The first school in the South for freed slaves; the first student-led strike to protest inferior learning conditions; the first high school in Tennessee to integrate; the first city south of the Mason-Dixon line to pass a city ordinance guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations for all people, regardless of race: These historic sites may not be as widely known as some other civil rights locations, but their pivotal roles in the movement opened the doors, both figuratively and literally, to desegregation.
St. Helena Island, South Carolina
The Penn Center is hallowed historic ground, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also prepare for the future.
Situated on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island, the center is the site of Penn School, the first school in the South for freed slaves, founded in 1862, three years before the Civil War ended. When the war reached Fort Sumter, European slaveowners abandoned their plantations and their slaves, which the Union army freed. At the time, white society predominantly held that black people couldn’t be educated; teachers from Pennsylvania came to the island to prove otherwise as part of the Port Royal Experiment.
The 50-acre campus is home to 19 buildings. Visitors can step inside the Brick Baptist Church, the largest building on campus, where slaves-turned-students learned reading, writing and arithmetic. Among the other historic buildings are dormitories, the dining hall and the community house.
The center is working to digitize the York W. Bailey Museum with a new smartphone app and call-in guided tour, and plans to turn Gantt Cottage, where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed when he and other civil rights leaders gathered at the center, into a museum by year’s end, executive director Rodell Lawrence said.
Visitors will also find a new farmers market housed in an old barn and a new aquaponic greenhouse, where the center is raising fish and shrimp and growing herbs and spices. The center also planted five acres with muscadine grapes to be made into wines and ciders and used in syrup and jelly.
“We’re making Penn Center self-sufficient,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence also plans to add interpretive areas where guests can see handmade boats from the era and watch craftspeople weave grass baskets or tie fishnets.
“People need to have an experience when they come here, as opposed to going to a museum and looking at a bunch of stuff,” he said.