Persistance Pays: “Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act”

06 Jun Persistance Pays: “Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act”

More than twenty years ago, a small group of scholars and community leaders including Dr. Page Miller, Dr. Lawrence Rowland, Chancellor Jane Upshaw, Emory Campbell and others met with visiting Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to talk about a national monument in Beaufort to shine a light on the story of the Reconstruction Area. They proposed a legislative initiative to make this happen, but for a number of reasons the measure died.

In late 2014 or early 2015, my childhood friend John Siceloff, whose parents directed Penn Community Services for many years and John was serving on the Penn Board, called and asked what he could do to best help Penn grow and remain sustainable as a very important marker in our history. I suggested a partnership with the US Park Service was the best suited avenue. The Penn Center Board passed a resolution directing John and other board members to explore the option and we went to work contacting the Park Service and members of Congress. We of course learned that much red tape was involved, but John and his committee, including Tonya Phillips, David Grimm and Ethel Sumter from the Penn Board, and Penn’s new Director Rodell Lawrence and Board Chair Clifford Bush joined me in a meeting with the Congressman.

The process was slower than we wanted and unfortunately John passed away in March 2015, but the rest of us continued the exploration. A few months ago, Congressman Clyburn called and said “it is time.” Former Secretary Babbitt was going to return to visit with Dr. Page Miller, a Beaufort public historian, and members of the initial group and with Dr. Lawrence, Mr. Bush and Penn Center officials.

Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior was conducting a two year study of Reconstruction sites throughout the region to determine where, if anywhere, a national monument and interpretative center should be located. While the report has yet to be released, I can only assume that they agreed with those of us who have argued that Beaufort County has the richest remnants of this important period of history.

Thanks to all who have been working on this endeavor. For many of us, it is a dream “coming true”, though there is considerable work ahead to make it what it can be.

A special thanks to the late John Siceloff for his tenacity and hard work.

Below you will see Congressman Clyburn’s news release and the story posted in the Post and Courier.
June 2, 2022


COLUMBIA, S.C. – U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn released the following statement after introducing the “Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act.”

The bill would designate the historic Penn Center campus (formerly known as Penn School) on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, as a National Monument. The National Monument would be dedicated to the history of the Reconstruction Era and managed by the National Park Service. He was joined by Rep. Mark Sanford as an original cosponsor.

“Penn Center is one of the most significant historical institutions in America. Founded during the Civil War as Penn School, it was one of the first schools built in the South to educate newly freed slaves. Throughout the Reconstruction Era, Penn School helped African Americans of the Sea Islands of South Carolina thrive and take advantage of opportunities denied to them by slavery.”

“After local governments began to operate public schools for African Americans, Penn reorganized as Penn Center, a community organization dedicated to civil rights, preservation of Gullah history and culture, and providing critical services and resources to the community on St. Helena. Penn Center continues its mission today, operating on the same historic campus continuously since the Civil War.”

“This bill would establish a National Monument dedicated to the history and interpretation of the Reconstruction Era, a period of history underrepresented in the National Park System. 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.”

“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. 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.”

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