By Tess Malijenovsky
“It’s not just the unique history of St. Helena, or the state of South Carolina. It’s a unique American history, and a lot of people don’t know about it,” said Victoria Smalls about Penn Center. Smalls is in charge of organizing the 150th anniversary of Penn Center’s foundation in 1862 during the Civil War. The event will mark a three-year commemoration beginning this weekend, June 22-23.
Founded by two missionaries, Penn School would be the first school of its kind in the South to educate newly freed slaves. It would be the only safeguard for interracial groups in South Carolina to meet with “the King” during the Civil Rights Movement. It would teach the first volunteers in the Peace Corps about “the third world,” the jungle-like St. Helena Island, which had not the modernized tools of agriculture but instead a rich language and culture foreign even to other Americans.
Today, Penn Center is a nationally historical landmark and a community center with the mission “to promote and preserve the Sea Islands’ history and culture.”
As told by Executive Director Walter Mack: “[The Penn Center] was the people’s answer to everything from education to how to grow food to politics to land retention. Everyone came here and it hasn’t changed that much … We are the heartbeat of this community and Penn has responded to the needs and wants of the people of this community — not only on St. Helena Island, but I would say everyone within the Gullah-Geechie Cultural Heritage Corridor.”
The Founder’s Day Celebration this weekend will focus on the founding of Penn School, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Robert Smalls and his capture of the steamship planter through the Reconstruction era. Everyone is invited to learn more on guided historical tours Friday, June 22, at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.; or to visit the Regional Art Showcase at its York W. Bailey Museum from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Enjoy the “Fish Fry with Blues” by local celebrity Bill DuPont from 12-3 p.m. on the Frissell Grounds. It’s also a chance to stop by the book signing with Bob Rogers, author of “First Dark: A Buffalo Soldier’s Story” — a fictional work based on real events and people during the Civil War, Indian Wars, American Reconstruction and Mexican Revolution. Also at the signing will be illustrator John W. Jones, well known for his watercolor paintings of Penn’s historical buildings.
Also, don’t miss the first public screening on Friday at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. of a 30-minute documentary highlighting the deep connection between the Sea Islanders and the land and water that sustains them. The filmmakers and several of the local resident featured in the film will be in attendance.
At the end of the day from 4-6 p.m. in Frissel Hall forum facilitator Fred Washington, Beaufort County Board of Education Chairman, will join 11 expert panelists and members of the community in drawing the future of Penn. A true testament to the Penn Center’s attention to the wants of its community, this community forum will discuss “Penn Center: Then, Now and Tomorrow.”
“Because it does take the whole community and because this is a community center, you want to have everyone’s input — youth, a college student to a 104-year-old person,” chimed Smalls and Mack together.
Saturday, June 23, will begin with an opening ceremony that includes the 54th Massachusetts Vol. infantry Civil War reenactment, the sesquicentennial memorial unveiling and spiritual vocals of church choirs. Penn Center, Inc. will host a banquet at the historic Brick Baptist Church built by West African slaves. Then the celebration will culminate with keynote speakers Roland J. Gardner and Dr. Emory S. Campbell.
Gardner is the C.E.O. of Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, Inc., which provides affordable health services for more than 19,000 patients in the three counties. Of course, before Mr. Gardner was recognized nationally and locally for his excellence in leadership, he was a graduate of Penn Center’s Nursery School and a lifetime committed supporter of Penn Center as a former chairman on the Board of Trustees and now an 1862 Circle inductee.
Dr. Campbell, also an 1862 Circle inductee, is the Executive Director Emeritus of Penn Center and one of the nation’s leading experts on Gullah culture. Campbell was the former chairman of the Gullah-Geechie Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and is currently the Director of Gullah Heritage Consulting Services and the manager of Gullah Heritage Trail Tours. He is also working with a team to produce “De Nyew Testament,” a bible translation into Gullah with marginal text of the King James version.
“I’m so amazed of the role that Penn played not only in this region but in the history of the United States,” Mack remarked. “Education for Freedom — that was the key. The whole idea of Reconstruction for the South, it started here. Teaching citizenship to newly freed people, that all started here. No other part of the South. Right here. It used to be a taboo [for Gullah people] to talk about their history or speak their language because it would hold them back. Things have changed. We’re letting the world know we have a unique culture here that needs to be preserved.”