A Place in Time
The first impression of Victoria Smalls is ignited by her physical eloquence. She's 6-foot, 3-inches tall, impeccable in her appearance and carries herself with the grace of royalty. After a brief conversation, one discovers Victoria is much more than a put-together woman.
Victoria is an encyclopedia's worth of knowledge on the Sea Islands and is quick to express her passion for its people, her heritage and her job as History and Culture Coordinator at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.
"I find my work very gratifying and fun," Victoria said. "I love coming into work every day. It takes up a great deal of my time, during the days and after hours." The Penn Center, or the Penn School as it was originally called, was founded in 1862. It was one of the country's first Southern schools for African-Americans, forming about six months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and about three years prior to the end of the Civil War. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
Victoria, who grew up just two miles away from the 50-acre campus, was hired earlier this year. She's proven to be a perfect fit, having volunteered at the center for many years with a focus on its special events. Currently, she also is coordinating the nonprofit organization's 150th anniversary celebration that is being recognized over three years. Victoria also brought her expertise of the Gullah people and their art to her job, having worked as curator at The Red Piano Too Art Gallery on St. Helena before joining the Penn Center staff.
Victoria's connection to the Penn Center begins with her office, which once was used as the men's dormitory. The space is packed with file cabinets, campus literature and enough wall hangings to make visitors take notice. Her late father, Elting B. Smalls, graduated from the Penn School in 1943, which gives Victoria an added sense of belonging.
"I kind of envision my father walking around, going to school, attending his classes, or going to the Cope industrial building to learn blacksmithing or carpentry," she said. "And then I also imagine him even sleeping in this room, in my little corner office. But that's just my imagination. I don't really know for sure."
What she is certain of is that her parents met at the Penn Center when the two attended a religious conference during the height of the 1960s' civil rights movement. Victoria's late mother, Laura Smalls, was a white woman from Petoskey, Michigan, and Elting, a 6-foot, 6-inch charismatic Gullah man, was born and raised on St. Helena. The couple got married in Lansing, Michigan, because they were forbidden to marry in South Carolina. They became the first biracial couple on the small island.
Laura brought four children to the marriage, while Elting had six children from a previous marriage. Together, they had Victoria and three other children. "I call it the modern-day Brady Bunch," Victoria smiled and said. Although most of her life has been on St. Helena, Victoria said her mother and siblings moved to Hilton Head when her parents separated. At the time, ten-year-old Victoria spoke with a Gullah dialect, something she learned at school and in the neighborhood, rather than from her father.
"On Hilton Head, it didn't suit me to speak Gullah anymore, it was embarrassing. People were laughing at me." Victoria recounted. "As a way to learn American English, Victoria said she started watching news on TV, where newscasters spoke with non-committal accents. Today, she speaks as if she's reading the 6 o'clock news, but effortlessly switches into Gullah on command. "I didn't realize it was a dialect, and an actual language," she said. "Had I known that, had I been taught at the time to be proud of that, I could be bilingual instead of just speaking broken English, and I probably would have nurtured that."
Victoria's thirst for learning led her to her involvement in art, as both a painter and collector. She frequently stays up late into the night, painting in her signature bold pastels colors, with faces as her subjects. "She's a fantastic woman, an excellent artist and an outstanding mother," said Mary Inabinett Mack, owner of the Red Piano Too. "I don't think she's even aware of how smart she is."
Background: Born and raised on St. Helena Island.
Education: St. Helena Elementary School; Beaufort High School; studied early childhood education at South Carolina State University; studying at USC Beaufort where she is working toward a degree in education.
Family: Children Christopher, 20, junior at Winthrop University; Julian, 14, ninth grader who lives with his dad in Huntsville, Alabama; and Layla, 7, second grader at St. Helena Elementary School.
Interests: Creating and collecting art, the beach, learning about South Carolina and African-American history.
Victoria's mentor: Mary Inabinett Mack, owner of The Red Piano Too Art Gallery. "She instilled in me the importance of art collecting and thanks to her, now I have this love and appreciation far beyond what I had before."