Willits Book Trust Gift to Penn School and Penn Center Reaffirms Historic Ties


IMG_1379Victoria A. Smalls, Director of Marketing and Development at the Penn Center Historic District on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, received a copy of William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, from Lisa S. Garrison of the Willits Book Trust Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on June 15, 2016. The book-giving followed Smalls’ presentation at the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Conference entitled The Women of Penn School – Penn Center in the 19th and 20th Century.

The Penn School, one of the first academic institutions in the south, was founded in 1862 by abolitionists, the Unitarian Laura M. Towne and Quaker Ellen Murray, to provide a rigorous education to formerly enslaved West Africans in the Georgia Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. The School, funded in part by Pennsylvania Freedman’s Relief Associations and the Benezet Society of Germantown, attracted volunteers that included many ecumenical groups in the Philadelphia area, including Quakers. It was, for decades, the only secondary school on the islands.

The Penn School has remained at the forefront of progressivism and reform, helping to advance an entire generation and community in the years following slavery. By the 1960s, the Penn Center had become a center for activism and social justice, and a leader in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Victoria Smalls’ father, Elting Smalls graduated from Penn School in 1943. Her parents, who met at a religious conference on school grounds during the Civil Rights Movement, became the first interracial couple in Beaufort County. The Penn Center was the sole place in South Carolina where interracial groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Peace Corps and Martin Luther King Jr. could meet safely in an era of mandated segregation.

Today, the Penn Center Historic District continues to preserve Gullah culture, and works to eradicate hunger and stem land loss along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Generations of Gullah Geechee people, descendants of the first freed slaves, have remained in the area. The gift of William Still’s book was a gesture on the part of the Willits Book Trust to recognize Victoria Small’s commitment to the ongoing work of the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District with the Gullah people of the Georgia Sea Islands and to re-affirm the Center’s historic ties with Pennsylvania abolitionists.