Penn School papers, 1862-2004.

Creator: Penn School papers, 1862-2004.
Collection number: 3615
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Abstract: The Penn School on Saint Helena Island, S.C., was founded during the Civil War by northern philanthropists and missionaries for former plantation slaves in an area occupied by the United States Army. Over the years, with continuing philanthropic support, it served as school, health agency, and cooperative society for rural African Americans of the Sea Islands. The first principals were Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray, followed around 1908 by Rossa B. Cooley and Grace B. House, and in 1944 by Howard Kester and Alice Kester. The school became Penn Community Services in 1950, with Courtney Siceloff as the first director, and the Penn Center, Inc. in the 1980s. The original deposits are papers, mostly 1900-1970, mainly from the Penn School, and primarily correspondence of the directors and of the trustees, treasurers, and publicity workers located elsewhere. Topics include African American education, Reconstruction, political and social change in South Carolina, agricultural extension work, public health issues, damage from hurricanes, World War I, the boll weevil and the cotton industry, the effects of the Great Depression on the school and the local population, changes in the school leading to a greater emphasis on social action in the outer world, and the end of the school and the turn to community service. Volumes include diaries, extracts from letters, recollections, minutes of the board of trustees, ledgers, cashbooks, inventories, financial records, registers of students and teachers, and minutes of various clubs and societies. Printed materials consists of newspapers clippings, pamphlets, promotional literature, school materials, administrative circulars, and annual reports. There are also about 3,000 photographs in the collection, dating from the 1860s to 1962 (bulk 1905-1944), documenting school activities, Island scenes and Islanders, classes and teachers, baptisms, agricultural activities, parades, fairs, and special events at the Penn School. Also included are about 300 audiotapes with oral history interviews and recordings of community acivities, 1954-1979. The Addition of 2005, contains papers of Courtney Siceloff, director of Penn Community Services, 1950-1970, and secretary of the South Carolina Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, circa 1960-1970. Penn Community Services materials are chiefly administrative and financial. Material relating to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and its state advisory committees, especially the South Carolina Advisory Committee, includes some information about specific discrimination cases.

Repository: Southern Historical Collection

Collection Highlights: Administrative correspondence and records of Penn Normal Industrial and Agricultural School, a school for black students established in 1862 on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. The collection also contains material on Penn School’s successor, Penn Community Services, which commenced its activities in 1948. Materials include approximately 3,000 photographs of students, teachers, school buildings, school events, and island life and inhabitants (1860s-1962). Numerous volumes include trustee minutes; account books and inventories; school and community club records; and guest books. The collection also includes diaries and papers of Laura M. Towne, founder of the school, and of others associated with the area in the 1860s. Microfilm available.

The Penn School papers cover myriad topics such as enslavement, education, agriculture, environmental conditions, family, social justice, Gullah/Geechee heritage, and Civil Rights, to name a few.

Of particular interest in the diary of Laura Towne, one of the first principles of Penn School (Folder 355a-b). She discusses life during the establishment of the school and interactions with the African American community, as well as with Union and Confederate Soldiers coming to St. Helena Island.

The printed materials in Series 3 also contain numerous annual reports, including reports from African American teachers at the school.

Of particular interest are the more than 3,000 photographs that are in the collection. They document Penn from its earliest days as a school in the 19th century, to the shift from Penn Community Services during the 1950s. The people and landscape of Saint Helena are prominently featured. Many of the images have been digitized and are available online. Click here to link the finding aid and to access the digitized content.