Hearing History at Penn Center

11 October 2021

Bobby Clagett

Buildings at Penn Center, photo by Joshua Hall

On Monday, we toured through the Penn Center, which was convenient because we were staying there for the first three nights. Here we learned about one of the more significant topics of our class which is the Gullah Geechee culture. The Gullah Geechee people are amazing, and their heritage is fascinating. We were so lucky to be able to study this select group of people and even more fortunate to get such an in-depth tour of one of the institutions that helped build their culture and success.

Our tour guide was Dr. Marie Gibbs. She had so much knowledge and passion for the culture and what the people have achieved. We learned all about what the Penn Center was and how important it was for the Gullah Geechee people. The Penn Center was a school for African Americans and freed slaves. Many did not have basic reading, writing, or trade skills. The Penn Center, founded by Laura Towne, was able to provide education to the Gullah Geechee people. Laura Towne was a missionary woman from Pittsburgh who came to Beaufort specifically to help the hundreds of freed slaves.

Part of the land and a peek at the layout of Penn Center, photo by Joshua Hall

During the experience, we walked around and enjoyed looking at the many different pieces of art that were from famous Gullah Geechee artists. Along with that, we were fascinated by the incredible traditional skill within Gullah Geechee culture of basket making. Many people made money from making and selling hand-woven baskets. We went on to watch a documentary that helped us gain even more of an understanding of who Gullah Geechee people are and what makes them so special. Afterwards, we did some more walking around and saw some pretty neat things. There was a traditional boat (in Gullah Geechee language they call it a bateaux) with a hand-made cast net draped over it. Some of these nets that were hand-made would go for hundreds of dollars.

One of the course themes that were really emphasized on this visit to Penn Center was isolation. I never fully understood how isolated the Gullah Geechee people were as they were living in the low country. Due to the landscape with its marshes and winding rivers, there was very limited ways to come to the town of Beaufort. That Isolation plays a huge role in their culture. It is what makes them so distinct from any other culture in America. It also forced them to become self-sustainable. In my opinion, that is the coolest thing about the current Gullah Geechee culture. They truly did and, in many ways, still do live purely off the land and water. Isolation can prove hurtful to many groups of people and can lead to death. The Gullah Geechee people chose life, and they were able to use their knowledge and skill to survive and create what is such a fascinating and strong culture today. In Neesha Powell’s article “Water is Life”, she includes a quote from Queen Quet that was said to her. She said, “You may not claim us, but we’re still going to claim you.” This shows the strength and passion that the Gullah Geechee culture holds.

On this visit, I learned to appreciate the small things. People such as Gullah Geechee people made do with what they had. This has made them who they are today. They are rich with knowledge of their land and knowledge on life. That is something far more important than any material things in this world.