Penn Center

“Penn Center”  Speaker: Rev. Jennie Barrington

Sermon and more:

“Penn Center”

Sermon and Worship Service for

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of

Columbia, South Carolina

June 12, 2016

the Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words, from, Penn Center – A History Preserved, by Orville Vernon Burton, with Wilbur Cross [from the Introduction]


Penn School furthered African American education when doing so was controversial. It maintained close ties to Africa when anything other than a European focus was controversial. It supported civil rights when that was controversial, and it always stood for the inclusion of all peoples, black and white, rich and poor, in the body politic, an idea that remains controversial to this day.”


Reading: Reflections of Brandon Greene on his Visit to Penn Center

Brandon Greene

Posted on April 5, 2013


Reflection on Poem


For my assignment on the Penn Center I chose to write a poem. I felt that the trip was about education for blacks in the past and the start of all black schools. Given that the Penn Center was originally a school, I chose to write about education in my poem. I also chose to talk about what my mother used to tell me when I was younger and entering first grade. She and my grandmother always used to talk to me about what life was like for black children and black people before me. They always told me to be grateful for what I have and to not take my education for granted. The Penn School came before my mother was born, but I felt that her educational history and my grandmother’s were relevant to the topic. My grandmother grew up in the segregation era and my mother did not; however, my mother still dealt with racism when she in school. She dealt with it by doing her best and giving her all in school. She ended up making better grades than her classmates and graduated high school at sixteen. Talking about my mother’s educational background reminded me of another reading that we read in class earlier in the semester. In that particular reading the writer dealt with his classmates the same way. Instead of being ashamed of being black he worked at his full potential and gave his all, which resulted in him receiving better grades on his exams. He received better grades than his classmates.


Visiting the Penn Center and learning about its origin made me feel very privileged for the education and the freedom that I’ve been afforded. I thought the buildings were peacefully designed and efficient, but I felt the location was very rural.  I concluded my poem by talking about the lack of equality in our society and how things are much different now than how they were in the past but there is still much work to be done.



Born and raised in the harder South

Some might say with a silver spoon in my mouth

I don’t know I just had what my mother gave me

Father left at five she was the only one left to raise me

A strong black woman graduated high school at sixteen

Went to college and earned a degree from an Ivy League

First of her kind though her mother didn’t make it as far

Because when she was in school education had lowered the bar

My mother always told me to get an education

And don’t involve myself in idle recreation

She said those before me didn’t have as much

They weren’t allowed to read and a book they couldn’t touch

She told me to be grateful for the school I got to attend

Because back in the day going to school meant walking miles on end

She talked of schools with one classroom and no air

Black kids without textbooks the system wasn’t close to fair

Girls bombed in churches and beaten by forces but life is better today

We’re free to learn, free to read, and say what we want to say

One of few blacks in a sea of all white

But at least they let me learn; at least they treat me right

We’ve come a long way from those harsh days in the past

But there’s still more to do if we want this peace to last

I’m grateful to have been raised in a more accepting generation

That no longer prohibits learning and no longer allows segregation

Education shouldn’t be a privilege but a God given right

And though we’ve made progress the end is still not in sight

As long as there is color racism will always exist

However we need to learn to look past it and co-exist



Sermon: “Penn Center”

I keep hearing that we are in an era when people are disillusioned with institutions (such as government agencies, churches, the election process, and mainstream media). Well, Penn Center is an institution that we can have faith and trust in. Penn Center is an institution, right here in South Carolina, that people have been able to believe in, and have received help and support from, since its founding over 150 years ago. And it was founded by a Unitarian–  Laura Matilda Towne. In 1862, she moved from Philadelphia to St. Helena Island, as a missionary, to assist the former slaves there, who were now free. Her work was part of The Port Royal Experiment, to start a school for African Americans, and help them become self-sufficient. Laura Towne was inspired by the sermons of Rev. William Henry Furness, her abolitionist pastor of the Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. With her background in teaching and in homeopathic medicine, she ministered to the medical and educational needs of the residence of St. Helena Island. And, remarkably, she stayed there and continued to serve that community for almost forty years. About a month after Laura Towne started the Penn School, Ellen Murray arrived to assist her, and they worked together in a companionable partnership. The core purposes of what was Penn School, and later became Penn Center are: education, including skills to lead to gainful employment; land ownership (which was an ongoing struggle; many people tried to buy or take the African Americans’ land out from under them); and preservation of the heritage and culture of the island’s residence, known as the Gullah Geechee culture. Beginning in the 1950s and through the following decades, Penn Center was also a center for advocacy for racial equality, a safe place for interracial meetings and planning sessions (including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps), and a host for progressive speakers, including Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, Penn Center still hosts liberal conferences, provides a day care center and community services, and advocates for the preservation of the beautiful land of the Sea Islands and the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor, which extends from Wilmington, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.


