Penn Center celebrates 150th anniversary of school, future of center

charley@beaufortgazette.comJune 21, 2012 

Penn School has created many legacies from its 150 years of existence. The first school for freed slaves is celebrating its 150th anniversary since its founding on St. Helena Island before the end of the Civil War.

Victoria Smalls, coordinator of the sesquicentennial celebration, has strong ties to the school. Her father studied at Penn School, and Penn Center is where he later met her mother during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

"It is exciting because Penn Center is like the beginning of education for the entire South and the interpreter for Gullah culture in the Sea Island area," said Smalls, who lives on St. Helena Island.

Penn Center's archives date back to the school's start in 1862.

"We are the place to come for information on Sea Island and Gullah culture," Smalls said.

"Penn is a very unique piece of American history."

The anniversary will be commemorated over the next three years. This year, the celebration highlights the founding of Penn School, the anniversary of Robert Smalls' capture of "The Planter," the transition of the school from industrial to vocational curriculum and the Reconstruction era.

In 2013, the celebration will focus on the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

In 2014, the focus will be on Penn Center's legacy and the center's programs and accomplishments.

A forum will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. June 22 with community members who will discuss the center's past and how they have been affected by Penn Center. Participants -- including Fred Washington, Dr. Emory Campbell, Laura Von Harten and William McBride -- will discuss their vision for the future of Penn over the next 50 years. Ronnie Johnson and Shacola Jenkins, two participants in the center's after-school tutoring program, PACE, will speak.

JUNE 22

  • Regional artist's showcase: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at York W. Bailey Museum

  • Book signing: noon-3 p.m. at The Shed in Port Roayl. Author Bob Rogers will sign "First Dark: A Buffalo Soldier's Story." The book's illustrator, John W. Jones, will also be there.

  • Penn School memories exhibit: noon-3:30 p.m. at Frissell Hall

  • Guided tours of the Penn Center grounds: 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

  • USDA & NRCS short film: 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. at The Shed in Port Royal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will show two 30-minute premieres of a documentary detailing the connection of native St. Helena Islanders to the land through fishing and farming. The title of the piece has not been released.

  • Youth craft table: noon-3 p.m. near The Shed in Port Royal. Crafts will be led by Winthrop University art student Christopher Smalls of St. Helena Island.

  • Community forum: 4-6 p.m. at Frissell Hall. A panel composed of members from St. Helena, the Penn Center Board of Trustees and Beaufort County Council will lead a discussion about the center's past, present and future role in the community. Beaufort County School Board Chairman Fred Washington Jr. will moderate.

  • JUNE 23

  • Opening ceremony: 10-11:30 a.m. on Penn Center grounds. The ceremony includes a Civil War flag ceremony performed by re-enactors of the 54th Massachusetts Vol. Infantry, Co. I; unveiling of plans for a 150th anniversary brick memorial project; and performances by choirs from Faith Memorial Baptist Church, Israelite Baptist Church and Lady's Island Baptist Church.

  • Meet-and-greet with regional artists: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at the York W. Bailey Museum

  • Book signing: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at The Shed in Port Royal. Hilton Head author Wilbur Cross will sign "Gullah Culture in America."

  • * Penn School memories exhibit: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at Frissell Hall

  • Youth craft table: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at The Shed in Port Royal

  • Details: 843-838-2432, www.penncenter.com

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