Heritage Days a link to Penn Center’s place in history

9 mins read

Annual celebration returns Nov. 8-10

By Victoria A. Smalls 

Why is Penn Center’s Heritage Days Celebration so important to our community?

Because so many people — children and families, students and scholars, locals and visitors, farmers and land-owners, institutions and organizations in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and across the country — have been touched by the mission, programs, events and actions of Penn School, Penn Community Services and Penn Center. Because Penn has been instrumental in preserving and strengthening the Sea Island’s culture, the idea of a Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration was born 37 years ago in August 1981.

Penn Center has been in existence for 156 years, yet questions such as “What was Penn School?,” “What is the Gullah Geechee Culture?,” and “What is Penn Center?” are asked every day, by so many people nationally, internationally, and even locally, further validating the need for a Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration.

The Heritage Days Celebration is an effort to fully engage and expose the public to Penn Center–Penn School National Historic Landmark District, the Sea Islands’ history and culture, and the various Africanisms that still exist. What is most important, it is a gesture to reveal to each and every person that Penn Center is a place where people are always welcome, a place where Gullah Geechee people can learn about their ancestral connections to West and Central Africa, and a place where all are welcome and encouraged to learn and discover more about this unique and beautiful culture.

At its inception in 1981, the Heritage Days Celebration was a single day of events focusing on sharing oral histories of the elders and leaders of St. Helena Island, the viewing of historical movies like “To Live As Free Men,” which depicted the history of Penn School, the preservation of the Sea Island spirituals, and partaking in delicious food prepared from Sea Island recipes. The day soon grew into a three-day celebration, with an opening ceremony honoring the founders of Penn School, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, and its first black teacher, Charlotte Forten; a youth theatrical play depicting the story of Penn School; a featured artist exhibition and reception; and youth day — inviting over 700 students from local and regional schools, and also including an annual visit from students who attend a school in the Bronx, New York. The celebration includes an educational symposium, Gullah Roots Village, an old-fashioned fish fry, oyster roast and crab crack, accompanied with live music. The final, day kicks off with a grand heritage parade, plenty of local artists and authors, center stage entertainment that unfolds throughout the day, local and regional food vendors, local farmers selling their bountiful harvest, and opportunities to purchase keepsakes and souvenirs from craft vendors.

The happenings at Penn Center’s Heritage Days Celebration are not at all new ideas. The community came together and participated in these activities annually from the early 1900s until Penn School closed as a private school in 1948. Throughout that time period, the day was known as “Harvest Day.” When the idea for Heritage Day was conceived, local community visionaries believed it was brand new. This only reinforces why the Heritage Days Celebration is so appropriate and vital for our community. For at Penn Center a meaningful legacy exists.

Recently, the Heritage Days Celebration has welcomed nearly 20,000 visitors and serves as a festive homecoming for all to enjoy. Located at Penn Center — formerly the Penn School, one of the first schools for the formerly enslaved and their descendants living in the Sea Islands and surrounding areas — visitors can experience the unique setting of the 50-acre historic campus of Penn Center.

Penn Center–Penn School National Historic Landmark District is nestled in the heart of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area that stretches between Pender County, North Carolina and St. Johns County, Florida. Located on St. Helena Island, the largest of the South Carolina sea islands, the National Landmark is surrounded by a landscape of rivers and beautiful winding tidal marshes that lead to the Atlantic Ocean, guarded by stately palmetto trees and groves of live oaks adorned with Spanish moss. The campus encompasses 19 historic buildings and structures that are true to the history of Penn School, which also serve as a conference center, along with two Reconstruction Era National Monuments — Darrah Hall (built in 1903) and Brick Baptist Church (1855). The Penn Center Conference Center is comprised of four restored residential buildings, a cafeteria and a waterfront retreat cabin built for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who frequented Penn Center’s grounds with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the Civil Rights movement. 

Penn Center is one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. Its history spans the Civil War, Reconstruction Era, Civil Right movement, and still exists as an epicenter, promoting and preserving the history and culture through its commitment to education, community development and social justice. Penn’s mission has always served as a beacon of light for the community and the nation. In 1948, Penn School’s private program ended and Penn’s Board of Trustees agreed to have classes remain on the campus until the Beaufort County public school was built on St. Helena Island. Many locals attended Penn School as a public school through 1953.

Penn became known as Penn Community Services Inc. in 1951 and initiated community development programs to meet the most urgent needs of the community. During this time, the Penn Nursery School and Rossa Cooley Health Center were started. Penn was the only facility in South Carolina, and one of only two places in the entire South, where bi-racial groups could meet during the Jim Crow segregated 1950s and 1960s. Penn also became a major retreat and strategic planning site for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC staff to formulate strategies for social change in the South and the rest of the country. The historic March on Washington, D.C., in 1963 was partly planned on Penn’s campus, and the pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech was partially penned on the campus. Because of its stand for social justice, Penn continued to welcome multi-racial groups to converge on its campus in the 1960s, like Peace Corps volunteers training before serving overseas and in Africa, and religious groups like the Baha’i’s and Quakers.

In the words of Congressman John Lewis, “More than a century since its founding, Penn Center still remains at the forefront in the fight for human dignity.” Penn Center continues to thrive as a national monument promoting historic preservation, as well as a catalyst for economic sustainability throughout the Sea Islands. Its far-reaching impact on local, national and international communities has been the greatest legacy of the Penn Center’s history. For these reasons and many more, our support of Penn Center is paramount.

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