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Obama Declares Reconstruction Era School For Freed Slaves a National Monument

The historic Penn Center in St. Helena Island, South Carolina is one of several places President Obama designated a national monument.
Image: Penn Center
The Penn Center, formerly known as Penn School, located on St. Helena Island, SC was established in 1862 as one of the first schools for freed slaves.Mahlia Posey / Mahlia Posey
Trees outside of Penn Center.Mahlia Posey / Mahlia Posey

Growing up the in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Gardenia Simmons-White didn’t see herself in the history books. She was living it. She grew up during the period of Reconstruction and graduated from Penn School in 1952. The 82-year-old is one of the last surviving graduates of a historic institution known for educating freed Gullah slaves after plantation owners left the islands.

Yet, there were no monuments dedicated to that time period she grew up — that space between the end of slavery and the rise of Jim Crow. That space where free men learned to read, write, own property and run for office.

“We were not in the history books,” said Simmons-White.

Until now.

With only days left as president, President Obama established a national monument to the Reconstruction era with sites in St. Helena Island, Beaufort and Port Royal, South Carolina.

“I have sought to build a more inclusive National Park System and ensure that our national parks, monuments and public lands are fully reflective of our nation’s diverse history and culture,” said the President in a statement issued by the White House on Thursday.

The Penn Center's dock that leads to a retreat built for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, which they would never get to enjoy.Tiffany Cussac-Smith / Mahlia Posey

Simmons-White spoke of a time where she and her classmates received a formal education of reading, writing and arithmetic in a segregated community in a school that taught her to take “can’t” out of her vocabulary and pursue her dreams. She wants other people to know what she and her school have done for the state, region and the country in her lifetime, and now they will.

President Obama designated Ms. Simmons-White’s school and the other monuments using the Antiquities Act, allowing him to act independently. But legislation was greatly supported by Alabama and South Carolina’s delegations.

Thanks to a bill co-sponsored by Congressman James Clyburn, D-SC., and Congressman Mark Sanford, R-SC., thousands of acres running across the corridor of Beaufort County, South Carolina are now a national monument because of its rich contribution to America during a transitional period.

Robert Middleton, a student at the Penn School, gives tours of the Sea Islands. He loves sharing more about the natives of St. Helena Island referred to as the Gullah people and other historic sites on St. Helena's Island, like the Coffin Point Praise House.Tiffany Cussac-Smith / Mahlia Posey

“Penn Center is so critical, it wasn't a college or university but guess what it was clearly the beginning of the education for blacks in the country,” said Dr. Rodell Lawrence, the director of Penn Center.

The school opened in 1862 to 80 students and grew to 600 by 1930, granting access to a formal education and occupations once explicitly denied. The school closed in 1948, but still remains at the center of African-American education and social justice for the descendants of formerly enslaved West Africans living in the Sea Islands, known as the Gullah Geechee people as outlined in their mission statement.

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Later, in the 1960’s, Penn served as a safe haven community center. Victoria Smalls, a Gullah native to the Sea Islands and commissioner of the Gullah Geechee heritage corridor of South Carolina, whose father attended Penn, describes a time where the Penn Center was the only location in South Carolina where interracial groups, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps volunteers could meet safely during a period of segregation.

Gardenia Simmons-White holds up a picture of her and her siblings who are still proud landowners of the Penn Center to this day.Mahlia Posey / Mahlia Posey

The staff and supporters trust Penn’s 150-year widespread impact on local, national and international communities grants them their national monument designation, along with the other Sea Island unheard Reconstruction stories, like the Port Royal Experiment, Emancipation Oak and Robert Smalls.

A month ago, hundreds gathered at the historic Brick Baptist Church for a public hearing to support the Beaufort-area federal Reconstruction monument including the National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis who recently retired. The former director said, “Reconstruction is poorly understood, poorly-interpreted piece of American history,” and commended local efforts to preserve it.

Jarvis said in an interview with NBC that he’s worked for the National Park Service for 40 years and designated hundreds of monuments, but this one is right up there and he’s ecstatic.

“You hear about the first schools, the first freedom schools, the civil rights movement, but you have not heard about the reconstruction era as it should be told and so Penn Center is named within that designation and we’re so excited about that,” said Smalls.

The Penn Center, formerly known as Penn School, located on St. Helena Island, SC was established in 1862 as one of the first schools for freed slaves.Mahlia Posey / Mahlia Posey