The School of Hope

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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.

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The Gantt House  (Pine House) today serves as one of the learning sites for Penn Center.

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These storage cisterns were once the school’s main source of fresh water.

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This is Darrah Hall, Penn Center’s oldest building, built in 1903.  It is used for large events.

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The flat bottom boat is a staple of Low Country transportation.  This one was built and used by freed slaves.

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This is the Center’s Administration Building.

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Here is one of the first classroom buildings of Penn School, circa 1905.

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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.

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As in any community, a small cemetery has sprung up at Penn Center.

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I end with two shots of Brick Church, the original site of the school, and which predates Penn Center.

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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

 

The World In Harbour Town

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June 27-28, 2019, Hilton Head Island-

I made it to Hilton Head Island, if only for a night and the better part of  a day.  Today was a very full day on the road, with a lunch stop at New Moon Cafe, in far-off Aiken.  I will go somewhat out of my way to visit New Moon, because it’s all about the ambiance. Today did not disappoint.

After a lengthy ramble through the Low Country, I spent an hour or so in Beaufort-first looking for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Center, only to find it had moved and was closed by the time I got to the new location.  The town’s renewed prosperity is reflected in its Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, named for the former mayor, whose passion was revitalizing the dockside area of this port city.  Time was, when “America First” advocates would point to Beaufort as a place where people fighting poverty and famine should “turn, first”, during the Africa Famine Relief campaigns of the late 1960’s.  That is not the case today.  Beaufort is coming back.

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The sense of idyll is also found on Hilton Head Island, which I first visited with Penny and Aram, in 2007. On that particular day, torrential rain visited us, in the early morning. I opened the motel door, to find water at the level of the door stoop.  Fortunately, no alligators were present-as was the case earlier this year, with some other family members.  The property where we stayed in 2007 is now owned by Red Roof Inn.  The manager told me that drainage is still an issue for the property.  Tonight, though, the skies were clear and the ground dry.

I went over to Hilton Head Diner, where we had had pancakes for breakfast in ’07.  This time, I enjoyed dinner-a gourmet burger with waffle fries.  I sat at the counter, kibbitzing with one of the waitresses, Kim, and enjoying the tales of an island native named Mark.  His grandfather had built the causeway bridge that connects HH with the mainland.  After dinner, when I headed to my car, a local woman asked for help, in jump-starting her car. I found her battery had loose, rather poor connectivity. As Mark was a truck driver, I went back to the Diner and asked him for help.  He was able to rig a connection to her battery and we got her back on the road, in short order.

I found it necessary to pay admission to one of the staples of a Hilton Head visit:  Harbour Town, as the access is controlled by Sea Pines Resort- a golfer’s paradise.  I am not a golfer, but I like lighthouses and seaport areas and the day pass was reasonable, so in I went.  A light lunch at this relaxing patio bakery-cafe ensued.  The place was once the lighthouse keeper’s cottage.

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Hanging moss abounds in the Low Country.

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Here is Hilton Head Lighthouse, now a gift shop, operated by Sea Pines, which charges admission for those wanting to climb to the top.  The woman on the left and her sons in front were willing to be included in the photo, for scale.

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After walking around the area for several minutes, I came upon the same family looking at this unique boat.  Mystique is constructed almost entirely of teak and mahogany.

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Hilton Head, like other parts of the Low Country, was once the domain of Gullah Geechee culture, which used a blend of several West African languages and English, and preserved much of the traditional culture of enslaved Africans in the area.  Scant traces of the culture remain on Hilton Head, save Mitchelville, on the northwest corner of the island.  There was not much going on in Mitchelville, as I headed towards Penn Center, the first school for freed slave children, after the Civil War.  That unique institution is still offering the children of the Sea Islands a solid and complete education, blending practical skills with state-of-the-art technology and consideration of today’s issues.

As for Mitchelville, I do not take photos of people, especially in impoverished areas, without their consent.  Penn Center, on St. Helena Island, was much more amenable to a photographic record.  It is the subject of the next post.