The historic Penn Center campus, founded on St. Helena Island, S.C., in 1862 as the Penn School, one of the first schools in the South to educate newly freed slaves, has been proposed to become the country’s latest national monument, managed by the National Park Service.
No National Park unit presently is dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Reconstruction Era, the period after the Civil War during which the U.S. came to grips with the legacy of slavery and implications of emancipation.
Several national park units do have resources relevant to Reconstruction, including Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, Arlington House, Booker T. Washington National Monument, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, Dry Tortugas National Park, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, George Washington Carver National Historic Site, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Nicodemus National Historic Site, Shiloh National Military Park, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, and Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.
The Reconstruction Era is “underrepresented in the National Park Service,” Clyburn said in a statement, adding, “For generations, the story of this era was intentionally manipulated, to downplay the civil rights and economic gains made by African Americans following the Civil War and the pernicious efforts by white Southerners to disfranchise them.”
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The Penn Center was declared a National Historic Landmark District by Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton in 1974. Clyburn authored legislation passed by Congress in 2006 to establish the first Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that stretches from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., and includes the Penn Center.
“The site of Penn School is the ideal location for a National Monument dedicated to the Reconstruction Era, as its history is one of the best examples of the stories of the period,” Clyburn said. “Importantly, enacting this legislation will not detract from Penn Center’s ongoing operations. The National Park Service would partner with Penn Center to manage the National Monument, but Penn Center will continue their mission on their historic campus as they have for over 150 years.”