Founded in 1862 for formerly enslaved African Americans, the Penn School outside Beaufort established a commitment to the education, welfare and heritage of rural black Americans and Gullah-Geechee communities that has remained continuous and strong for 161 years.
This site, now designated as the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District, has served as an educational institution, health clinic, farm bureau, retreat for civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and catalyst for community action. It is a living repository that preserves the island’s unique Gullah-Geechee heritage, culture and history.
Penn Center National Historic Landmark District continues to work for the wider communities of St. Helena Island and Gullah-Geechee people politically, socially and culturally. Like our sister National Historic Landmark District of Sweet Auburn in Dr. King’s home of Atlanta, Penn Center chronicles an influential and legendary regional and national history. Penn Center leads in preserving and protecting the cultural resources of St. Helena Island for future generations to learn from, steward and enjoy.
That is why, upon hearing about the plans for a golf course and gated community on Pine Island and St. Helenaville that threaten this legacy, Penn Center went into action. We resolved to oppose the golf resort plans and speak out against changes to St. Helena’s Cultural Protection Overlay, a community-driven zoning policy designed to safeguard Gullah-Geechee culture that was enacted more than 20 years ago.
We are not alone. The Penn Center National Historic Landmark District extends our sincere gratitude to Gov. Henry McMaster, Congresswoman Nancy Mace and state Sen. Chip Campsen for expressing their concerns that the proposed overlay changes could signal open season for developers and overrun our special landscape.
The voices of our esteemed elected officials helped galvanize the community, and on Jan. 5, we were able to pack the house at Beaufort County’s Planning Commission meeting. Our community spoke out and affirmed that golf courses, resorts and gated communities do not belong on St. Helena Island, including at Pine Island and St. Helenaville.
Many Sea Islanders and Gullah-Geechee people have seen their cultures and properties erased or diminished by reckless development. But St. Helena Island is still defined by rural, working landscapes and the Spanish moss hanging from the ancient live oaks that stand witness to a history and place that connects all of us.
It is a place still anchored by the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District and also by praise houses, sacred Gullah-Geechee burial areas and tabby ruins dating from enslavement. There are still vistas of maritime forests, meandering tidal creeks and expansive mud flats and oyster bars. Members of our community still reel in red drum, sea trout and flounder from our waters. We still plant rows of tomatoes, squash and zucchini, and tend our groves of citrus trees.
It is self-evident that this island is a ballast from which all of us draw comfort, stability and security. This island is a living cultural repository that defines to our state and nation who we are, who and what we remember, and who we will become. The conservation and preservation of all that stands on this island will signify that we value everyone, not just a privileged few.
The Planning Commission’s vote to deny the Cultural Protection Overlay changes was a victory. It is imperative that we remain vigilant and protect the dynamic, unique culture and environment of Pine Island and St. Helenaville. Working together, we can uphold and strengthen the overlay and sustain the Gullah-Geechee communities that are so closely bound to St. Helena Island’s landscape.
David Yoakley Mitchell is executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center and serves on the advisory board of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.