In 2003, Penn Center created an honorary society called “The 1862 Circle,” named after the year of the founding of the Penn School. It “recognizes leaders who embody the spirit of Penn Center and who serve as national advocates for the enduring history and culture of the Sea Islands.” Some of the inductees have been: Congressmen John Lewis and James E. Clyburn, Thomas Barnwell, Jr., Laura Towne, Ellen Murray, Phylicia Rashad, Pat Conroy, Charlotte Forten, Congressman Robert Smalls, Marian Wright Edelman, Leroy E. Browne and Corinna J. Brown, and The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort, South Carolina, whose motto is: “Many Beliefs – One Light.”


I learned about Penn Center, and the Penn School, and Laura Towne, and St. Helena Island, by going there last month, and by buying this book, Penn Center – A History Preserved, by Orville Vernon Burton, with Wilbur Cross. My friend, the Rev. Kevin Tarsa is the Interim Minister for the UU Fellowship of Beaufort. I had a wonderful visit with him, and soaked up the history and beauty of Penn Center, its York W. Bailey Museum and grounds. I also visited the beach at the State Park on St. Helena Island, and I even climbed the lighthouse! And I attended the worship service at the Beaufort Fellowship, which was a very friendly and lively service, with lots of special music. After the service, I was able to talk with several members of the Fellowship about its ongoing involvement with, and support of Penn Center. That Fellowship has always tried to continue the legacy of Penn School and our Unitarian predecessor Laura Towne.


But how do we do that, in these contemporary times? How do we, the Unitarian Universalists who live in South Carolina today, continue the legacy of what was originally the Penn School for freed slaves and their children? That’s a really big question. The years following the Civil War were distinctly different than the times we are living in. I don’t have a simple answer for you this morning. But any answers to that question have to come from the purposes and priorities of the Penn School during its remarkable tenure. And there was a point in history when there were conflicting opinions as to what those purposes and priorities should be. At the turn of the century, Laura Towne knew that she had to retire, and she took steps to pass on the leadership of Penn School to others. With her approval, it came under the patronage of the Hampton Institute, in Virginia, which was directed by Samuel C. Armstrong. The focus of Armstrong, and the Hampton Institute, was “industrial” education, meaning farming, agricultural, and the basics of managing one’s household and business affairs. Armstrong was not in favor of African Americans receiving a liberal, classical education, nor voting rights, nor pursuing being treated as equal citizens. This was the period when segregation, and “separate but equal” treatment became entrenched. Booker T. Washington, himself a former slave, shared Armstrong’s views. Washington believed, “If African Americans were required to live, for the most part, in the South, if they were expected to remain tethered to the soil, cultivating cotton and tobacco, then they needed to develop themselves as artisans and scientific farmers, growing bigger and bigger crops than neighboring whites, cooperating and supporting one another, accumulating property, and building stronger institutions.” [pp. 44, 45] W.E.B. DuBois, the brilliant Harvard-educated scholar from Massachusetts, disagreed (as do I). DuBois, who was encultured to view himself as equal to all, advocated for higher education with stronger academics for African Americans. He believed, “these educated elites would become the civil rights leaders of their communities.” [p. 45]


Why couldn’t they do both?  –I have to ask myself–  Why couldn’t Penn School provide, to the African Americans of St. Helena Island, both the practical arts of industrial education and the higher learning of liberal, classical education? In the interest of full disclosure, I am a middle-child. This means that I always want there to be a compromise solution to every situation of conflict. And also in the interest of full disclosure, I, too, grew up in Massachusetts. I grew up aware of, and closed off from attending, many secondary schools, which would not have admitted me because of my economic background, or because they only admitted boys, and to this day they still only admit boys. So it pained me to learn that, at the turn of the century, Penn School made a choice not to offer educational programming that was available to people with more wealth, power, or status. So I have to tell myself that the administrators of Penn School made the best choice they were able to discern in their place and time. But we can do better, today. We can create and support educational models that do not separate out some people as “elite.”


