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Laura Towne and students
*The founding of the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School in 1862 is celebrated on this date.
Penn Center School (as it was called) was the first school for Blacks on the Island of St. Helena, South Carolina. Laura Towne and Ellen Murray were its founders. Towne came to S. C. to work as a nurse and in 1882, Murray arrived and the two of them began working on improving the educational situation of the island.
They opened their first schoolhouse on the Oaks plantation and later moved to the Brick Church located in the center of St. Helena. In 1901, the school was chartered as the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School. Named for the Quaker activist William Penn it operated for eighty-six years as a Normal, Agricultural and Industrial training school for the Black people.
In the early part of the 20th century, the set of courses sought ways to be 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. Penn decided that their goals were most similar to the principles of Booker T. Washington and his push toward an Industrial centered curriculum. They incorporated classes in carpentry, wheel writing, basket making, harness making, cobbling, and mechanics. The school also gave instruction in midwifery and teacher training.
The Penn Center played a part in assisting the needs of the Low Country community, as well as 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 also set up the Farmer's clubs and the Patron's Leagues and students training to be nurses taught classes in health across the island.
In the 1940s Penn Center experienced a number of setbacks that aided in the final decision to close down 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, they were losing funding and it was becoming more and more difficult to stay open. In 1948, the Penn School Board decided that it would not remain open as a private school, but it would serve the community, taking an active role in providing public education to the Sea Island people. The name was changed to Penn Community Services in 1950. Over the years, with continuing philanthropic support, it served as a school, health agency, and cooperative society for rural Blacks of the Sea Islands.