Penn Center Heritage Days

Penn Center Heritage Days

Date Observed: Second weekend in November
Location: St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Penn Center on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, has sponsored the annual Penn Center Heritage Days since the 1980s. The celebration on the second weekend in November calls attention to the history and culture of the Gullah, also known as Geechee, people. The terms describe not only the people, but also the language that has been kept intact since slavery.

Historical Background

St. Helena Island is one of the Sea Islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Slaves were brought to the area from west African nations such as Angola, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. The enslaved people established creole, a blend of English and African languages that became known as Gullah.

The slaves and, later, freed Africans preserved much of their culture, primarily because they were cut off from the mainland and were able to maintain a close community, passing on their beliefs, folktales, crafts, language, and foods over the generations. Gullah people on St. Helena Island are direct descendents of the first west Africans brought to the area as slaves.

Penn Center on St. Helena Island is the site of one of the nation's first schools for emancipated blacks. Established in 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation became effective, Penn School was part of an experiment of a Pennsylvania abolitionist group that wanted to educate freed African Americans (see also Emancipation Day).

The school began in one room that soon became too crowded. In 1864 a building was constructed on a section of a 50-acre plot that eventually became a campus with 19 buildings, including a cottage where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed during meetings of civil rights groups (see also Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday). The campus was designated a national historic landmark in 1974.

Creation of the Festival

An annual heritage festival was held at Penn Center from the early 1900s until 1948, when the independent school closed and the state took over its administration. In 1981 Emory Campbell, former executive director of Penn Center, and other graduates of the school, revived the celebration. The group hoped to stimulate interest in the history and culture of the Sea Islands and to counteract the negative impact of renovation activities, as well as the derision that many Gullah faced because of their language. Younger generations have tended to view Gullah as quaint speech or a backward dialect.

The first heritage event drew about 200 people for a day of festivities. Since its inception, Heritage Days has grown to more than 10,000 people participating in a three-day celebration.

The festival was postponed in 1999 and 2000, because of a South Carolina tourism boycott by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP protested the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse. Although the flag came down, the organization continued its boycott because a Confederate flag was installed at a soldiers memorial on statehouse land. In 2001, however, Penn Center restored the festival.


An opening ceremony at Penn Center Heritage Days includes the presentation of "Flags of the Gullah People." These national flags represent African, South American, and Caribbean countries from which people were captured and enslaved.

During the three-day celebration, there are demonstrations of basketmaking, knitting, and net-making - the last representing the fishery occupations of earlier generations. Musical performances feature blues and gospel singers.

Educational seminars encourage Gullah landowners, who still own much of the property on St. Helena Island, to retain land that has been in their families for generations. As is true in other locations on the Sea Islands, investors have been purchasing land to build expensive homes and resorts.

One of the main events during the 2005 celebration was the presentation of De Nyew Testament , a Gullah translation of the New Testament, which was on sale at the festival. The translation was a 26-year joint project of the American Bible Society, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Wycliffe Bible Translators, the United Bible Societies, and Penn Center.

See also Georgia Sea Island Festival and Native Islander Gullah Celebration.

Contacts and Web Sites

Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce Visitors Information P.O. Box 754 Beaufort, SC 29901 843-986-1102; fax: 843-379-8027

Penn School National Historic Landmark District P.O. Box 126 St. Helena Island, SC 29920 843-838-2432; fax: 843-838-8545

Further Reading

Ford, Omar. "Heritage Days Return Thursday." Beaufort Gazette, November 4, 2001. http:// ---. "Heritage Days Celebration Begins." Beaufort Gazette, November 12, 2004. . Maxwell, Louise P. "Gullah." In The African-American Experience: Selections from the Five-Volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History , edited by Jack Salzman. New York: Macmillan, 1998. Pollitzer, William S. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999. Tibbetts, John H. "Living Soul of Gullah." Coastal Heritage, Spring 2000. http://www Williams, Page. "Gullah, A Vanishing Culture." Charlotte (NC) Observer, February 7, 1993. .
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
References in periodicals archive ?
Each November, they also host an annual festival, The Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration, where you can sample Gullah cuisine and music.