The necessity of self-determination
Reflections on my visit to the Penn Center of African American History in St. Helena Island, SC
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Penn Center in St. Helena Island, SC. I first learned of the center, and of St. Helena Island, in a charming story1 written by J. Drew Lanham for Emergence Magazine.
The Penn Center is home to one of the first schools in the Southern United States for formerly enslaved West Africans. The story of St. Helena Island, and the school itself, is a remarkable one.
As the short version of the story goes, when news of the coming Civil War reached the coast, the European settlers, who’d been enslaving West Africans on the island, all fled. They abandoned the island as well as all of the people who lived there. Through a series of savvy negotiations, the West African people, who over time became known as the Gullah Geechee people, came into ownership of the island.
In 1862, the first school opened for freed slaves in St. Helena Island. Classes were held in a church building and there were about 80 students. In 1864, the school bought a plot of land from a freedman named Hasting Gantt. In 1865, a new school house was built on the land and was named the Penn Center. At that time, it was the first school in the United States established specifically for the instruction of formerly enslaved youth. It was also in 1865 that the 13th amendment2 was signed into law.
It’s incredible to learn the stories of the Gullah Geechee people, and of the freedom they built for themselves years before it was legally granted to them.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to A More Beautiful Way with Bethaney Wilkinson to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.