ST. HELENA ISLAND — Much has changed since Robert Middleton was a student at the Penn School, 71 years ago.

The bell that used to ring between classes has been moved inside a museum. The building where he took classes has fallen. Darrah Hall, the former gymnasium, is part of a newly formed national park. 

But despite transformations big and small, the school, which later became Penn Center, keeps drawing Middleton back. 

"I enjoy it," said Middleton, 89, who volunteers six days a week as a docent at Penn's museum. "I like to tell the story." 

Middleton said he had no sense as a student that his school was actually the linchpin of an experiment in African-American self-determination during the Reconstruction era. The school was founded by Philadelphia abolitionist Laura Towne and her friend Ellen Murray, who were committed to giving newly freed slaves the tools to prosper.

When he learned that history as an adult, Middleton, who left school in 1948 and enlisted in the Army, knew he had to return home. 

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St. Helena Island resident Robert Middleton is about to turn 90, and he still volunteers at the Penn Center to explain the history of the school, because he was a student there through the 11th grade. Wade Spees/Staff Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The property in northeastern Beaufort County has gone through many iterations since then, including as a retreat for civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., in the 1960s. It was a training center for the Peace Corps and a community services center and cultural education hub. 

Today, the center's leaders are searching for its next step and will soon launch a feasibility study to sketch that path. Since part of the property was just designated as part of a national park, hopes are higher than ever that Penn will gain recognition nationally as a uniquely important historical site.

At the same time, the nonprofit must find a stable source of revenue, maintain its ongoing social programs and navigate a complex and occasionally fraught relationship with local islanders. 

“It’s been a long time, I’m gathering, since Penn has been the exciting place it should be. Maybe even going back to the '60s, possibly even further back than that," said Marion Burns, chairman of the center's board and its acting executive director.

"When you think about this place and the potential, just walking around these grounds, there’s nothing like this in the country,” Burns said.

Deep roots

For Middleton, the story of Penn has some haunting echoes of his own life, beyond the fact that he was an enrolled student.

Though he grew up on a farm on St. Helena, Middleton was actually born in Philadelphia to unwed parents. His grandmother, he said, gave him away at the hospital to a South Carolina family — landing on St. Helena in a journey not unlike that of Towne and Murray, six decades earlier. 

Many people on St. Helena have a similarly intimate connection to Penn. Their families attended, or even worked there in place of tuition so their children could attend. Their ancestors built the buildings, some of which have today fallen into disrepair under the campus's stately canopy of moss-draped trees. Their children attended leadership programs there that helped them learn the skills to get their first jobs. 

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The 1937 Arnett House was once used for student housing at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island and is one of the buildings slated for renovation. Wade Spees/Staff Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Ethel Sumpter, a native islander and a board member at Penn, didn't attend classes, though her mother did. Her main memory of the center is of a bookmobile that operated out of a building on the grounds. It helped instill in Sumpter an early love of reading, which later blossomed into a decades-long career as a librarian in Washington, D.C.

She retired to the island 20 years ago. Like Middleton and many others who grew up on the island, Sumpter, 72, knew little of Penn's history as a child. 

"That’s a phenomenon — a mindset that caught all of us," Sumpter said. "We just took it for granted."

Today, many islanders have a better understanding of the history. But the center's community relations have been strained in the past year, after a fence was constructed on the site last spring. Rodell Lawrence, executive director of Penn Center at the time, said then the black metal fence was necessary to stop small children from running out onto Martin Luther King Drive.

But the black metal barrier represented, to some, a painful history of displacement by gated communities that had sidelined black communities on the Sea Islands. Some people stopped volunteering at Penn for a time, Sumpter said. 

Ultimately, the controversy has blown over and the center is making efforts to connect more with locals, Burns said. One such attempt was opening up Penn's annual Heritage Days event for free to community members. 

"It wasn't a moneymaker but it was worth building the espirit de corps and camaraderie, if you will," Burns said. 

'Into the 21st century'

When Burns, 75, took the helm of the center after the former executive director left last August, the pure scope of Penn's offerings proved dizzying.

In addition to serving as a historic site with a museum, the center offers multiple social services: a day care and after-school program, financial help for locals to pay property taxes, a summer free-lunch program that feeds 1,800 children, agricultural education and even a vineyard — a pet project of the former director who left before the property could produce Penn Center-branded wine. 

“I just stumbled around for close to a month trying to figure out where are we and what needs to be done so that we can get into the 21st century?” Burns said.

What resulted from that was a set of three narrow priorities.

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Chairman Marion Burns and other board members are working on the next chapter in the Penn Center's future on St. Helena Island. Wade Spees/Staff Wednesday, March 13, 2019

First, the center must secure funding to fix several crumbling buildings around the campus; then, open up those buildings to rentals for more revenue to hire additional staff. Lastly, find a permanent executive director to "run this place like a business," Burns said. 

In 2016, the most recent year where records are publicly available, the center lost $376,982, according to its tax return. (Burns said the center broke even in 2017 but fell short again in 2018, declining to give exact figures.)

Renting out the campus's three main guest houses is a crucial source of revenue now, but expanding and updating the available space could provide enough money to support most of the programs there, Burns said. 

While Penn's campus covers 50 acres, the nonprofit owns 500 acres total, and renting out some of that land to farmers has helped bring in an additional $75,000 annually, Burns said. 

Beyond focusing on financials, the next executive director, Sumpter said, should be "someone who’s been here before, perhaps someone who’s done some research, someone who is able to sense the relationship between Penn Center and the community where it exists, its relationship to the county, the state, and the contributions that folks need to learn about." 

Already, the history at Penn takes visitors from far-flung places by surprise. Mike and Brittney Minton, of Bloomington, Ill., visited the campus with their 10-year-old daughter Caty on Wednesday.

Both the Mintons work in education, and both had worked in rural schools in the South, but their stop inside Penn's museum was still eye-opening. 

"I had never heard of the Penn Center," Mike Minton said. "To have this rich history here and not have it in the mainstream, it's incredible." 

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