Follow these directions:
- Drive to Beaufort, SC (*Bonus tip: Learn how to pronounce “Beaufort”)
- Head down Sea Island Parkway to Saint Helena Island, SC
- Just past the Foolish Frog, make a right turn at the Gullah Grub Restaurant onto Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive
- In 0.6 miles, turn right.
The non-descript historical marker beside the road will say “Penn School,” and at first glance, you may be tempted to drive past it and on toward the green-grassed marshes and pristine beaches for which St. Helena Island is more commonly known.
But don’t do that. Or, at least, do that tomorrow.
For now, take that right turn into the dirt entrance. Park your car and step out into the salty, coastal air. Breathe deep. Take in the sight of the numerous, majestic live oaks rooted around the property, heavy-laden with Spanish moss and steeped in Gullah history. You are standing on a hidden gem of the coastal South —a place deemed the Reconstruction Era National Monument by President Obama in 2017. Stories of Reconstruction, educational equality, social justice, and the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement echo amid the 50 acres and 23 historic buildings of the Penn Center. Oh, if only walls could speak.
It was on a recent family trip that we found ourselves on this hallowed ground of the Penn Center. My family and I had spent seven summers vacationing in the area, and as my kids matured to ages where history lessons could be better gleaned and appreciated, we sought out opportunities during travel to take advantage of such learning adventures.
Our visit started as a whim. The day had been vacillating between overcast humidity and torrential downpours. Cabin fever had set in for the kids, and the lack of electronic entertainment had diminished their fondness for one another. A break in the weather gave us the opportunity to go out for lunch, and I, the perpetually planning mom I am, began looking up ways we could spend our afternoon. The Penn Center was less than a mile from our lunch spot, and in a matter of minutes, unbeknownst to us, we step into history.
We are greeted at the door of the York W. Bailey Museum by Mr. Robert Middleton, a tall, athletically framed African-American gentleman with kind eyes and a jovial spirit. Mr. Middleton moves with an energy and posture that belies his 90+ years, and as we chat, the significance of this monument upon which we have stumbled becomes clearer. Mr. Middleton had been a student on this campus, and having returned to his hometown of St. Helena Island many years prior, now volunteers at the museum six days a week, greeting guests and teaching them about the history of the Penn Center and the Gullah Geechee culture of the Coastal Sea Islands.
The welcome page of the Penn Center’s website reveals the depth of its roots:
“Penn Center, founded in 1862 as Penn School, a central component of the Port Royal Experiment, was one of the first schools in the South for formerly enslaved West Africans; this academic school reorganized in 1901 as the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School and existed for eighty-six years. 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 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences.”1
As we walk through the museum, my children look over the historical pictures illustrating the timeline of this noteworthy place. In one area, the different stages of milled corn can be held and touched alongside ancient-looking kitchen tools and colorful pieces of quilt squares. In a tiny, sunlit room, my daughter and I come across a complete copy of the Bible written in the Gullah dialect. We turn the pages and pause on John 3:16, reflecting on what is universal: “For God so loved the world…”
We carry on through the museum’s decades of memories: pictures of students learning to read, practicing agricultural skills, blacksmithing, leatherworking, sewing, and basket weaving. We progress into modernity: lessons on typing, Peace Corps training for staff, and planning meetings held during the Civil Rights Movement. All along the way, we guide our children through this rich, complex history. We talk of the abolishment of slavery, point out the beauty and uniqueness of the Gullah pieces on display, we admire the artwork, the pottery, and explain how the antique machinery would have worked.
My daughter takes it all in. She is nine years old and incredibly bright, with a hunger for learning and a voracious appetite for reading. She reads the footnotes for almost every item in the place. We talk of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I ask her if she knows why the Civil Rights Movement was significant. As we talk about segregation, we see example after example of the Penn Center’s history of bringing people together for the betterment of society. How they played host to meetings focused on unity, education, social justice, and acted as a safe place of retreat for those fighting on the front lines of equality.
One display sign reads, “Due to the cultural isolation of the St. Helena Island community, Penn Center served as one of two sites in the South where black and white people could come together and address the issues facing the state of Black America and the Civil Rights Movement. The Beaufort newspaper referred to these conferences led by Dr. King as Communist meetings. Parris Island Marines were instructed to keep Penn Center off limits. Courtney Siceloff, Penn Center Director during the turbulent 1960s, resisted the popular southern status quo and allied with Dr. King and the SCLC in housing their meetings.”
