Penn Center
A History Preserved

Orville Vernon Burton with Wilbur Cross
Foreword by Emory S. Campbell

The inspiring and engrossing story behind the first school for former slaves, from the Civil War through the civil rights movement


“This is an extraordinary book. It is the most complete history of Penn Center that has ever been written. Many stories and famous academic accounts have been concerned indirectly with Penn Center over its 150-year history, but this book goes straight to its heart.”
—from the foreword by Emory S. Campbell

“From the first arrival of northern abolitionists who came to the South Carolina sea islands in 1862 to establish schools for free slaves down to the present, the institutions that evolved into Penn Center have been the social and cultural center of St. Helena Island. Dedicated from the beginning to preparing residents for equal citizenship and civil rights, Penn Center has continued that mission faithfully, as recorded in this splendid history.”
—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

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The Gullah people of St. Helena Island still relate that their people wanted to “catch the learning” after northern abolitionists founded Penn School in 1862, less than six months after the Union army captured the South Carolina sea islands. In this broad history Orville Vernon Burton and Wilbur Cross range across the past 150 years to reacquaint us with the far-reaching impact of a place where many daring and innovative social justice endeavors had their beginnings.

Penn Center’s earliest incarnation was as a refuge where escaped and liberated enslaved people could obtain formal liberal arts schooling, even as the Civil War raged on sometimes just miles away. Penn Center then earned a place in the history of education by providing agricultural and industrial arts training for African Americans after Reconstruction and through the Jim Crow era, the Great Depression, and two world wars. Later, during the civil rights movement, Penn Center made history as a safe meeting place for organizations like Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps. Today, Penn Center continues to build on its long tradition of leadership in progressive causes. As a social services hub for local residents and as a museum, conference, and education complex, Penn Center is a showcase for activism in such areas as cultural, material, and environmental preservation; economic sustainability; and access to health care and early learning.

Here is all of Penn Center’s rich past and present, as told through the experiences of its longtime Gullah inhabitants and countless visitors. Including forty-two extraordinary photographs that show Penn as it was and is now, this book recounts Penn Center's many achievements and its many challenges, reflected in the momentous events it both experienced and helped to shape.


A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

Page count: 232
42 b&w photos, 2 maps, 4 tables
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25


List price: $26.95

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Orville Vernon Burton is Creativity Professor of Humanities at Clemson University. He is emeritus University Distinguished Teacher-Scholar, University Scholar, and professor of history, African American studies, and sociology at the University of Illinois and is the author or editor of twenty books including The Age of Lincoln.

Wilbur Cross is a former Time editor and author of some fifty books, including Gullah Culture in America.

Emory S. Campbell is the former director of Penn Center.