Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School


Origins of Penn Center

Penn Center was the first school for blacks on the Island of St. Helena. It was founded in 1862 by Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, members of the Port Royal Experiment. It was named for the Quaker activist William Penn and operated for eighty-six years as a Normal, Agricultural and Industrial training school for the black people of St Helena. Laura Towne (1825- 1901) served as a worker for the for the Port Royal Relief Center of Philadelphia and came to St. Helena to work as a nurse assisting the medical needs of the island people. In 1882, Ellen Murray arrived on St. Helena and the two of them began working on improving the educational situation of the island. They opened their first school house on the Oaks plantation and later moved to the Brick Church located in the center of St, Helena. Soon a group, mostly composed of northern Quakers, came to assist in the school. In 1901, the school was chartered the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School.

This is a picture of the Penn Center at the time of its charter. Penn Center played a major role in effecting the educational, social, moral, and cultural climate of the island. It made a sustained effort to keep a close relationship to the Low Country community.


Penn Takes Shape


In the early part of the 20th century, the school sought ways to make the school more useful for people on the island. They decided that Penn needed to offer a variety of training programs for a number of crafts so the students attending would be able to find work. Pen decided that their goals were most congruent with the principles of Booker T Washington and his push toward an Industrial centered curriculum. They incorporated the Tusked Curriculum, developed by Washington, into the Penn curriculum. So, in addition to the Normal style curriculum, Penn started teaching classes in carpentry, wheelwriting, basketmaking, harnessmaking cobbling, and mechanics. The school also gave instruction in midwifery and teacher training.

Image Gallery: The Penn Center Curriculum

check here to read the lyrics to the Penn School song


Penn Centers' Connection with the Community

The Penn Center played a part assisting the needs of the Low Country community, not just the Penn Center students. They offered a number of classes open to the community such as quilting, and weaving. They were also dedicated to children's public service work. They were the site for the Farmer's clubs and the Patron's Leagues. The students who were training to be nurses, taught classes in health across the island.


The Closure of Penn


In the 1940's Penn Center experienced a number of setbacks that aided in the final decision to close down of its charter. There were a number of storms and natural disasters that destroyed that land in south Carolina. The boll weevil epidemic proved to be too much for many of the farm laborers to overcome. People could no longer be sure that they could grow enough of a crop to provide for their families, let alone make a profit. Millions of people gave up and went North. During the time of the Great Migration, it was particularly difficult for Penn to keep their enrollment up. It became almost impossible to keep subjects constant for the Port Royal Experiment. They found that they were seedily loosing funding and it was becoming more and more difficult to stay open. Thus in 1948. Penn School Board decided that it would not be economically feasible to keep the Penn Center open as a private school. It was decided that Pen would not close its doors but it would serve a purpose in the community, taking an active role in providing public education to the Sea Island people.


Today Penn Center operates as a community assisting the people of the Sea Islands



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