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The Penn Center

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About This Organization

The Penn Center
One of the first schools in the United States for freed slaves and one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today.

On the Lokashakti Network since:
Thursday, 04 August 2011

Alternately / formerly known as:
Penn School

16 Penn Center Circle West
St. Helena Island, South Carolina
United States

Mailing address:
PO Box 126
St. Helena Island, South Carolina 29920
United States

Phone: 1 843 838 2432

Fax: 1 843 838 8545

Type of network resource:
  • Museum
  • Retreat Center
  • Historical Marker

Issues addressed:
  • Education
  • Environmental Justice


The Penn Center
Penn Center, Incorporated is a non-profit organization designed to promote and preserve Sea Island history and Culture. Begun in 1862 as Penn School, an experimental program to educate Sea Island slaves freed at the beginning of the Civil War, it is the oldest and most persistent survivor of the Port Royal Experiment. The first principals were Northern missionaries Laura Towne and Ellen Murray. Both spent the next forty years of their lives living among and educating former Sea Island slaves, the Gullah people of the South Carolina Low Country. For a while, Charlotte Forten, the first African American teacher at Penn School, joined in this endeavor.

By 1900, the name changed to Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School when new principals Rossa Cooley and Grace House took over leadership. Providing teacher training, training in wheel-wrighting, carpentry, cobbling, blacksmithing, and the agricultural sciences, Penn educated students from neighboring Sea Island communities throughout South Carolina. When the school closed in 1948, it became Penn Community Services Center, an agency focusing on self-sufficiency and the advancement and development of the Sea Island community and its inhabitants.

During the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference chose Penn as a training site for retreat and strategic planning. The Peace Corps and the Conscientious Objector Programs used the sight for training, lodging, planning and community service. By the early 80s, it became Penn Center, an agency linked to the past and connected to the future. Today, it fosters a vision of shared culture, preserved history and attainable world harmony. Its mission is to preserve the unique history, culture and environment of the Sea Islands through serving as a local, national and international resource center, and by acting as a catalyst for the development of programs for self-sufficiency.

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