Gullah Culture on the Sea Islands

Penn Center painting

The South Carolina Sea Islands are remarkably scenic: giant live oaks curtained with Spanish moss, shimmering water fringed by marsh grass. They are also home to the unique, rich Gullah culture. The Gullah people are descendants of African slaves who live in the Low Country of Florida, Georgia, and  South Carolina. In these isolated areas, they developed their own language and traditions. Sights of those traditions still pepper the landscape: stands selling seagrass baskets and local produce, tiny churches, cafes serving Gullah cuisine.

Penn Center baskets

Penn School

Penn School was established in 1862 by two Northern women, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, to educate former slaves. It served as a school until its closing in 1948, and is now Penn Center, a museum and community center. Dr. King visited Penn Center during the 1960s to help local people campaign for civil rights. It’s still active in community outreach, offering camps, classes, meetings, and heritage programs to share the history of the Gullah people and improve life in the local area.

Penn School, St. Helena

Penn School

I was touched reading Laura Towne’s thoughts about the value her students at Penn School placed on their education. The worst thought they could imagine was missing a day of school!

Everywhere pride in the school’s legacy and the long history of the Gullah people was evident – in objects they created and in the stories of a resilient, creative people.

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