lost along the way
had a talk with history
can help? Then do it!
What do you do in January if you live in a beach community and the weather, wind and waves conspire together to take the beach out of your afternoon options?
If new to the Low Country, like we are, exploring the area is next on the list.
Was about to write, “The Low Country is famous for …” when it came to me that the while the Low Country is a lot of things, famous is not one of them.
Still, things happened here.
Things happened here that did not happen other places.
And some things happened here for the first time.
One of the things that happened here during the United States Civil War is that the armed forces of the United States had some of its earliest success stories here.
The Battle of Bull Run is fought in July of 1861 and as Stonewall Jackson got one of the great nicknames in military history the Union Army got chased out of Virginia.
In November of 1861, combined Union Army and Navy forces took over the Low Country when they attacked Port Royal Sound and the South Carolina Sea Islands of St. Helena and Hilton Head.
This led to what the South Carolina history books called the “Big Skedaddle” as all the white South Carolinians got out of the Low Country and went to Charleston or Savannah.
Leaving all their former slaves behind for the most part.
This early the war, Abraham Lincoln was not ready to declare and end to slavery and the Union Government really didn’t know what to do with former slaves until one Union General, a real off the wall political General but able lawyer, Ben Butler, said that the slaves were former property and as ‘abandoned property’ could now be considered ‘contraband of war’ that could be seized by the forces of the Federal Government and as such, free.
Okay, so then what?
Then what became known as the Port Royal Experiment.
According to Wikipedia, “The Port Royal Experiment was a program begun during the American Civil War in which former slaves successfully worked on the land abandoned by planters. In 1861 the Union captured the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and their main harbor, Port Royal. The white residents fled, leaving behind 10,000 black slaves. Several private Northern charity organizations stepped in to help the former slaves become self-sufficient. The result was a model of what Reconstruction could have been.”
A special education commission was established which led to the establishment of the Penn Center on St. Helena island, just over a half hour drive away from where we live.
The Penn Center, Founded in 1862 by Quaker and Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania, it was the first school founded in the Southern United States specifically for the education of African-Americans.
It provided critical educational facilities to Gullah slaves freed after plantation owners fled the island, and continues to fulfill an educational mission.
The campus was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1974 and you can tour the grounds and buildings to this day.
St. Helena Island is one of those places where you can say take THE ROAD, turn left at THE STOP LIGHT and go past THE GAS STATION because out on St. Helena there is pretty much one road (2 if you count the north-south road and the east-west road) one, stop light and one gas station.
Before the Civil War there were 50 Plantations out here.
The road is lined with flat (what else) fields being prepared for (in January!) strawberry planting.
And we drove up to St. Helena to explore and one of our stops was the Penn Center.
Be we kinda, even with just two roads, got lost along the way and got there late.
We drove and parked by a building with a sign that said Welcome Center.
There was a small OPEN sign on the door.
But when we went in the room was dark.
Dark and empty of other people.
There were displays and such but no people.
Behind us the door opens and a voice calls out, “I am so sorry, but we are closed.”
We turned around and there was this lady with this smile who took the open sign down and turned it around to closed.
So they were closed but the lady with a smile took some time to talk with us for a minute about the Penn Center.
The minute turned into 10 minutes or more as we learned that the lady we were talking too had graduated from the Penn Center back in 1952.
She had moved away but when retirement came, she moved back to St. Helena and started to volunteer where she could.
She was amazing to listen.
It was like to TO history.
There was history in her voice and a graciousness to her style I could not describe with the words that I have.
We apologized for making her stay over long and told her we would be back and that we would bring out grand children.
As we left, I asked her name.
“Gardenia,” she said with her smile on her face.
And she locked the door behind us.
When I got a chance, I punched ‘Gardenia’ and ‘Penn Center Volunteer’ in the Google and found out who we had been talking to.
She was Ms. Gardenia Simmons-White.
Gardenia Simmons-White was born on St. Helena Island, SC in 1934.
She was one of the last living graduates of the Penn Center.
Now 87 years old, this wonderful lady was a wonder to listen too.
She said that volunteering as a docent at the Penn Center, “[is her] way of giving back to Penn for helping to shape my life and never forgetting the education I received which enabled me to reach higher heights.
I admit I have been a little off on everything with the covid and the economy and the news lately.
Kinda lost along the way.
To have talked with Ms. Simmons-White and heard her stories, heard just her voice, was a long drink of cool water.
Her story is one of those stories that makes you hope that maybe things can and will turn out okay.
You can click here to read an article written about her BACK in 2013. (She seems to be just as active today.)
I was struck by something she said in that article.
Ms. Simmons-White said, ““If anyone asks, if I can help, I will.”
I like that.
I like that a lot.
Maybe if I can get my rear in gear and make the effort my tombstone can say:
“If anyone asked, if I can help, I did.”