- Grand Strand Weekend
- South Carolina for Kids
- South Carolina Bar-B-Que
- A Midlands Weekend
- Civil War Adventures
- South Carolina Waterways
- Three Days in Horse Country
- South Carolina for Seafoodies
- South Carolina Kitsch
- Gullah and African American History
- Upstate Weekend
- South Carolina’s Top Ten for Golfers
- South Carolina’s Offbeat Festivals
- Southern Comforts
- Lowcountry Romance
By leaving town and going over the long, low Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge over the Beaufort River on the Sea Island Parkway (which eventually turns into U.S. 21), you’ll pass through little Lady’s Island and eventually reach St. Helena Island. Known to old-timers as Frogmore, the area took back its old, Spanish-derived place name in the 1980s.
Today St. Helena Island is most famous for the Penn Center (16 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., 843/838-2474, www.penncenter.com, Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–4 p.m., $4 adults, $2 seniors and children), the spiritual home of Gullah culture and history. When you visit here among the live oaks and humble but well-preserved buildings, you’ll instantly see why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. chose this as one of his major retreat and planning sites during the civil rights era.
The dream began as early as 1862, when a group of abolitionist Quakers from Philadelphia came down during the Union occupation with the specific goal of teaching recently freed slave children. With a student body of about 50, they were soon joined by African American educator Charlotte Forten. After Reconstruction, the Penn School continued its mission by offering teaching and agricultural/industrial trade curricula.
The migration of blacks out of the South during World War II took a toll on the school, however, which became a community improvement center after classes ceased in 1948. In the late 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference used the school as a retreat and planning site, with both the Peace Corps and the Conscientious Objector Programs training here.
In addition to its role as an education and research hub for the study of Gullah culture, the Penn Center continues to serve in an important civil rights role by providing legal counsel to African American homeowners in St. Helena. Because clear title is extremely difficult to acquire in the area due to the fact that so much of the land has stayed in the families of former slaves, developers are constantly making shady offers so that ancestral land can be opened up to upscale development.
The beautiful 50-acre campus of the Penn Center is part of the Penn School Historic District, a National Historic Landmark comprising 19 buildings, most of key historical significance, including Darrah Hall, the oldest building on the campus; the old “Brick Church” right across MLK Jr. Drive; and Gantt Cottage, where Dr. King himself stayed periodically in the 1963–1967 period.
Another building, the Retreat House, was intended for Dr. King to continue his yearly strategy meetings, but he was assassinated before being able to stay there. The museum and bookshop are housed in the Cope Building, now called the York W. Bailey Museum, situated right along MLK Jr. Drive. A self-guided nature trail takes you all around the campus.
The key public event here happens each November with the Penn Center Heritage Days, in which the entire St. Helena community comes together to celebrate and enjoy entertainment such as the world-famous, locally based Hallelujah Singers.
Getting to the Penn Center
To get to the Penn Center from Beaufort, proceed over the bridge until you get to St. Helena Island. Take a right onto MLK Jr. Drive when you see the Red Piano Too Art Gallery. The Penn Center is a few hundred yards on your right.
If you drive past the Penn Center and continue a few hundred yards down MLK Jr. Drive, look for the ancient tabby ruins on the left side of the road. This is the Chapel of Ease, the remnant of a 1740 church destroyed by forest fire in the late 1800s.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition