hampton Institute, a Black college in Virginia, began sponsoring the school, which was cut off from public funding by Beaufort County’s segregationist leadership. Even with this assistance, though, the school continued to struggle. In 1948, Penn School closed and Penn Center, a community development and cultural preservation institution, emerged on the property.
Today, Penn Center is a haven for the study and preservation of Gullah language and culture and for the promotion of Civil Rights. Its York W. Bailey Museum has a wealth of African art and Gullah artifacts. The Center promotes the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park, of which it is the epicenter, and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, from Florida to North Carolina. It maintains active relationships with people in West and Central Africa, with the President of Sierra Leone visiting the Center, in 1988.
Here are some scenes of Penn Center’s grounds. No photography is permitted in the Bailey Museum itself.
The Gantt House (Pine House) today serves as one of the learning sites for Penn Center.
These storage cisterns were once the school’s main source of fresh water.
This is Darrah Hall, Penn Center’s oldest building, built in 1903. It is used for large events.
The flat bottom boat is a staple of Low Country transportation. This one was built and used by freed slaves.
This is the Center’s Administration Building.
Here is one of the first classroom buildings of Penn School, circa 1905.
This complex was a beehive of activity, during my visit. Vibrant teens were calling out friendly greetings to me, while their teachers were trying to get them focused on the activity of the afternoon.
As in any community, a small cemetery has sprung up at Penn Center.
I end with two shots of Brick Church, the original site of the school, and which predates Penn Center.
There is much to learn, as yet, about Gullah Geechee culture, so I know this is far from my last visit to the Low Country. Penn Center, though, gave me an excellent introduction.
NEXT: The Wonder That Is Charleston