For Black History Month, the Pemberton Society will put on an exhibit in the Bankstreet Lobby of historic photographs and memorabilia from the Penn Center, the very first school for freed slaves, and the heart of the unique Gullah culture. The exhibit will also feature the work of such renowned Gullah artists as painter Jonathan Green and the late Philip Simmons, who specialized in ornamental ironwork.
The Penn Center, located on St. Helena, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, was founded in 1862 as a school for the Gullah slaves freed when Union forces took over the islands and the coastal low country of South Carolina and Georgia. The Center, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
The Gullah, mostly from the west coast of Africa, worked the malaria and yellow fever-infested rice plantations on the Sea Islands and the surrounding coastal areas with scant, and often no, white supervision. As a result, they were free to develop a unique language and culture that was very different from that of the more restricted slaves in neighboring states such as Virginia and North Carolina. The Gullah also preserved more of their heritage than any other African American community in the United States. The language, still widely used, is an English-based Creole with many loanwords and elements of grammar and sentence structure from African languages.
Today, the Penn Center continues as an educational, cultural, and community organization dedicated to the education and welfare