Controversy on St. Helena Island has erupted in recent weeks because of a fence that's been constructed on the grounds of the historic Penn Center, just north of Hilton Head. 

The leadership of the center, which was originally built as a school for freed slaves and later became a site for strategy sessions held by Martin Luther King Jr., says the fence was necessary to keep small children from running into a nearby road. 

But some in the community in northern Beaufort County, particularly of Gullah-Geechee heritage, argue that constructing a fence is an insulting move that ignores a history of people of color on South Carolina's Sea Islands being displaced by gated communities. 

Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, said Penn Center's fence is "antithetical to the very cultural community they're in the middle of."

"Gated areas have caused disruption, displacement and disturbance to our very spirit," she said. "The community feels this is a hostile attack against our culture and our way of life on St. Helena Island."

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Queen Quet (copy) (Penn Ctr)

Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. File

Rodell Lawrence, executive director of Penn Center, said the black metal fence was necessary to stop small children from running out onto Martin Luther King Drive. It does not encircle the entire property, only covering the side along that road.

"The fence is not to keep people out," Lawrence said. "It’s very aesthetically pleasing ... people come by here, they think it’s outstanding."

Freed slaves were educated on St. Helena Island, starting in 1862. Penn Center was also a retreat site for King and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s. Since then, the center has gone through many transformations, serving at one point as a training site for Peace Corps volunteers and later becoming a center for community assistance and education. Some of the property was declared a national monument to the Reconstruction era in 2017.

Gullah-Geechee heritage, including a unique language that mixes elements of European and African dialects, developed on the string of Sea Islands that stretch through the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. But those communities have been displaced by coastal development on some of the islands. Today, Kiawah Island is entirely gated, and 70 percent of the land on Hilton Head Island is inside of gated communities. 

On St. Helena Island, local planning regulations prohibit the development of gated communities. The push for that regulation was led in part by the Penn Center in the 1990s, said Emory Campbell, a Gullah-Geechee historian and a former director of the center. 

"Over the last 30 to 40 years, these gated communities have had a negative connotation and negative perceptions in terms of black people and Gullah people on the island," Campbell said.

Goodwine said the fence betrays a fundamental disconnect between the local community, which is descended from the people who built the center originally, and the current leadership of the center, including the board that voted for the fence.

Lawrence said he feels like the center's relationship with the St. Helena community today is "maybe 50-50" but that tempers might cool as people see the fence for themselves. 

In addition to the cultural concerns of the Gullah community, the fence means that an active cemetery is now behind a gate. The Major family has buried their dead in a cemetery behind the Penn Center for decades, said Carrie Major. 

She said her husband will be buried there when he dies and that her mother-in-law, Susie Major, was buried there. Officials of the Penn Center told her that anyone who needed access could get a code to the gate, though the family still protested, she said. 

"There’s nothing else we can do," Major said. 

Lawrence declined to comment on the arrangement made with the Major family, which he said was still in mediation. 

Lawrence, a native of Florida with roots in Jasper County, came to the center in 2015 after working in alumni relations at South Carolina State University. He said the finances of the center, which is a nonprofit, were in dire shape when he arrived. 

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New executive director named for SC’s Penn Center (copy)

Rodell Lawrence at Penn Center on St. Helena Island. File

According to the group's publicly available financial filings with the IRS, Penn's expenses have outstripped its revenue every year since 2011. In 2015, the year Lawrence arrived, the shortfall was $144,005. In 2016, the most recent filing available, the shortfall was $376,982. The center underwent a significant cleanup process that year after Hurricane Matthew. 

Both Goodwine and Major wondered whether the money used to build the fence could have been better used for other purposes on the property, like maintaining some of its older buildings.

Lawrence said the center has already been refurbishing some of the dilapidated buildings on the property and has completely remodeled the day care center. He declined to say how much the fence cost.

“Whatever it’s (the fence) cost, I haven't asked anybody for a dime to pay for it, so I’ll leave it at that,” Lawrence said. 

He said that during his tenure, the center has vastly increased its programming. It's now delivering free meals to needy children in the area during the summers when they don't have access to meals they'd normally get at school. The center is feeding more than 5,300 children a day in Beaufort, Hampton, Jasper and Colleton counties, Lawrence said. 

There are also plans to start producing wine on the property and brand it in the name of the Penn Center.

Controversy over a fence, Lawrence worried, could hinder his efforts to raise funds. 

"It’s pretty disturbing that all people want to talk about is a fence, " Lawrence said. "What we’re doing is creating this negativity that’s out there, and I daresay it’s going to have an impact on funding the Penn Center."

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.