Penn Center honors three who made the 'jewel shine'

May 2, 2009 

Thomas Barnwell Jr. spends some time with Vermelle Matthews, right, and Joe McDomick during the cocktail hour at the Penn Center Gala at the Holiday Inn in Beaufort Saturday night. Barnwell was among those honored for his longtime support of the Penn Center.


Think of the Penn Center 1862 Circle as a pebble dropped in a creek.

It may have seemed like a small splash when two women from the North ventured to St. Helena Island in that war-torn year to start a school for freed slaves. But their action still ripples throughout society. Many see the election of a black president as proof.

That circle of influence was celebrated Saturday night at a black-tie banquet in Beaufort to induct new members into the honorary 1862 Circle.

But with the honors come responsibilities.

The strength, character and service of Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray are needed today as much as it when the Penn School came to life in our county.

"We are one of the treasures of this state," said Walter R. Mack, executive director the Penn Center, which succeeded the school. "But the jewel cannot shine without being polished every now and then. We must sustain, and we cannot do it by ourselves."

The Penn Center could easily be considered ground zero of the Gullah/Geechee culture that is itself endangered, according to the National Parks Service and the National Register of Historic Places.

Yet it struggles to be recognized, heard, and even survive. That's all too typical of the African-American culture from its beginnings on the South Carolina coastline.

And that's why the Penn Center 1862 Circle matters.

Retired U.S. Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings of Charleston, photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe of New York and businessman and philanthropist Thomas C. Barnwell Jr. of Hilton Head Island were inducted Saturday because they embody the spirit of Penn Center.

Towne and Murray were inducted in memoriam. Towne's honor was accepted by Kelly Towne Branning, a young mother and yoga instructor from the Midlands of South Carolina who said Laura Towne is a source of inspiration for her today, both personally and professionally.

We need more inspiration on the national and world stage for an institution that, despite its significance to the American story, is not a line item on any government's ledger. The Penn Center's place in history is set in stone, but its survival is not.


Hollings, 87, was represented at the gala by his son, Michael Hollings. The Elder Hollings' seniority during a 38-year Senate career helped get an allocation for Penn Center's first major renovations. Hollings said at that groundbreaking ceremony in 1994:

"I'm fully aware ... that here is the commencement of black history in this hemisphere. There is no question about it. It's the beginning of history of our African-American population, not just the ancient history, but the modern-day history in America. For here it was that Martin Luther King Jr. orchestrated and organized his civil rights march on Washington, bringing equal justice under law -- right here in Penn Center.

"After World War II, Penn Center became the greatest campus for the humanities in the history of man. I don't say that lightly ... And that was the real significance. It wasn't just to free the black man, but to free the white man. And that is the real vision of Penn Center and its contributions to our society. All the universities in the world give these graduate courses on art and architecture and medicine and law and engineering ... But the premium graduate course in the humanities, in human understanding, is Penn Center, South Carolina."

Mack told me, "We need another Fritz Hollings, with that compassion and understanding of the need for ongoing renovation and maintenance."


Barnwell is a home grown Penn ambassador who best reflects the mettle of its students. Barnwell was born on a Sunday morning high tide on Hilton Head 73 years ago. To further his education, he had to leave home after grade school and head for the Penn School, just as his father had done before him.

In the years hence, Barnwell has taken his slice of the Gullah legacy -- land -- and converted it into four affordable housing developments on Hilton Head. Builder Bill Fishburne once said, "Tom is the only man in Beaufort County who has put his money where his mouth is on affordable housing."

He's also put his money in Penn Center, where he was a staff member as a young man, and later served twelve years as president of the board. His land-use advocacy extends beyond the halls of government, where he has been a thorn in the side of many for decades. He loves the goats, gourds and marsh tacky horses he raises on his land, not because he has to but because he wants to.

His greatest legacy is the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, which he pushed into existence in the 1970s when local children had bellies full of worms and little health care. His presentation Saturday was made by U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill. They met when both were doing pioneer work in the development of community health centers.

Barnwell used his turn at the microphone to advocate that "Penn Center needs to be considered as a national park."


Ashe, whose late husband was the famous tennis player, captured the camera-shy Gullah culture on film as few have. Her book, "Daufuskie Island," with a foreword by Alex Haley, is now enjoying rebirth in the University of South Carolina Press' 25th Anniversary Edition.

A national tour for the book and an exhibition of its photographs has brought new eyes into her experience on the remote island more than 30 years ago. She saw elegance and dignity where others saw poverty.

Jeanne and Arthur had circled the globe and seen its grandest cities. But on Daufuskie she discovered, and documented, something that shows the need for the Penn Center and its 1862 Circle.

She saw a rippling circle of a rich life, "a wealth of humanity unlike anything else I've seen. It was like a family, bonded close, but welcoming."

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