Beaufort News

A revered Beaufort Co. historic site looks to shape its future. How you can participate

At the site of one of the first schools for black students in the South —and where Martin Luther King Jr. sought seclusion — the people entrusted with a piece of Beaufort County history are looking to the future.

Penn Center on St. Helena Island will conduct a weeks-long study to examine the operation and facilities and develop recommendations, interim executive director and board chairman Marion Burns said. That includes identifying proper criteria for hiring a permanent director.

“Hopefully by the end of the process, we will have a better handle of what Penn Center should look like in the 21st century,” Burns said.

Historic preservation consultant Mary Hanbury is leading the study and will host a public meeting at Penn Center at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Penn Center started in 1862 as a school for newly freed slaves in nearby Brick Church. It officially became Penn School with a new building a few years later. After the school closed 70 years ago, Penn Center became a community hub and was a gathering place during the Civil Rights Movement.

Darrah Hall on the Penn Center campus is now part of a Reconstruction National Historical Park in Beaufort County, and the site is part of a 50-acre National Historic Landmark District.

The campus also hosts numerous events throughout the year. Its marquee event is the upcoming Heritage Days, a three-day celebration of Gullah Geechee history and culture in November.

Penn Center leaders opted to erect a fence along the property last year, a decision opposed by some in the St. Helena community who felt the site should remain unobstructed.

Burns didn’t offer specifics about possible changes at the property off Martin Luther King Drive as a result of the study.

As part of the process., Hanbury will meet with local Penn officials and supporters and interview others by phone. The group will include Penn School graduates and donors, all “interested in Penn being viable and successful,” Burns said.

“We’ll always be an education center for African American history and culture,” he said. “What that will actually look like, this feasibility study will help us.”

Penn Center feasibility study

What: Public meeting with consultant Mary Hanbury to introduce Penn Center feasibility study

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Frissell Community House; 6 Penn Center Circle West; St. Helena Island, SC 29920

Information: Call 843-838-2432 or email

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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