• Louis Venters

Restoring penn center, Reclaiming Black history

Congratulations to Mr. Bernie Wright, fellow-member of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission, who will serve as interim director of Penn Center, one of the country's great historic treasures located on St. Helena Island! Mr. Wright, a former administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, previously served as executive director of Penn Center, 2002-2007.

As this article in the local paper indicates, Penn Center embodied the so-called "Port Royal Experiment," when U.S military and civilian government officials, northern white and Black teachers and missionaries, and thousands of formerly enslaved Sea Island Gullah-Geechee people began to remake the area around Port Royal Sound following Union occupation in late 1862. Later the Penn campus served as an important site for planning aspects of the civil rights movement, and today it is a vibrant center of Gullah cultural and intellectual life, along with such institutions as the Rice Museum in Georgetown, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, and the Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies at Coastal Carolina University.


In addition to the entire Penn campus being designated as a National Historic Landmark since 1974, two of its buildings, Brick Baptist Church and Darrah Hall, are now part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park (created in 2017 as a National Monument and redesignated a National Park in 2019.) With generous support from Beaufort County and the 1772 Foundation and technical assistance from Preservation South Carolina, Penn Center is currently engaged in a planning process that aims to ensure the long-term preservation of all the buildings at this important site for generations to come.


I do have one quibble with an otherwise very fine story: The reporter says without any elaboration that Penn Center is the "only African American National Historic Landmark District" in the state, and I believe that this is technically true. Of the 76 National Historic Landmarks (one site or structure) and National Historic Landmark Districts (multiple structures) in South Carolina, Penn Center does appear to be the only district to be so designated because of its primary importance to African American history.


However, I think the statement inadvertently obscures the more important truth that virtually every historic site in South Carolina is in fact an African American site. It need not take away one bit from the astonishing accomplishments represented by Penn Center to acknowledge that Black people built the rest of this state, too.


It's vitally important to the future of our society, in South Carolina and beyond, that we learn to recognize the historic presence and contributions of Black people everywhere--especially in spaces where that presence and those contributions have previously been ignored, elided, or relegated to the margins. From the earliest contact of peoples from both sides of the Atlantic down to the present day, all parts of America bear the mark of Black hands, literally and figuratively--as my colleague Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project points out when he spots the fingerprints of enslaved brickmakers in the walls of buildings that still stand today. In this sense, there is no American history without Black history; they are one and the same. As historians, journalists, educators, elected officials, and citizens, let's be sure that in South Carolina we continue to lead the way in telling the whole truth about who we are and whence we come.


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