Penn Center, Saint Helena Island: Route to (re)settlement Exhibition Venue & Cultural Partner



For one hundred and fifty plus years, Penn Center National Historic Landmark District, located on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, has been at the epicenter of African American education, historic preservation, and social justice for tens of thousands of descendants of formerly enslaved West Africans living in the Sea Islands, known as the Gullah Geechee people.

The Gullah Geechee have continued to survive and represent the most tangible living example of one of the outcomes of the Port Royal Experiment, a plan to tutor the freedmen out of slavery and into freedom.

Founded in 1862, Penn School was one of the first academic schools in the South established by Northern missionaries, to provide a formal education for formerly enslaved West Africans. After the school closed in 1948, Penn became the first African American site in South Carolina whose primary purpose was to safeguard the heritage of a Gullah Geechee community.

Later, in the 1960’s, Penn Center took up the mantle of social justice by ushering in the Civil Rights Movement and serving as the only location in South Carolina where interracial groups, such as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps could have safe sanctuary in an era of mandated segregation.

Penn Center continues to thrive as a national monument promoting historic preservation, as well as a catalyst for economic sustainability throughout the Sea Islands. Its far-reaching impact on local, national and international communities has been the greatest legacy of the Penn Center’s history

Participating artists will explore how notions and byproducts of ethnicity impact individual and collective identity, the racial constructs that orchestrate histories, and individual’s will to belong and to identify with the collective physically, stylistically, spiritually, etc.

York W. Bailey Museum at Penn Center

The York W. Bailey Museum, named after a Penn Center student who went on to practice medicine on St. Helena Island, offers a look into the stories of the people whose lives were changed by this important American institution. Especially inspiring are the many photographs of students at work, some of which were taken as far back as the 1860s. A helpful video offers history and personal recollections of the Penn Center’s past, and local artists fill the gift shop with handmade sweetgrass baskets and colorful, original artwork.

Site Views

Exterior View of the Penn Center

Gantt Cottage where Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. stayed for interracial conferences in 1967

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Penn Center’s Frissell Hall on historic St. Helena Island in 1967