Penn Center draws support from 1772 Foundation

4 mins read

Historic Penn Center has received a grant from the 1772 Foundation for a 12-month capacity building project that will improve Penn Center’s ability to sustain itself and be effective well beyond its current 157-year-old history, which spans the Civil War, Reconstruction Era, and Civil Rights Movement through today.

The 1772 Foundation uses matching grants to ensure the safe passage of America’s historic buildings and farmland to future generations.

In 2017, an extraordinary moment in public history occurred with the creation of the Reconstruction Era National Monument. Penn Center’s Darrah Hall became one of four monument sites in Beaufort County.

With the founding of Penn School in 1862, Beaufort County became the birthplace of Reconstruction. In 2019, the Reconstruction monument expanded to become the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park in portions of Beaufort County to include St. Helena Island. 

“These external events, as well as internal changes lead us to the conclusion that we need to increase the effectiveness of Penn Center with a focus on the restoration, preservation and protection of the Penn Center physical assets,” Penn Center interim executive director Marion Burns said in a release. “We also need to better support our ability to accomplish our mission by obtaining greater financial performance from our land and building assets, and also strengthen our programs, management systems and governance.

“We believe the two key capacity building strategies vital to Penn Center at this time, are the development of robust financial plans to diversify and expand our organizational revenue sources, and improve our organization’s operations, administration, and management. Penn would also like to establish stronger partnerships with local community groups and organizations like universities, the National Park Service, preservation organizations, and regional and national historical and cultural organizations.” 

Specific activities and topics supported by the 1772 Foundation include a feasibility study, strategic planning, data collection, examination of best models, community visioning, organizational assessment and the examination of an internal revolving fund. 

The Foundation funding includes staffing, consultant and facilitation costs; and funds for group convening and meetings. This will be a short-term (one-year) project, which will enable Penn Center to catalyze organizational development activities, strengthen the organization and help it better fulfill its mission. 

Future staff requirements will be determined by the results of the planning process and feasibility study.  

“We anticipate being able to implement a new staffing plan through increased revenue from programs, grants and a new funding strategy,” Burns said. 

Penn Center is one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. Founded in 1862 as Penn School, Penn Center was a central component of the Port Royal Experiment and was one of the first academic schools in the South for formerly enslaved West Africans known as the Gullah Geechee people. 

After the school was removed to the Beaufort County School District, it became Penn Community Services, taking on the mantle of social justice and ushering in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences and other multi-racial groups and organizations like the Peace Corps.

Designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1974, Penn Center is a repository of historical and cultural heritage of the African American Sea Island experience. 

In 2017, President Barack Obama designated four sites in Beaufort County a Reconstruction Era National Monument. Most recently, in March 2019, the monument became the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park. 

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