I look at a display case containing an original copy of Dr. King’s obituary, and the deep, complicated legacy of this place lies heavy in my mind. Here, numerous men and women, both black and white, chose bravery instead of complacency. They pursued a better life for all people, no matter their race, and dreamed of a day just as Dr. King did, where his children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”2
As we start to leave the museum, the skies open up, and rain begins to pour again. We make a run for our car and explore the rest of the 23 historic buildings. From the safety of our dry van, we read our guidebook and learn the many ways the students utilized these structures over the 100+ year history of the campus. Penn students built many of the buildings, the oldest of which dates back to 1903, literally contributing their own blood, sweat, and tears toward the goals and vision of this monument.
As the sky pours out its benediction on the land, it is almost time for us to leave. But there is one more building I want to view. It is a structure for which I’m willing to risk getting soaked to see. On the back corner of the Penn Center property sits an unobtrusive, quaint little building called “Gantt Cottage,” named for Hasting Gantt, a freedman, who became a businessman, politician, and who donated the original tract of land to the school. The cottage is small, white, and unassuming, with black trim around its windows and doors and a set of concrete block steps leading up to the minuscule front porch. It is here, in the peaceful setting of St. Helena Island, on a campus permeated with the soulful heritage of freedom and equality, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the words of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington, D.C., for Civil Rights.
In my head, I know it’s just a building, comprised of boards and glass and shingles. But in my heart, I’m already attached to this place. The legacy of Dr. King and the tragedy of his life cut short has always left me fascinated as well as heartbroken. Standing in the rain that afternoon, I want to take off my shoes and stand barefoot. I want to connect by the soles of my feet with those who had walked before me —in the same way I used to run, as a child, barefoot through the crop fields in south Alabama. I manage to keep my shoes firmly on my feet, however, and after snapping a few choice photos of the cottage, we leave the Penn Center and return to the reverie of our beach vacation.
Later that night, we sit around the table at the beach house, playing card games with our kids. We talk about the sunny weather coming up the next day, about heading to the beach and taking a dip in the pool. We talk about the day we had, about the Penn Center, and about what we saw and learned. My daughter plays a blue number four card from her Uno deck and says, “One thing that helped me think about what that would have been like, is to think about those people being my friend, Ishana. Because if things hadn’t changed, then I wouldn’t have been able to go to school with her.” She continued, “And one thing I’ve learned about being friends with Ishana is that there’s really no difference between me and her, except the way we look. Like, you could switch our bodies, and we’d still basically be the same person!”
My husband and I exchange a look, and I muster all the strength I have not to burst into tears. My heart swells and explodes and, despite all the mom guilt and uncertainty as a parent that I carry on any given day, for at least that one moment, we felt like we did something right. A seed had been planted, God’s spirit was watering it, and I was filled with hope.
My children don’t know what it is like to go to a segregated school, even though just two generations ago, their grandmother did. But they are growing up in a world where equality is still a forefront issue. They hear about racial profiling, discrimination, white privilege, and the myriad of other challenges and debates we face as a society. My husband and I are doing what we can to raise loving, accepting, generous children who can love as Christ loves us, and who are brave, fair, and stand up for what is right, not just what is popular. And so we forge on as parents. We talk, we discuss, we ask questions. We travel to places different from ours; we eat food from other cultures. Our goal is to expand their little bubble, to help them see the diverse, beautiful world and the people within, all of whom God created.
And so today, we reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate the life he had, his dreams and his hopes that are still on their way to coming true. We acknowledge those that partnered with him, those that are still advocating for a country where we have been successful to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”3
Decades ago, like-minded men and women gathered around tables planning peaceful protests and marches with Dr. King in the retreat cottages of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, SC. This is the place where Dr. King dreamed. The lights are still on there, the buildings still stand, rich with history and rife with the promise that, on any given day, anyone who makes that right turn at the Gullah Grub Restaurant can pull onto the property of the Penn Center and dream the same dreams as Dr. King.
To learn more about the Penn Center and the Gullah Geechee culture of St. Helena Island, SC, please follow the links below:
nps.gov – Reconstruction Era National Historical Park
pbs.org/video/palmetto-scene-past-present-and-future-gullah-geechee-community/– Past, Present, and Future of the Gullah Geechee Community (Aired 02/12/15) – Palmetto Scene on SCETV
- “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington, D.C.
- See Footnote 2.