Penn Center honors local, cultural leaders during 10th annual gala

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMay 18, 2013 

Penn Center honored two people and one organization Saturday night at its 10th annual 1862 Circle Gala for their contributions to the center and to Gullah culture. The honorees were, from left, Joseph Opala and Ronald Daise and the Unitarian Universalists Fellowship of Beaufort, represented by the Rev. Nan White.

Dr. Emory Campbell took the audience by surprise when he stood to speak at Penn Center's 10th annual 1862 Circle Gala on Saturday night.

It wasn't what he said as much as what he sang.

"You are beautiful, beautiful," the executive director emeritus quietly crooned to the tune of Candice Glover's "I am Beautiful."

The several hundred member audience laughed and clapped at the unexpected show of support for the St. Helena Island native and newest American Idol.

The gala was not only a fundraiser, but an opportunity to induct Ronald Daise, Joseph Opala and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort into the 1862 Circle, a honor that goes to those who support and honor Penn Center and Gullah culture.

For Daise, seeing the gala attendees was as enjoyable as the award.

"As I walked in, I saw so many of those people who were so excited to buy my first book," he said.

A St. Helena native, Daise began working as a Beaufort Gazette reporter when he finished college. He went on to write his first book, "Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage, Legacy of Freedom," using some of the feature stories from his time with the newspaper.

His most well-known work, however, is what center executive director Walter Mack said introduced the world to Gullah culture -- the Nick Jr. TV show "Gullah Gullah Island."

"He grew up living the Gullah culture, speaking Gullah, and he was one of the first to tell people about it," Mack said.

Opala's work connecting Gullah culture to Sierra Leone has caught local, national and international attention as he documented many connections between the two.

Opala credited Penn Center as one of his anchors during his work and research.

"Penn has very much been in my heart all these years," he said. "...This has been a very meaningful and important relationship for me."

The Common Roots Award was added this year to recognize the connection between the American Gullah and Sierra Leone and was presented to His Excellency Bockari Kortu Stevens, Sierra Leone's ambassador to the United States.

"It really unites our ancestors with the people of the Sea Islands," Mack said.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort started a relationship with Penn Center about eight years ago when the fledgling congregation lacked a home and the Rev. Nan White took an office at the center.

Fast-forward to today and the church is established on Sams Point Road with 93 congregants.

The years of close proximity and working together on projects have cemented a bond even deeper than the historical connection between the denomination and center, White said.

Unitarian Laura Towne founded Penn School in 1862 to educate freed slaves.

"We're here, we're in this together, and together we can work to improve the lives of the people of the Sea Islands," said Annette Marquis, multicultural ministries coordinator for the national church.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at

Related content:

Penn Center of St. Helena Island holds Labor Day celebration, Sept. 3, 2012

Penn Center director retiring after 26 years, July 10, 2012

St. Helena's Penn Center gearing up for 150th anniversary, March 5, 2012

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