Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

When Confederate soldiers fired their cannons at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861 and started the Civil War, they did so with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism. But as the months went by, it became obvious that it takes more than just enthusiasm and optimism to win a war.

Union forces responded quickly. In July 1861, just four months after the war started, Union ships blockaded Charleston harbor, preventing normal shipping in and out of Charleston. Four months later, on November 7, 1861, a day the locals called ‘The Gunshoot at Bay Point”, a fleet of some 20 Union ships, the largest fleet yet assembled by the US Navy, sailed into Port Royal Sound, less than 60 miles south of Charleston, bombarded the two Confederate forts protecting the sound, and in a matter of a few days took control of the South Carolina sea islands from Hilton Head to Edisto. From Edisto Union ships could reach Charleston Harbor in a day’s sail.

The Civil War was divisive, often pitting neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. One example of this divisiveness was that in The Battle of Port Royal, two brothers fought against each other. One was Thomas F. Drayton, the Confederate general in command of both Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard across Port Royal Sound on Phillips Island. His younger brother Percival Drayton was commander of the Pocahontas, one of the Union ships that attacked those forts. They were from a prominent Charleston family and both had served in the US military before choosing opposite sides when the war began. Both survived the war.

The result of the quick Union victory was that about 200 plantation owners were forced to hurriedly pack up what belongings they could easily carry and vacate the islands, leaving behind over two thousand slaves and thousands of acres of cotton fields. Many northerners, as well as some southerners, were beginning to think that perhaps the South had acted a bit hastily in firing the first shots of the war. Now the Confederacy had no choice but to quickly establish as much war industry as it could, import guns and other war materiel from abroad when they could sneak through the Union blockade, and keep the fight going in hopes that the US government would tire of the war and allow the South to keep its slaves.

One is reminded of a quote in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind when Rhett Butler in conversation with some fellow Southerners said: “I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines…and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves, and arrogance.” That statement proved to be true as in the next four years Confederate resources, both human and material, dwindled while those of the Union increased.

The freed slaves from the sea island plantations created both challenges and opportunities for Union military leaders as well as for Northern abolitionists concerned about the welfare of the thousands of African Americans left to fend for themselves. Most of the freed slaves knew how to grow cotton, but they were tired of growing it. What they wanted was to be able to grow more corn and other edible crops to feed themselves.

In January 1862, two months after the Union landing, General Thomas W. Sherman, commander of the ground forces at Port Royal, requested teachers from the North to come and train ex-slaves in everything from reading and writing to modern agriculture and animal husbandry practices. Then in April the US government established the Port Royal Experiment, set up to be a cooperative venture between the federal government and private philanthropy. Several northern cities established philanthropical organizations, many of them funded by Quaker, Unitarian, or other religious groups. The overall goal of the endeavor was to help the blacks make the transition from a life of slavery to learning how to live free and become self-sufficient. It is interesting that since the war was still raging at this time, the freed slaves were legally referred to as ‘contraband’, and as such were not returned to their white owners.

In the next few months over 100 men and women went south to the sea islands from nearly every northern state. Most stayed a few months or a couple of years, but one notable woman answered General Sherman’s call and stayed for the rest of her life. Over the next 40 years she had a tremendous long-term impact on both the educational and social life of the sea island community.

Laura Matilda Towne was born in Pittsburgh on May 3, 1825. In her 20s she moved to Philadelphia and attended the newly opened Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.  Established in 1850, it was the first medical school in the world authorized to award women the title of Medical Doctor or M.D. Today the school is part of the Drexel University College of Medicine.

Laura Towne was an intelligent and open-minded Unitarian who wanted to put her medical and teaching skills to work helping the former slaves. The Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia paid for her passage to Saint Helena Island just east of Port Royal Sound and provided enough money to allow her to open one of the first schools in the area. She arrived on the island on April 9, 1862 at the age of 36. In June she was joined by Quaker teacher Ellen Murray from Newport, Rhode Island who also wound up staying for the rest of her life. The two of them worked well together in educating the former slaves. Within a few months more teachers came from Philadelphia such as Charlotte Forten, an African American teacher who taught at the St. Helena school and later served as a nurse for wounded soldiers.

The Oaks, a large home built in the 1850s by John and Mary Pope on their 500-acre cotton plantation near the village of Frogmore on Saint Helena Island, had been chosen as the headquarters of US Treasury Department agent Edward L. Pierce. It was here that Laura Towne and Ellen Murray set up their home and their first classroom. The plantation home had been abandoned when Union troops overpowered Fort Beauregard and occupied the island.

Laura’s and Ellen’s first class had 9 students but the school grew rapidly. By October 1862, they had over 80 students and moved their classes into what was called The Brick Church, a church built by slave labor in 1855 to serve the plantation owners in the area, and that was now attended by former slaves. Laura’s stated endeavor during this time was to teach the freed slaves “the habits of self-support”.

Based on Laura’s diary and other documents, it was a time when military personnel, government officials, white teachers, and black former slaves were all learning to live together and build a successful community. It was a new experience for all of them. As one historian put it: “Confusion reigned in the early months as both blacks and whites adjusted to an environment which was truly unique and untested”. But as time went on and everyone got to know each other better, most of the problems worked themselves out.

While the school was becoming more and more important to the St. Helena community, many of the freed slaves who were not students were hired by the Federal government to maintain their agricultural work, mainly in cotton. Starting in 1862, the US government paid African American workers on St. Helena Island $1.00 for every 400 hundred pounds of cotton they harvested, thus they became the first former slaves freed by Union forces to earn wages for their labor. That first year as paid employees, they harvested about 90,000 pounds of cotton.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation which went into effect on January 1, 1863, and a Federal land distribution policy begun that same year, a freed slave could buy an acre of land for $1.25. Freedmen on St. Helena bought about 2,000 acres of what had been white-owned plantation land. Legal loopholes in the law also allowed white speculators to buy land as well. One buyer from Boston, Edward S. Philbrick, bought around 7,000 acres, but sold most of it to freed slaves after the war.

The problem of land use and distribution became a complicated issue. The US government wanted blacks to produce cotton that would help pay the military occupation expenses. Some blacks, however, felt as if a good bit of the land should be set aside for them since they had worked it for generations. Speculators wanted land to sell and make money. And lastly, many plantation owners who had been driven off their land by Union troops, felt as if they deserved to have the land returned to them. The problem continued long after the war ended.

By late 1864, Laura’s and Ellen’s St. Helena school was ready to expand again and Laura bought a plot of land from freedman Hastings Gannt where she built a three-room school, much of it constructed from pre-fabricated materials sent by ship from Philadelphia. Opened in January 1865, she officially named it the Penn School after William Penn and her home state of Pennsylvania. By April 9 when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, the school was flourishing.

On April 14, 1865, five days after Lee’s surrender, Laura Towne attended the raising of the US flag at Fort Sumter, exactly four years and two days after Confederate forces had fired on it and started the war that brought Laura Towne and Ellen Murray to Saint Helena Island. Little did the celebrants suspect that within a few hours the US president who had worked tirelessly to end the conflict and done his best to give the freed slaves their rightful place in American society would be assassinated.

In December 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution was passed prohibiting slavery and “involuntary servitude” legally freeing millions of African Americans from forced labor. In July 1868 the fourteenth amendment established that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Then in February 1870, the fifteenth amendment stated that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Male former slaves were now free voting citizens under United States law.

No doubt, Laura, Ellen and others who had worked to improve the lives of former slaves were pleased that substantial progress was being made. However, it would not be until the nineteenth amendment was passed in 1920 that women, black and white, were finally given the right to vote.

The next years were eventful for Laura as she not only worked as a teacher, but she was also the area’s public health officer, and legal advisor. She mentioned in her diary that at this time she actually preferred being a physician rather than a teacher and spent a good bit of her time going from house to house administering to the sick while Ellen Murray did most of the teaching. A few years after the war ended, she and Ellen added teacher training to the Penn School curriculum so that their students could establish schools in other areas.

Laura moved from The Oaks into a rented house at St. Helena Village, then in January 1868 she bought Frogmore, a plantation house built by John and Elizabeth Stapleton in 1810, and owned by planter Thomas Coffin when Union troops arrived. The plantation had been confiscated by the US government for delinquent taxes. It was large enough for both her and Ellen to have separate living quarters. The two of them were very busy at that time, plus the house needed repairs, so they did not actually move into Frogmore until January 1869. Finally, Laura had a permanent home that she owned free and clear. Both she and Ellen lived there the rest of their lives. The home is now on the National Historic Register.

 During the Reconstruction years following the Civil War, the Penn School received a small amount of local tax money to keep it going. However, when Federal troops left in 1877, the Beaufort County school board ceased giving tax money to the school, and the Penn School was forced to again depend solely on private donations to stay open. This created a financial burden, but with help from northern donors as well as their own funds, Laura and Ellen persevered and kept the school open  

In the decades following the Civil War, it became obvious that many southerners were resentful that blacks were given citizenship and the right to vote, and that they had attained so much political power. Some whites expressed their anger through organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, the White Camelia Society, founded in Franklin, Louisiana, and by numerous newspaper editorials by white supremacists, such as one in the Atlanta News September 1874, that refers to ‘Northern Radicals and half-barbarous Negroes’. These were challenging years for Northern white women to be teaching blacks in the South, especially in South Carolina where a number of former slaves had been shot or hanged.

Through all the tension and adversity of the post-Civil War era, Towne and Murray managed to keep the Penn School open. When Laura died in February 1901, she left the school to the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University in Hampton, VA. Like the Penn school, the Hampton Institute had been started during the Civil War on land occupied by Union troops. When Hampton Institute took over management of the school, the name was changed to the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School, but the basic curriculum remained similar except for the addition of more industrial and mechanical classes. At this time the Penn School taught carpentry, wheelwrighting, mechanics, basketmaking, harness making, cobbling, quilting, and weaving, as well as teacher training, and midwifery. Ellen continued to be affiliated with the school until her death in 1908.

In the 20th century, during and after the two world wars, many blacks left St. Helena Island and other areas of the South for industrial jobs in the North. As a result, the Penn School enrollment declined to the point that in 1948 the school closed and the campus became Penn Community Services and then in 1950, simply the Penn Center. During the 1960s, the campus was used as a training center for civil rights activists. In 1974 the Penn Center was designated a National Historic Landmark District and in 2019 it became a Reconstruction Era National Historic Park. Today the Penn Center is open to the public for tours, and has become a venue for a number of Gullah-Geechee festivals and other cultural activities. It is an important and on-going legacy to the courage and perseverance of Laura Towne, Ellen Murray, and many others who risked their lives and livelihoods to help an oppressed people.


  1. Ted, this Is great research, blended with a skillfully told story about Laura Towne and others who played a vital role in the education and advancement of African-Americans in the challenging period after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the end of the Civil War and beginning of Reconstruction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *