Today’s news may be filled with the woes of a failing educational system, but 150 years ago a coherent educational system for African-Americans didn’t even exist, especially in the South. The Penn School, which has evolved into the modern-day Penn Center, was a pioneering force in changing that. It’s that legacy that will be celebrated this week on June 23 and 24.
Part of the Port Royal Experiment of 1862, so named for the main harbor off the coast of the South Carolina Sea Islands, which was among the first to fall to Union forces, the Penn Center was the educational component to a program that also focused on cultivating cotton with former slaves. Hailed as an early example of the federal government collaborating with philanthropic organizations to target African-Americans, the Port Royal Experiment brought many Northerners to the Sea Islands in a non-military capacity even before the Civil War ended.
The wealthy Laura Matilda Towne, who arrived in the area in April, 1862, was one of them. Towne, who was born in Pittsburgh but lived in Philadelphia where efforts to educate black children were not unusual even in that time, established the Penn School, named for William Penn, the Quaker leader who founded Pennsylvania, with her lifelong friend Ellen Murray in June 1862. But Towne was not a Quaker; she was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.
Operating out of the Oaks Plantation, the school started with nine students but grew large enough to move to Brick Church and then to its own location across the street where it still stands today. Penn School’s first African-American teacher, Charlotte Forten, came from Philadelphia shortly after the school started and taught there until 1864. The well-respected Forten, who later became Charlotte Forten Grimké, wrote of her experiences in the essays “Life on the Sea Islands,” published in the May and June 1864 editions of Atlantic Monthly.
Insightful information about her time at Penn School can also be found in The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era. “We went into the school, and heard the children read and spell. The teachers tell us that they have made great improvement in a very short time, and I noticed with pleasure how bright, how eager to learn many of them seem,” she writes Wednesday, October 29, 1862, shortly after arriving to St. Helena.
As for her teaching, she shares in the entry dated Thursday, November 13, 1862, that she “Talked to the children a little while to-day [sic] about the noble Toussaint [L’Ouverture]. They listened very attentively. It is well that they sh’ld [sic] know what one of their own color c’ld [sic] do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition (of a noble sort,) and high purpose.”
For forty years, Towne, who was also a homeopathic physician, ran the school with Murray, attending to educational, medical, social, even spiritual needs, until her death in 1901. Fortunately, prior to Towne’s death, moves had already begun to ensure the school’s survival. Hampton Institute took over, operating the school as the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School.