It was a school until 1948. In 1951, it officially began focusing on broader social services for African-Americans as Penn Community Services, Inc. During the early 1960s, the Penn Center hosted leaders of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In fact, Dr. King and others gathered at the Penn Center just before the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They met at the Penn Center regularly until 1967. Dr. King lodged in Gantt Cottage. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Peace Corps regularly met there as well.
In 1974, the Penn Center’s 50-acre campus became a National Historic Landmark District. Towne embraced Gullah culture, which modern historians agree greatly retained its original African heritage in language, crafts and other important ways, while running the school. So, today, that heritage is at the heart of the Penn Center. Former Penn Center Executive Emory Campbell was critical to elevating the importance of Gullah culture. During his tenure in the 1980s, the Hilton Head native and author of Gullah Cultural Legacies worked diligently on establishing a connection with Sierra Leone in particular.
Named for a Penn School graduate who became the first black medical doctor to serve the area, the York W. Bailey Museum, which operates from Monday to Saturday, sprouted up in 1971 to preserve the Penn School’s history as well as the cultural heritage of the Sea Islands. Meanwhile, the Laura M. Towne Archives and Library, which is by appointment only, has prints of “one of the oldest collections of photographs of African Americans in the country,” as well as Towne’s personal diary and other archival materials dating back to the school’s early days.
Interestingly, Towne was committed to land rights for the former slaves; today that spirit continues through the Land Use and Environmental Education Program, which is needed to help descendants hold on to their now-valuable land.
Welcoming over 10,000 visitors a year, the Penn Center, which has 19 buildings in all and a menu of Gullah meals, serves as a critical link to an important era in this nation’s history, documenting and preserving a people’s desire to better not just themselves, but the world in general. Committed white and black educators helped build Penn Center into an important institution that not only prepped former slaves for a bright future, but also ensured that future would one day reflect and draw strength from their audacity to even try.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha