Keeping the Connection Alive

Isolated by the hauntingly beautiful physical barriers of tidal marshes and salt water creeks, the Sea Island of St. Helena, near Beaufort, South Carolina, evokes a feeling of stepping back into time and nature. St. Helena is a land of evenly rowed farms and bordering dense forests of palmetto, pine and oak; of swift, blade-top roads punctuated by dusty, tree-shrouded dirt roads where a mule-pulled cart might still be found. In many ways, St. Helena still maintains a 19th-century aura, when the island was prized for her plantations which grew the finest cotton ever known—long-staple Sea Island cotton. St. Helena's true prize, however, still remains: Her people and their heritage.

Preserving this heritage is the mission of the Penn Center, one of the oldest and most historically significant African-American institutions in America. Established in 1862 as part of the Port Royal Experiment, a program designed to help the 10,000 slaves in the area with their transition from slavery to freedom, the original Penn School, from the outset, focused on teaching self-sufficiency. Its purpose was not only to help freedmen learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, but also to help them learn the basics of living as free men.

Today, 130 years later, the Penn Center continues its mission of serving as a catalyst for self-reliance. The work of the Penn Center in developing solutions to educational, environmental, agricultural and health-care problems is undisputed. Moreover, it has become internationally known as a center of African-American culture and history. It is a place where the connection between the African past and the American present is vibrantly explored.

The executive director of the Penn Center is Emory S. Campbell, who, as a native of nearby Hilton Head Island, shares the Sea Island Gullah heritage he so earnestly works to preserve. Campbell has spent his life combining an innate interest in African-American affairs with a professional knowledge of both health and social sciences. His career in community development and public education is reflected in the ongoing success of the Penn Center.

"Although the use of the land is chang­ing and more people are working away from the land, we still have a number who raise part of their own food . . . who fish the waters. Even looked at from a purely residential standpoint, owning and keeping one's land is still important. It provides that sense of place so central to holding families together—that family 'compound' which provides the physical connection so vitally important to this culture," says Campbell.

One of the original goals of the Penn School in 1862 was for freedmen to understand the rights and opportunities of landownership. This is still of primary importance to the Penn Cen­ter, particularly as land use on the Sea Islands has changed. In some places, resorts have overtaken areas, creating what Campbell refers to as a "single-dimension lifestyle," one which does not necessarily include or accept the indigenous Sea Island culture. Taxes have risen, and without help and guidance, some people could be moved from their land because of the new economics brought about by this change.

"People cannot maintain their cultural heritage without a land base," explains Campbell. "We think that one of the reasons Sea Islanders have preserved their close heritage is because they had an early opportunity to own land and stabilize their families."

Part of the educational mission of the Penn Center is a continued dialogue between local Sea Islanders, real-estate developers, government officials and newcomers. "Unless we get both developers and newcomers to recognize the value inherent in our culture," Campbell explains, "then the effort of destroying that culture and history will not cease. People tend to think that mainstream American culture is the only culture which is valuable . . . that other indigenous cultures are of poverty, rather than function.

Much of the work we have done in this area is working. The Gullah culture is now valued by the Chamber of Commerce through an appreciation of Gullah food, basket-making, music and storytelling. Because they are speaking to a travel-related industry, much of this recognition has arisen from a monetary value standpoint. That's fine. But one also needs the human value.

"This human connection is the value of a child getting to know his or her heritage—of finding self-worth, of achieving better in school, of putting more value in family and the way they live.

"The connection," explains Campbell, "requires an educational focus both on this side of the sea—here in America—and that side of the sea— in Africa. Here we must work to ensure that our own children, and the adults, understand their culture and heritage. There, through the U.S. Department of Interior, we are working with the Sierra Leone government in an attempt to restore Bunce Island, an important symbol in the history of the slave trade. We envision a future where regular visits between the two sites—Penn Center and Bunce Island—are part of what we offer at the Penn Center, so people can personally experience that sense of connection and, at the same time, learn about the similarities between the Sea Islands and West Africa.

"But there is still much to do," says Campbell, in closing. "It's not just the Sea Islands and the African lands across the sea. I see it as America recognizing the connection between the two. The African-American culture is one which permeates almost every segment of American society. Many tend to think of this as a culture developed only on this side of the ocean, after slavery. When we can all understand and respect the origins and adaptations of this remarkable culture, then we can truly bring the connection full circle."