An annual Labor Day celebration at Penn Center on St. Helena Island became a call to action Monday when the main speaker asked residents to take responsibility for reducing crime and improving education in the community.
"So what is this?" said the Rev. Edward Johnson, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Port Royal and a counselor at Hilton Head Island High School. "Is it a community or a chaotic society? Where do we go from here?"
The celebration is a Penn Center affair that used to be held on the "Green" outside, executive director Walter Mack said. A few years ago, bad weather forced the morning program inside the Frissell Community House, and it has stayed there ever since, he said.
The festivities began with a hymn followed by an invocation by Robert Middleton, deacon at First African Baptist Church on St. Helena. Nine men in the Ebenezer Baptist Church Male Chorus brought audience members to their feet time and time again with soulful singing.
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Children in the center's Program for Academic and Cultural Enhancement spoke about the history of Labor Day on St. Helena, the days when people traveled by boat, carriage or on foot to enjoy games, food and dancing.
Instead of a light holiday message, Johnson issued a call for everyone in the audience and on St. Helena to "wake up and take our community back."
Johnson spoke of the problems students have in schools and how more local black role models are needed in classrooms. Parents must adopt traditional values and take responsibility for their families, he said.
St. Helena has never so much crime, and residents should start cleaning up the problem, even if it means turning in their own family members, Johnson said. St. Helena residents recently heard the same message from Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner during a community meeting.
It shouldn't be necessary for Tanner to come to St. Helena to tell residents what to do, Johnson said, adding the community must do its part to deal with problems.
St. Helena resident Carrie Major said she grew up near Penn Center and tries not to miss the Labor Day celebration. When she saw that Johnson was on the schedule, she knew his speech would be stirring.
"It does hit home to know we have to do something," she said.