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Cultural center in Gullah heartland marks 150th
“ST. HELENA ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — In its first 150 years, the Penn Center has served as a school for freed slaves, a Jim Crow-era industrial school and a retreat center for leaders of the civil rights movement. Now it looks to tell the story the African American sea island culture and to protect that heritage. Today the center is kicking off a three-year celebration to mark its 150th anniversary. The Penn Center was one of the nation’s first schools for emancipated blacks. It was founded in 1862 after Union troops captured the area early in the Civil War and two missionaries from Pennsylvania came south and named the school for William Penn. Just after the turn of the 20th century, the Penn School became the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School with an industrial arts curriculum. Later, when public schools began educating blacks as well as whites and the industrial school was phased out, the Penn Center became a retreat and meeting location for leaders of the Civil Rights movement, most notably the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ’Penn Center has gone through a lot of historic evolutions and cycles and we really try to focus on the wants and needs of the community during that period,’ said Walter Mack, the center’s executive director who has been at Penn a quarter century. The center, with 19 buildings including a museum clustered amid moss-shrouded oaks on this South Carolina sea island about a two-hour drive southwest of Charleston, is the only national historic landmark district owned and operated by a minority, Mack said.”
150 year milestones
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War between the states. Celebrations and commemorations have been held throughout the country. Charleston South Carolina has held a reenactment of the first shots fired recently. Meanwhile scholars have been publishing articles in various newspapers, such as the New York Times and The Washington post, describing the impact of the events related to the historical timeline 1861.
South Carolina in particular has long been a haven for promoting Civil War history as a selling point for their tourism market. Only recently have they included promoting Gullah heritage in their marketing schemes as many tourists have come to the Low Country primarily to experience the Gullah culture. Old plantations have been refurbished, and basket weavers have been given the opportunity to peddle their wares on sidewalks around downtown Charleston, allowing for this African craft to be a centerpiece of the tourist trade.
Next year, however, marks another milestone. In 1862 the Penn School was formed in Beaufort South Carolina. The location of the Penn School is on St. Helena island. The Penn School is now known as the Penn Center. Information about this site can be further learned at their website www.penncenter.com. I will have more to say in the coming months regarding this upcoming milestone. Until then here are some images of the St. Helena area, and of downtown Charleston as well.
These are the markers of the Penn School.
These shacks were used to teach newly freed slaves how to raise chickens, weaves indigo, and mill rice.
This gathering was held outside of the Brick Baptist Church where the first teachers of Penn School congregated and began their teachings. These elder women are the surviving graduates of the last class of the Penn School.
These are the flags of the Gullah people who collectively were brought to the Sea Islands from various Caribbean, Central and South American nations during the days of slavery, and post slavery as well.
Above is Alphonso Brown of www.Gullahtours.com who brings tourists to the workshop of Phillip Simmons. Mr. Simmons is a blacksmith who has built almost every significant wrought iron gate and grill in downtown Charleston. The book Charleston Blacksmith by John Michael Vlach gives greater detail of this great artisan.
This is the Slave Mart, also known as Ryan’s Mart, which is under the care of the Avery research center of the College of Charleston. Imagine the journy into this structure as the enslaved would have experienced rolling over these cobblestone streets. The rear section of the Slave Mart was removed in order to build a parking lot
Many of the enslaved who were brought for their building skills built these well manicured streets. As illustrated, the en-slavers held the title related to the skill set of the en-slaved.
The grounds of the Penn Center. Below is actor Darryl Chill Mitchell who spoke during the Heritage Festival at the Penn Center in 2008.
Down the road from the Penn Center is the Barefoot Farms and Gullah Grub. I hear the Gullah Grub serves great food. (I’m a vegetarian.)
Above, the Charleston City Market which was erroneously believed to have been a slave market. It is however the site of the Confederate Museum. African Americans should visit this museum to see the artifacts held dear to southern confederate loyalists. Below is Mary, a basket weaver, who sold me this $80 basket for $30. Bless her for her kindness and her skills as a craftswoman.