Queer Places:
Penn Center, 16 Penn Center Cir E, St Helena Island, SC 29920
Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, 342 South Ave, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601

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 Le Roy Clark Cooley (1833-1916), 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. Frances Butler was an Hampton teacher who accompanied Rossa B. Cooley as her assistant and died a few months after arriving on Saint Helena.

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. The next three decades were full ones for Cooley, House, and their school. They had the help of their teachers and staff, and of a small group of faithful trustees: Francis R. Cope, Jr., gentleman farmer from Dimmock, Pa., whose grandfather and namesake had raised money for Laura Towne; George Foster Peabody, native of Georgia, who made his fortune in New York and then became a noted if eccentric philanthropist; Henry Wilder Foote, Unitarian minister of Boston and other pulpits; L. Hollingsworth Wood, Quaker, New York attorney, and leader in the National Urban League; Isabella Curtis, the school's publicist in Boston; and Harold Evans, their banker in Philadelphia. Cooley and House also cultivated the friendship of men in various philanthropic foundations interested in African American education: the General Education Board; the Slater Fund; the Rosenwald Fund; the Phelps-Stokes Fund; and the multimillionaire Arthur Curtiss James. With this help, they turned Penn into a model African American school.

Cooley and House applied to their work two principles of progressive education: learning for living and learning by doing. 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. For the execution of their broad vision, they extended their sphere of influence out from the Penn School campus over the whole of Saint Helena Island, which they treated as one school-farm-community. They established a credit co-operative for local farmers; worked with South Carolina State College in teacher-training programs; and carried out plans for improving practically every aspect of the lives of the African American yeomanry, including better homes, modern child care, new cash crops, scientific farming methods, and moral, religious, medical and cultural uplift.

The depth and breadth of their efforts brought Penn School to the attention of educators, journalists, sociologists, philanthropists, missionaries, and a number of socially prominent people. Numerous visitors to Saint Helena helped spread the reputation of Penn School and its gospel not only among Americans interested in African American education, but also to many foreign missionaries and colonial officials, especially in British territories in southern Africa and India.

Not all of the efforts of Rossa B. Cooley and Grace B. House bore fruit and many plans and projects proved to be unworkable for the Island population. But their limited success at the school and on the Island must be set against a background of economic conditions that severely circumscribed the realization of their vision. There were devastating hurricanes in 1911 and 1940, and the arrival of the boll weevil in 1918 destroyed forever the strain of long-staple cotton upon which the income of the Sea Island farmers was based. Difficult economic conditions were accompanied by the continuing exodus of African American people from their Island farms to towns on the mainland and the cities of the North. This out-migration increased during the two world wars and the completion of the bridge between the Island and Beaufort in 1927 made it easy for the people of Saint Helena to leave home. The declining population and the departure of the school's graduates further handicapped the work of Cooley and House.

The principals of Penn School could not continue their experiment on the Island when local conditions presented so many obstacles. Nor, by the late 1930s, did the promotional and fund-raising activities to which Cooley had dedicated so much effort meet the financial needs of the school. The two women were growing old, and by 1940 the trustees were looking for a new pair of principals.

Although Rossa B. Cooley and Grace B. House resisted efforts to retire them, the board of trustees in 1944 appointed two white southerners, Howard "Buck" Kester and his wife Alice, as the new principal and assistant principal. A minister by training, a Christian socialist, and disciple of Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Kester had worked actively for social and spiritual change in the South, especially with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen. The Kesters sought to maintain the traditions that their predecessors had established at Penn School and, at the same time, involve the school in a larger way with the changes in race relations then taking place in the South and elsewhere.

In spite of their good intentions, the Kesters provoked resentment from those at Penn School who preferred the ways of Cooley and House, who still lived nearby at Ndulamo, their retirement home. Nor could the Kesters solve the economic problems facing the school. In 1947, the Kesters resigned, and Howard Kester resumed his Fellowship of Southern Churchmen duties in 1948.

Before the departure of the Kesters, the Penn School board of trustees had appointed a committee, headed by the noted Atlanta University sociologist Ira De A. Reid, to study the school and to make recommendations for its future. Reid argued in his report that Penn School should relinquish its academic responsibilities and concentrate its work on community services. The trustees accepted Reid's findings, and in 1948 the students at the school were taken into the South Carolina public schools.

After 86 years, the Penn School of Laura Towne, Ellen Murray, Rossa B. Cooley, and Grace B. House was no more. The trustees renamed the corporation Penn Community Services and dedicated it to "community planning and improvement, sanitation and health, recreation and sport, and mental and spiritual hygiene."

In 1951, the trustees appointed Courtney Siceloff the first director of Penn Community Services, a position he held until 1970. During Siceloff's time as director, the Penn Community Services site was widely used as a conference center for organizations hoping to advance African American causes or to support equality, education, welfare, and other social issues. While director, Siceloff also served as a regional consultant for the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Southern Regional Office, and then, beginning in 1960 and continuing until around 1970, as secretary for the South Carolina Advisory Committee to the Commission.


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  1. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/03615/