For some people Beaufort County South Carolina is a get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The sites of beautiful plantation homes, Atlantic Ocean, good seafood, and live oak trees will put anyone’s mind at temporary ease. The historic architecture of the county is a reminder of just how old Beaufort County South Carolina is. In 1711 Beaufort, South Carolina was chartered, making it the second oldest city in The Palmetto State. I find it difficult for anyone to not mention Beaufort County South Carolina, without including the historic and famed (at least in my book) Penn Center located on St. Helena Island. The Penn Center was founded in 1862 by two white missionaries from Pennsylvania. This school was the first of its kind designated for the education of African-American students in the southern part of the United States.
This site was especially important to the Gullah people which included freed slaves after their enslavers abandoned the island. The school remained a pillar for education in the community until 1948. Today 80% of the island consist of people from Gullah descent, per the tour guide during my visit. After attending my first Annual Penn Center Heritage day years ago, I became hooked on learning more about the place closest to Africa as far as traditions in the United States. The pride and culture on the island amongst the Gullah people is absolutely infectious. Our excellent tour guide Mrs. Seretha, explained “every black person has a piece of Gullah in them, so we are all Gullah.” After hearing her explanation … she was right. The statistics alone of how many African-Americans entered the United States via the coast of North Carolina, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia supported her statement in itself. This was not my first time hearing this notion. I know a former co-worker who is of Gullah descent from the low country in Georgia who echoed the same sentiments years ago, during a conversation over a glass of gentleman jack.
While walking the grounds of the beautiful Penn Center campus, I envisioned what life was like during its heyday, when brown people of all shades were living as an even tighter knit community. This euphoric existence lured Martin Luther King Jr. to set up temporary refuge at the campus on numerous occasions. Dr. King would be one of many to fight for the protection and equality of brown people in the United States. Many are keenly aware of MLK Jr., (or at least should be) but many do not know where he received his formal training which prepared him to empower a nation of people across the spectrum of race. The Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee was one of those places as well as the Penn Center. Monteagle is and has been historically a white town not necessarily thrilled of the droves of people who were learning how to fight racism and inequality. The Highlander Folk School was deemed a “nuisance” to the local folks in the community. I found it Ironic a town nestled in the Bible belt was so staunch against a group of individuals encouraging peace. St. Helena on the other hand, predominately African- American provided just the solace Dr. King needed. After battling Jim Crow laws, receiving death threats and being jailed numerous times in other southern cities, the protection of those on the island was a welcoming feeling for Dr. King.
Religion and faith was needed for African-Americans during the civil rights movement just like Daryl Hall needed John Oats. The faith rendered by Dr. King was an encouraging elixir many needed in order to believe race relations would improve. Can you imagine the difficulties preparing followers to steadfast and remain optimistic in an environment where your existence was not a concern, due to the color of your skin? Being a firm believer in our ancestor’s super natural ability of protection, I know those who once roamed the Penn Center’s grounds spoke to Dr. King during his tenure there. The spiritual connectedness between “good doers” and ancestors is undeniable if you are in-tune.
On the island are Praise Houses. These buildings were constructed by the enslaved with the permission of their enslavers for worship. They were often small spaces due to fear of the enslaver’s insecurities of too many enslaved congregating at a time. I am sure Dr. King visited a praise house to channel wisdom and strength for those who came before him, blessing him with resiliency while in the throes of adversity. It has been said when Dr. King was at the Penn Center, he was not always wearing a suit and tie. I believe this confirmed a sense of ease for Dr. King, outside of an incident when gasoline was poured on a yard shaped like across. I’m sure handling ignorance of that sort was like a walk in the park for illustrious Dr. King, for he has experienced much worse.
On August 28, 1963 Dr. King Jr. delivered perhaps one of the most moving speeches known to mankind. Yes, you guessed right, the I Have a Dream speech. This day is (1) important because I was born on the day not the year and (2) from a historical perspective nothing supersedes his message purposed for inclusion and equality to this date. As a young adult hearing the speech over and over again, I always wondered where in the world did Dr. King write this material and if not alone who assisted. While discussing Dr. Kings experiences on the island, our tour guide pulled in front of a nice quaint dwelling located in the corner of the property called the Gantt Cottage. The tour guide expressed “this was Dr. King’s living quarters when he visited.” Of course, I jumped out of the van and headed for the steps of the cottage hoping to enter. To my dismay, the building was unfortunately closed due to renovations which meant I had to settle for a gaze through the window which housed pictures of Dr. King on the walls. As I walked back walked to the van I heard the guide mention the I Have a Dream Speech. Of course I asked her to repeat EVERYTHING she just mentioned and she obliged.
She explained while ground keepers were rummaging through the home, a box was found in a closet which obtained drafts of the I Have a Dream Speech. Instantly it brought chills. Here I was, standing on the land that fostered a concept of literary genius. The I have a dream speech is unequivocally recognized across the globe as a cry for man-kind to consider judging a person by their character and not the hue of their skin. The reprieve the Pen Center offered Dr. King was invaluable. It should be considered a “mecca” of the civil rights movements for the protection of one of the most adored historical figures to walk the earth. It is an honor and pleasure to share that the same place of refuge Dr. King Jr. adored so much provides the same for me. Cheers to the Pen Center.