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Penn Center, site of historic school for freed slaves, deserves to be a national monument

Recently Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Parks Director Jonathan Jarvis traveled to Alabama to meet with community leaders and citizens from the cities of Anniston and Birmingham.  They were there to hear input from citizens and local leaders about three sites of pivotal importance to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s: a Greyhound bus station and a section of highway in Anniston where black and white Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs because they dared to protest the unconstitutional segregation on interstate buses; and parts of the Birmingham Civil Rights Historic District, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others gathered to demand equality for all Americans. 

At the listening sessions they heard great public support for proposals to designate these historic places as national monuments.  And rightfully so.  The events that occurred in 1961 in Anniston and Birmingham sparked a national awareness of the inhumane treatment against blacks in America that significantly advanced the Civil Rights Movement.

{mosads}Equally as important for national remembrance and recognition is Penn Center on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, the site of the former Penn School, one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves.

The extraordinary history of Penn Center speaks of a time when freed slaves were given the land on plantations after their owners fled.  With nearly 33,000 freed slaves inhabiting the region, northern abolitionists acquired land on St. Helena Island and financed a three room school, the first in the South specifically created to teach freed slaves. The school was officially named Penn School, in tribute to the revered Quaker, William Penn.

In the 1950’s the school was renamed Penn Center and was transformed to a meeting place for interracial social activists. Until his death, it was a safe haven and retreat for Martin Luther King, Jr. Today Penn Center continues as an educational center for the island’s preschoolers and adults, and is known as a major repository for the thriving Gullah culture, directly descended from the original African slave population who lived along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.

While there is a local effort led by 6th District Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to protect Penn Center as a national monument, time is running out in Congress. President Obama should use his authority to protect this nationally significant civil rights site via the Antiquities Act.

As one of the most important historic sites from the post-slavery/Civil War Reconstruction era, establishing a Penn Center National Monument would certainly be in line with President Obama’s legacy of protecting public lands that celebrate America’s diverse history, and his intention to broaden the criteria for the parks and public lands we designate as national park sites.  The President has already begun this work by creating national monuments at the Stonewall Inn in New York, associated with the beginning of the gay rights movement, and Sewall Belmont House in Washington, a longtime center for women’s equality.

The goal of reflecting diversity and inclusion in our public lands system is also the aim of the Next 100 Coalition, a first-of-its-kind initiative of civil rights, environmental justice, conservation and community leaders from across the country that has come together to develop a vision and policy recommendations for a more diverse system of national parks and other public lands. The group has asked for a Presidential Memorandum directing federal land management agencies to take critical steps to honor all Americans in our public lands system.

Most Americans came from somewhere else to this continent and Penn Center provides us with a direct link to the African origins of slaves that occupied America’s southeastern seaboard.  It is a window to a place in which many African Americans emerged from bondage, and set out on a new journey as free men and women.  It is a place and a time to celebrate.  Penn Center vividly embodies the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all” and in every sense is a true historic national monument.

Dr. Rodell Lawrence is the Executive Director of Penn Center. He previously worked at Xerox for 22 years and was recognized in 1990 as one of the company’s best minds and joined its think tank for three years. He also served on the Xerox philanthropic board and was responsible for directing millions of dollars to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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