The Penn Center and several other Sea Island landmarks are receiving national recognition for their historic significance to the story of Reconstruction.
A group from the National Park Service spent last weekend in Beaufort County touring the St. Helena Island center -- the oldest American school for freed slaves -- along with four other historic spots, according to The Charleston Post & Courier.
The service is working to identify buildings and sites related to the period directly following -- or leading up to, in the case of Beaufort County -- Emancipation. Because this area fell under occupation early in the Civil War, much of the local work to educate and organize freed slaves was known as a "dress rehearsal for reconstruction," service specialist Michael Allen told The Post & Courier.
Two of the local areas of interest are already designated as National Historic Landmarks, the service's highest level of recognition:
Known as one of the most significant African-American institutions in the country, the center remains the oldest hub of Gullah culture studies on the East Coast.
Established in June 1862 in a back room of the Oaks Plantation House, Penn School was staffed by white abolitionists who educated the children of freedmen. The school soon relocated to Brick Baptist Church, then gained a building of its own.
In 1901, the school began teaching an industrial arts curriculum and adopted a new name, the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School.
Though it closed in 1948, it continued to play a critical role in national and local black history. In the 1950s and '60s, the center became a meeting place for the Gullah community, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who stayed at the center while they planned the March on Washington in 1963.
Robert Smalls' home
This large two-story frame house on Beaufort's Prince Street was home to Union hero Robert Smalls when he was a slave in the 1840s and '50s.
Years after Smalls commandeered a Confederate ship during the Civil War, Smalls became a state lawmaker, a U.S. congressman, and then in 1863, owner of the Prince Street home where he was born.
Smalls, who died 100 years ago this February, bought the property at a tax sale. He and his family lived there for about 90 years, at one point also caring for the family of Small's former master in the home.
The service also visited three other spots in northern Beaufort County and surrounding area:
Beaufort Arsenal Museum
Located on Craven Streen in downtown Beaufort, the brick and tabby museum once represented a headquarters of secession activity in Beaufort before the Civil War.
The Revolutionary-era arsenal was seized by Union soldiers in 1861, nine years after it had been rebuilt.
Sea Island folklore says this centuries-old tree in Port Royal was the site of one of the first local recitations of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The spot where the tree stands is now on the campus of Naval Hospital Beaufort.
On Jan. 1, 1863, though, the land was called Camp Saxton, and it was occupied by the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the U.S. Army's first black regiment of the Civil War.
Records show newly freed slaves, along with free citizens, gathered there for an Emancipation Day celebration that included barrels of molasses, hundreds of loaves of bread and about a dozen roasted oxen.
Harriet Tubman Bridge
While abolitionist Harriet Tubman was best known for her work rescuing escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, she also played a pivotal role in a local Union victory.
Tubman took part in a raid on Confederate troops at the Combahee River on June 2, 1863, helping Union forces free more than 750 slaves at several nearby plantations destroyed in the battle.
The bridge that now crosses the Combahee on U.S. 17 was renamed for Tubman in 2008.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
- Robert Smalls: From Slave to Congressman, Feb. 22, 2015