Black History: First school for blacks

The Oaks Plantation House
The Oaks Plantation House
Penn Center
Penn Center

By Dawn Baker - email | bio

ST. HELENA, SC (WTOC) - During the Civil War before the slaves were freed, there was a very important project going on in the Low Country called the "Port Royal Experiment".

"You had a lot of abolitionists who came in from New York and Pennsylvania who were interested in getting to the Africans, helping them to get ready for the freedom," explains Kitty Green, owner of Gullah-Geechie Mahn Tours.

The abolitionists were mostly men. But there were two women in the group, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray. They felt education was the way to freedom.

They arrived in the Low Country right after the Battle of Port Royal.

"They're here at a very dangerous time when women didn't have rights and they are here to educate Africans which was against the law," adds Seretha Tuttle, owner of Gullah- Geechie Mahn Tours.

They took up residence at the Oaks Plantation House after the owner, Thomas Pope, abandoned the home and left St. Helena shortly after the war started. Towne and Murray started a school in a front room.

"They basically tell them that if you come to my classroom, I will teach you how to read and how to write. The women felt education would be the key for the survival of the Africans. The classroom grew so very rapidly they eventually moved the school to the Brick Baptist Church. They held classes there for about three years and then the women were given a land grant, the land that the Penn Center is currently on," says Tuttle.

Laura Towne and Ellen Murray started the first school in the south to educate newly freed slaves which became known as the Penn School. The Penn Center is still a great place to visit today to learn about life right after the community started as well as the gullah culture. It's also one of the many places where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited and worked on his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

To learn more about history on the Low Country, go to