When I was visiting the UU Fellowship in Beaufort, and talking with their members about what Penn Center is and does today, the possibility of a charter school came up. It isn’t definite yet. But, especially since the public schools on St. Helena Island aren’t working very well, there is a need for something new and different, and a charter school is being discussed. Some people object to charter schools on principle, which I do not. I know of several charter schools that fill educational needs in their communities wonderfully. The members of the Beaufort Fellowship I talked with said that, for a new charter school at Penn Center to be in keeping with Penn School’s legacy, it would have to be intentionally integrated, including racially, economically, and from all the areas of the Island. It would have to be intentionally “not elite” those UUs in Beaufort said to me. I appreciated hearing that. I then said that the main problem I’ve seen with charter schools is when one group of parents starts one, and continues to administrate it well for a certain period of time, while their children are there. But then they stop being involved after their children have graduated, and the administration of the school falters and fails. The UUs I said this to nodded and then assured me, “We would never let that happen to a school at Penn Center. Our Fellowship will always stay involved in leading and supporting the programs of Penn Center.” That Fellowship is a smaller congregation than ours. But when it comes to Penn Center, their mission and calling could not be more clear and strong.


The Beaufort Fellowship’s vision of a charter school that is intentionally “not elite” made me recall another secondary school model that is very inspiring to me. I learned about it from a recent episode of “60 Minutes.” To me, it is an excellent model of how the extraordinary work of the Penn School could be continued today. Scott Pelley profiled St. Benedict’s Prep, in Newark, New Jersey. It has been led by the Benedictine monks of Newark Abbey since its founding in 1868. It had originally been “a very proper, very white Catholic boys’ school.” But in 1967, Newark was beset by unemployment, racism, police brutality, and riots. White families moved out of Newark. In 1972, the school closed, and there was talk of closing the monastery. But only a year later, Brother Edwin Leahy committed to opening the school again. He said, “I didn’t think it was right to be participating in the racism, to allow people outside to think that somehow that the school closed because of African Americans… the increasing number of African Americans.” Under Leahy’s leadership, the school reopened to the teenagers in the neighborhoods around the monastery, with the mission of “organizing the boys to lead themselves.” The students call each other brother. And the motto of the school is, “Whatever hurts my brother, hurts me.” If one of them is not in school, and his parents don’t know where he is, the other students go out and find him, and make sure he is safe and well. Brother Leahy used the Boy Scout Handbook as one model for how to teach the students to work as a team, and develop their character. The students are organized into teams, and do much of the running of the school themselves. Brother Leahy says that these teens do not get to have control of much of anything else in their lives. Yes, they make some bad decisions sometimes, which have to be straightened out afterward. But Brother Leahy says that that is a better learning experience for them than if everything was done for them and handed down to them. Scott Pelley interviewed one of the students, Andrew Brice, who had been in the foster care system, and then was living on the streets. He snuck in to a St. Benedict’s water polo team practice. He told the coach, “I have trouble at home; I’ve been sleeping on the street; I’m not making it in the school that I’m in; I want to come here.” The coach simply said, “Then be here Monday morning.” Andrew Brice lives on the campus now, and is on track to graduate. This journey has not been easy for him. But he is not a quitter, and neither are his classmates. Edward Leahy has said, “Most of the problems in this country within urban America… and especially in schools, have nothing to do with intellect. A lot of it has to do with emotional noise that these kids suffer so it’s a big challenge for us and to get the kids to realize their potential, the fact that they are a gift to somebody else.”

St. Benedict’s has several sports programs, including soccer, swimming, fencing, wrestling, basketball, baseball, track, and golf. But sports is not what Brother Leahy wants to talk about. “[He] believes it is education that saves lives.” Ninety-eight percent of St. Benedict’s graduates attend college, and 87% of those graduates receive their degree within six years, from colleges including Amherst, Boston College, Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, NYU, Penn, and Notre Dame. St. Benedict’s mission is to prepare “young men to fulfill their potential as emotionally mature, morally responsible and well-educated young men.”


Lastly, what could our congregation do, right within these walls, to create and support educational models that are intentionally “not elite,” and that continue the legacy of Laura Towne and Penn Center? We could renovate our Religious Education wing, and use it more fully to live out the progressive purposes and priorities of UUCC and Unitarian Universalism. What about a Homework Help program? Or a day care for both children and elders? Or more discussions and classes about the need for advocacy for racial minorities, and for people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or questioning? And what about more fun things, such as engaging in the arts, and in science projects? Let’s assess the educational, emotional, and developmental needs in our corner of South Carolina, in our time, and answer the call to meet them, in ways that would make Laura Towne and the other Penn School pioneers grateful and proud.


*Benediction [W.E.B. DuBois]:

A system of education is not one thing, nor does it have a single definite object, nor is it a mere matter of schools. Education is that whole system of human training within and without the school house walls, which molds and develops [human beings].