Penn Center needs a new voice

As the historic center searches for a new director, it must also find a voice to tell its story.

newsroom@islandpacket.comJune 25, 2014 

The Penn Center on St. Helena Island has an important story to tell. As it now searches for a new executive director, it also should seek to find its voice.

More people -- locally, regionally and around the globe -- need to know what the center stands for in American history. They also need to know what the center stands for today, and what it offers to the future.

In the beginning, its mission was daunting, but clear. Founded in a war zone in 1862, Penn was one of the first academic schools in the South established to provide a formal education for formerly enslaved West Africans.

It was at the forefront of the Port Royal Experiment, sometimes called the nation's "rehearsal for Reconstruction."

Its well-documented history is one of courage, struggle and constant change.

In 1901, the Penn School became the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School after adopting the industrial arts curriculum taught at Hampton and Tuskegee institutes.

After the school closed in 1948, Penn Center took on roles in the civil rights movement, including serving as a meeting space for Martin Luther King Jr., land retention by the Gullah community and preservation of the Gullah culture.

Penn's place in history was cemented in 1974 when its bucolic campus of 17 structures was designated a National Historic Landmark District, the first in the state to specifically recognize African-American history.

The York W. Bailey Museum, located on the center's campus, helps tell the institution's remarkable story. It is appropriately named for a Penn School graduate who became a medical doctor and dedicated his life to serving the people of his native St. Helena Island.

Penn Center was celebrating the value of the overlooked Gullah culture long before that came into vogue. Its mission is "to promote and preserve the history and culture of the Sea Islands."

This should poise the center to be a focal point in the Gullah Geechie Cultural Heritage Corridor established by Congress in 2006.

Penn Center is a rare tangible link to the African-American history that is unique to Beaufort County and the Lowcountry.

More people need to know that, experience that and learn from that.

That requires the expensive upkeep of old buildings and a large campus. It requires marketing. It requires a clear vision, and equally clear steps to achieve its mission. It requires unity of purpose by its board, advisory board and supporters. It requires a buy-in from this community.

It requires a clarion voice as sharp as the bell that is its symbol to let the public know what Penn Center offers to the children of today and tomorrow.

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