Brick Baptist Church to be honored for historic role in education

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 24, 2014 

The Brick Baptist Church as seen on April 24, 2014, on St. Helena Island.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

Brick Baptist Church has been a spiritual anchor on St. Helena Island since 1855, but it will be honored this weekend for another reason.

When the Civil War erupted and the area's plantation owners ran, Brick Baptist served as a schoolhouse for new little freedmen -- former slaves. In that way, it played a crucial role in American history, one it will be honored for Saturday night when it's inducted into Penn Center's 1862 Circle at the Sonesta Resort on Hilton Head Island.

Penn was established in 1862 as a school led by Northern abolitionist "missionaries." They stepped into a crisis situation with the long-term hope of education.

The school started in a home but quickly needed the extra space offered by Brick Baptist. It met there for about two years.

After the Philadelphia Freedman's Relief Association shipped down a school building, it was christened Penn School and moved across the street. It evolved into a boarding school, where students learned the skills of farming, cooking, sewing, public speaking, nursing, basketry, carpentry, cobbling and blacksmithing. It later became Penn Center, which continues to address social and cultural issues of the Gullah culture.

But at Brick Baptist, this grand experiment stood as a young woman in a war zone, teaching children the alphabet.

Some of the teachers -- including Laura M. Towne and Charlotte Forten -- left diaries that show it was not a happily-ever-after fairy tale, a quick fix, or even popular.

Towne shared a peek into a March day in 1864 when a Baptist preacher visited the school. She was afraid he was going to throw them out of Brick Baptist because the teachers were Unitarians. The kind-looking old man didn't have that in mind. He stayed the morning, speaking to the children.

"He asked what they had in their heads," Towne writes.

"They answered, 'Sense.'

" 'Brains,' he told them.

"How did their knowledge get into their heads?

" 'God put it there,' they answered.

"He pointed to his eyes, ears, mouth, nose and explained how ideas got in, in so low a voice that my class could not hear and could only see his motions, and these seemed so comical that Fairy Jenkins burst into a fit of laughing that nearly upset me and the whole class.

"He says he thought he should find peace and zeal down here -- a band of fellow workers living in harmony and working with combined effort, but that he finds friction, friction in every quarter -- military, religious and political."

Still, the church helped launch many successes, like Penn graduates York W. Bailey, who became the island's first native doctor, and Leroy E. Browne Sr., an 83-year member of Brick Baptist and one of the first African-Americans elected to public office in the South.

Those Northern schoolteachers have come and gone, but the friction surrounding education never seems to leave. Monuments to the teachers' remarkable service stand outside the old brick church that still anchors St. Helena Island.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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