Bernie Wright grew up in St. Matthews and attended college in Orangeburg, but he was 30 years old before he learned of the country's first schools for freed slaves and a center for black history and culture only was a short drive away.
"It's an awful travesty in my view, being born and raised about 120 miles from here, and I didn't know about Penn Center until 1978," Wright said. "We're an outstanding piece of history right here in Beaufort County."
He was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1978, when Penn Center received a grant for a food processing facility, and Wright was assigned to work with the center to get its facility off the ground. He soon became a member of Penn Center's advisory board and formed a relationship that he says will never end.
"Penn Center is a very wonderful place, and once you become attached to it, the bond will continue until your death," Wright said. "I expect to be part of Penn for the rest of my life."
He became the center's executive director in January 2002, and increasing the center's regional, national and international exposure became one of the great focuses -- and achievements -- of his six-year term. Wright retired in December, and long-time employee Walter Mack was appointed interim executive director.
"(Wright's) past history and working nonstop with people around the country and his contacts internationally -- that's how he was able to (increase the center's visibility)," said Leo Richardson, chairman of the Penn Center board of trustees. "He had tremendous leadership and did an excellent job for us."
Wright, 60, accepted a position in the transportation department of his alma mater, South Carolina State University, but he has no intention of abandoning Penn Center. In fact, he said he took the job partly because it will give him the opportunity to steer transportation training courses -- and therefore cash flow -- to Penn Center.
Perhaps the greatest step in achieving recognition for the center came in 2006, with the passage of the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor Act. Wright worked with Congress and the U.S. Department of the Interior to push through the legislation, which called for Coastal Heritage Centers to be established in the corridor, including one at Penn Center.