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.
The Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act was introduced last week by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Assistant Democratic Leader, with Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) as an original cosponsor.
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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After ending its academic mission, the school reorganized as the Penn Center, dedicated to civil rights and social justice, preservation of the history and culture of formerly enslaved West Africans known as the Gullah Geechee, and providing services and resources to the community on St. Helena. In the 1950s and 1960s, the campus became an epicenter of interracial Civil Rights Movement activities. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used Penn Center for Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreats and to plan other activities. Much of SCLC’s planning for the great “March on Washington” and the “Poor People’s Campaign” took place at Penn Center.
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.”