Since his first visit there in 1968, the Penn Center has become an integral part of Dr. J. Herman Blake's life as an educator, author, civil rights activist and historian.
On Monday, the Johns Island resident reaffirmed his commitment to the center during its annual Labor Day program on St. Helena Island, and he asked those present to join him.
"There is an ethos here that I cannot explain to you," Blake, 80, said after his speech. "When you come from where I do and have been through what I have been through and walk on the sacred and hallowed grounds of a place like this, it's profoundly personal.
"I have a deep involvement and profoundly personal commitment to the legacy of the Penn Center and its future."
About 50 people attended the Labor Day program, which came before festivities that included a cookout, fish fry and flea market.
In his speech, Blake shared how in the 1970s, he sat in the Penn Center with Alex Haley, recording the "Roots" author's oral history.
In 2007, Blake joined a host of others to found the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, of which he now serves as executive director.
Blake previously served on the Penn Center Board of Trustees and is now a scholar in residence at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
"I'm at home here on the sacred grounds of the Penn Center," Blake said during his speech. "It is good, proper and right that we should come together on this Labor Day to seek ways we can all work together as a common community, a common family and as friends."
And as the Penn Center -- which was built as a school for freed slaves and later served as a retreat center for civil rights leaders -- celebrates its 153rd anniversary, Blake said he wants to see it do even greater things in the next 150 years.
"It really lit a fire in the audience," Victoria Smalls, the center's director of history, art and culture, said afterward.
Smalls said this year's Labor Day celebration, which dates back to the early 1900s, was the center's largest in the past few years. It included two new features -- a bike tour and a car show.
About 18 people rode in the Gullah/Geechee Bike Ride, a 25- and 50-mile biking tour of St. Helena, and Smalls said there is enthusiasm to do the bike ride again.
Also new this year was the car show sponsored by Island Cruzers, a car club on St. Helena. Ten cars were on display, a number Smalls hopes to increase in 2015.
The fish fry, however, has been a part of the festival since its beginnings. Presented by the Penn Club, proceeds went to support the Penn Center's programs.
As she was born and raised on St. Helena, Smalls, 44, said she ended every summer as a child at the Labor Day celebration, which was previously held in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park.
Her father graduated from the Penn Center in 1943, and her parents met there during a civil rights event.
"I owe so much of who I am to the Penn Center," Smalls said. "I feel a great sense of purpose being here."
Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.