The Penn Center on St. Helena Island, southeast of Beaufort, was one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves and is considered one of this country’s most significant African-American historic institutions. It is a National Historic Landmark.
A tour of the Penn Center will educate you to the history of the freed slaves that lived in Beaufort County during the Civil War. Today, the Penn Center preserves and promotes their history through special programs and events.
The Center was established in 1862 prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in order to educate freed slaves in the Lowcountry. This undertaking was called the Port Royal Experiment, and was championed by abolitionists and several churches from Pennsylvania. The center’s first classes started in a single room on the Oaks Plantation and soon grew to fill the Brick Baptist Church.
In 1864, a prefabricated building was sent from Pennsylvania and placed on a 50-acre tract of land adjacent to the Brick Church. Today the Penn Center still sits on this same land. The Center also served as the annual meeting place for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Christian Leadership Conference.
The grounds are designed for self-guided tours. Not only can you walk the grounds, but the Center also invites visitors to the Conference Center and the York W. Bailey Museum. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with a small admission fee. The Conference Center offers guests lodging and meeting facilities. Visitors can make an appointment to access the Laura M. Towne Archives and Library that feature one of the oldest collections of photography of African-Americans in the country.
To get to the Center, follow U.S. Hwy. 21 south out of Beaufort onto St. Helena Island. Take a right onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and continue until you see the Penn School Historic District. For further information, call (843) 838-2432.