Penn Center

Dazzling Decorations and Inspiring Celebrations

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There’s a lot of cleaning up to do at the Penn Center on St. Helena’s Island in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew’s blustery visit. Victoria Smalls, Director of Development and Marketing, says that the staff and volunteers are going all out because there is some awesome decorating and celebrating coming our way. As we transition from fall to winter, the Penn Center is moving forward to celebrate the past in the present. The mission remains steadfast, to promote and preserve the history and culture of the Sea Islands.

After the Union’s Civil War naval victory in 1862 of Port Royal Sound, 32,530 slaves were freed in Beaufort County. A Philadelphia based support group sent money, advisors and teachers to the Lowcountry islands to prepare the freed slaves for the transition to their new way of life. The group chose a piece of land on St. Helena Island, opening the Penn School that same year with 80 students. The campus expanded to over 50 acres and enrollment reached a high of 600 children. The Penn School continued to educate African American students until 1948. Over the next 68 years the Penn Center (formerly, The Penn School) has grown into a leading institution supporting Gullah/Geechee African Americans in the areas of education, community service, Civil Rights and preservation of culture and history. There is much to celebrate over the next couple of months.

34th Annual Heritage Days Celebration (November 10-13)
The celebration has its roots in the Harvest Days enjoyed by the students and staff during the early days of the Penn School. Primarily, this has become a special time for descendants of the Western Central Africa Gullah and Geechee tribes to promote and preserve their history and culture. Many of the enslaved ancestors were handpicked because of their skills in picking and growing cotton.
Heritage Days originated in 1981 as a two-day event, increased to three days and now is a four-day, activity-packed venue that attracts more than 20,000 visitors each year. It’s become the homecoming for the residents of the Sea Islands, as well as attracting visitors from throughout the United States and abroad. Activities include sweet grass basket making and net making demonstrations, storytelling, artists, singers, African drummers, a youth and family day, a parade and a fish fry. There will be an educational symposium on “The Reconstruction Era” (1861-1898) and “lots of fun fuh de famlee and chillum.” Please check the website at

Gullah Kinfolk Christmas Wish…Freedum Coming (December 3rd – USCB Center for the Arts)
A full stage original musical starring Pearly Sue and a professional cast of 20.
The show is based on the last Christmas celebration before the Civil War.
Doors open at 6:00 PM with the production starting at 7:00 PM.
Guests will also enjoy a Gullah Artist Marketplace, as well as dessert and coffee reception after the show.

Book signing with artist West Frazier at the Red Piano Too Art Gallery (December 3rd, 1-3 pm)
West Frazier is a renowned painter from Savannah with roots in the Lowcountry. He will be celebrating his new book, Painting the Southern Coast. This is a wonderful opportunity to meet Mr. Frazier and have him sign your purchased copy. A small reception will follow, allowing visitors time to enjoy the displayed works of over 100 artists. The event is free!

Light up Historic Penn Center (November 25th – January 2nd)
The 16 buildings on the Penn Center campus will be decorated and decked out for the holiday season. Many of these structures were built by the first students attending the Penn School in the 1860s. Activities will include open houses, receptions by local organizations, yummy treats and lively music.

Live Nativity Scene – “The Mystery Play” (December 18th – 6 pm)
A very special evening with singers from several local churches coming together in a mass choir, highlighting the old spiritual songs. The event is free, but they will be passing a donation plate.

Watch Night Service – Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (Dec. 31st – 11 pm)
This event will be held at several local churches. Please check the Penn Center website for details.

Emancipation Day Celebration at Penn Center (January 1st)
The itinerary for this event is still in the planning stages. Please check the Penn Center website for updates and details.

The recognition of the Gullah/Geechee impact upon the Lowcountry grows and strengthens every year. Enjoy the ride, learning about the challenges and joyful moments shared by the Gullah people. Mark your calendars and be prepared to decorate and celebrate!

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