Partner Laura M. Towne

Queer Places:
Penn Center, 16 Penn Center Cir E, St Helena Island, SC 29920
Oaks Plantation, 66 Godley Rd, St Helena Island, SC 29920
Brick Baptist Church, 85 Dr Martin Luther King Jr Dr, St Helena Island, SC 29920
Frogmore Plantation, Off Secondary Road 77 near its junction with Secondary Road 35, near Frogmore, St Helena Island, SC 29920

a2ellenmurrayThe Penn School on Saint Helena Island, S.C., was founded during the Civil War by northern philanthropists and missionaries for former plantation slaves in an area occupied by the United States Army. Over the years, with continuing philanthropic support, it served as school, health agency, and cooperative society for rural African Americans of the Sea Islands. The first principals were Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray (January 31, 1834 – April 7, 1908), followed around 1908 by Rossa B. Cooley and Grace B. House, and in 1944 by Howard Kester and Alice Kester. The school closed in 1948 and became Penn Community Services in 1951, with Courtney Siceloff as the first director.

Ellen Murray was born in 1834 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. Upon the passing of her father, Murray received enough money to attend school, where she became fluent in English, German and French. She became a teacher after she moved to Rhode Island, and in 1862 traveled to St. Helena Island to begin teaching the free African American adults and children. Murray, along with Laura Towne, created the Penn School and both operated it for forty years. The two not only taught, but attended to the sick, distributed clothing and other goods and visited families. Murray sought to construct a regular school, which was housed in the local Baptist Church, or the Brick Church as it was called. Murray taught advanced classes and served as the school’s principal. Murray passed away in 1908.

The members of this abolitionist expedition were a mixed group, from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the North, affiliated with several freedmen's aid societies and Protestant churches, trained in various professions to work among the black agricultural laborers of the South, but all committed to emancipation of the slaves as the paramount objective of the Civil War then being waged. Among this group was Laura M. Towne (1825-1901) of Philadelphia, representative of the Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia, trained to some extent in medicine and dedicated to Garrisonian abolitionism. Soon after her arrival in Beaufort, Laura Towne moved to nearby Saint Helena Island, the largest of the Sea Islands, where she would live and work for the next four decades. In June 1862, she was joined by Ellen Murray, her friend from Newport, R.I. While Towne at first devoted her time to the medical needs of Saint Helena people, she soon began to join Murray in the work of teaching school, first in a room in their house on the Oaks Plantation and later in Brick Church at Frogmore, near the center of Saint Helena.

The history of the Penn School dates from 18 June 1862, Ellen Murray's first day teaching black students on Saint Helena. Towne and Murray named their school in honor of William Penn and his belief in the brotherhood of all humanity and from their own association with the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Aid Society. This group, composed largely of Friends, sent the first schoolhouse (prefabricated in sections) by boat from the North in 1865 and for years thereafter helped finance the school. The special dedication of these two women and their supporters in Philadelphia sustained them in their work at Penn School until the dawn of the 20th century. During these years, the two women witnessed the redistribution of land on Saint Helena, carried out by the Federal government during the Civil War and the first years of Reconstruction, and the development of a black yeomanry free, by and large, from white control.

In 1900, hoping to perpetuate their work on Saint Helena, Towne and Murray made plans for the incorporation of their school, and the following year the state of South Carolina chartered the Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School. Hollis Burke Frissell, principal of Hampton Institute in Virginia and the first chair of the board of trustees, became a moving force for the reorganized Penn School. His fellow trustees, mainly whites from the North, included members of a new generation of philanthropists interested in the education of southern African Americans as well as men and women whose interest in race relations dated from an earlier era.

Laura Towne died on 22 February 1901, and, although Ellen Murray was to live and work until 1908, Hollis Frissell began a search for their successors. In Rossa Belle Cooley (1872-1949), daughter of a Vassar College chemistry professor, and Grace Bigelow House (1877-1961), daughter of a missionary teacher in Turkey, he found two unusual women who would lead Penn School for the next 40 years. In selecting Cooley and House, both teachers at Hampton Institute, Frissell helped propagate the gospel of industrial education associated with Hampton Institute and made famous by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee.

Rossa B. Cooley arrived on Saint Helena in 1904 and Grace B. House came the following year, but it was not until the death of Ellen Murray in 1908 that Hollis Frissell's two proteges assumed their full responsibilities as principal and assistant principal of Penn School. While Laura Towne and Ellen Murray believed in academic education and teacher training as the cornerstones of African American advancement, Rossa B. Cooley and Grace B. House emphasized vocational training, especially in agriculture, and the preparation of African Americans to lead more satisfying and productive lives within their own community.


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  1. https://civilwarsuccesses.wordpress.com/ellen-murray/
  2. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/03615/