Bank Street for Adults

Pemberton Society Honors The Penn Center's 150th Anniversary

Posted by Elisabeth Jakab on February 05, 2012

The Penn CenterFor Black History Month, the Pemberton Society will put on an exhibit in the Bankstreet Lobby of historic photographs and memorabilia from the Penn Center, the very first school for freed slaves, and the heart of the unique Gullah culture. The exhibit will also feature the work of such renowned Gullah artists as painter Jonathan Green and the late Philip Simmons, who specialized in ornamental ironwork. 

The Penn Center, located on St. Helena, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, was founded in 1862 as a school for the Gullah slaves freed when Union forces took over the islands and the coastal low country of South Carolina and Georgia. The Center, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. 

Gullah Saying

The Gullah, mostly from the west coast of Africa, worked the malaria and yellow fever-infested rice plantations on the Sea Islands and the surrounding coastal areas with scant, and often no, white supervision. As a result, they were free to develop a unique language and culture that was very different from that of the more restricted slaves in neighboring states such as Virginia and North Carolina. The Gullah also preserved more of their heritage than any other African American community in the United States. The language, still widely used, is an English-based Creole with many loanwords and elements of grammar and sentence structure from African languages. 

Today, the Penn Center continues as an educational, cultural, and community organization dedicated to the education and welfare of its constituents and to preserving the Gullah culture, history, and language. As its website says, it is “both a link to the past and a bridge to the future.” Many historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists come to the Center to study the rich and distinctive heritage of the African American Gullah. 

Bankstreet’s connection with the Penn Center goes back to a 2000 Long Trip, made at the suggestion of trustee Kate Whitney, a Pemberton Steering Committee member. According to Fern Khan—another Steering Committee member, Special Advisor to the President for Community Affairs, and an organizer of the exhibit—there are many similarities between the goals of the Penn Center and those of Bankstreet.  

Khan notes that the Penn Center, like Bankstreet, has always seen “in education the opportunity to build a better society,” is deeply concerned with “connecting teaching and learning to the outside world” and, in particular, seeks “to strengthen not only individuals, but the community as well.”  

She adds, “The Gullah saying, ‘Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree,’ [‘For the tree to grow and flourish, one must nurture the root.’] mirrors Bankstreet’s emphasis on the crucial importance of quality childhood education.”

In 2000, Bankstreet awarded an honorary doctorate to Dr. Emory Campbell, then the Penn Center’s Executive Director. In 2001, Bankstreet’s Continuing Education Division held a two-day seminar in Gullah culture, history, and language, and collaborated on a fundraiser with the Sankofa Circle, which raises money for the Center. Lucia Jack, President of Pemberton, is also President of Sankofa.

The exhibit will be on view throughout February, and will be kicked off with an opening reception, open to the public, on February 7 at 5:30 p.m.