Penn Center and the Gullah/Geechee Community
On the cold evening of January 17, 2018, Gullah/Geechees of St. Helena Island and a handful of newcomers to the area made their way into Frissell Community House at the Penn Center National Landmark Historic District. The gathering was not unlike those that most of us that are native to the island grew up attending. Folks blocked the doorway as they signed in with hugs and “good ednins” gwine on. The smiles and “Happy New Year” greetings set the tone for what needs to be a new phase of the direction that this historic institution takes.
Penn Center, Inc. originated as “Penn School” in 1862 when it was founded by northern missionaries that did not have an understanding of the Sea Island community to which they came. To that end, they did not respect the local language and felt it was their “calling” to educate the people that attended the school which included insuring that they would not carry on their own language except when it would be done in songs which entertained the potential donors that visited the campus. These singing sessions continued when Penn closed as a school and became a non-profit organization called “Penn Community Services” and remains under “Penn Center, Inc.” These sessions are called “Community Sing” and are held on the third Sunday evening of each month.
The Gullah/Geechee family of St. Helena Island seemed to be singing in harmony once again during this first gathering of what is the Penn Center Community Relations Committee (CRC). The CRC is a standing committee of the Penn Center, Inc. Board of Trustees. It was established on December 8, 2017 in order to improve and enhance the relationship between Penn Center, Inc. and the community it serves.
Interestingly enough, the improvements and enhancements that were stated during the working group sessions at the first meeting included people stating that the institution should not disrespect nor misrepresent Gullah/Geechee culture and that the local language needs to be continued. The latter is definitely not the duty of the institution. That is the duty of those that were the native Gullah/Geechees in the room and the others throughout the Gullah/Geechee Nation. However, the institution’s administration and board are being directed not to go back to what the past was when people on the campus is to denied the existence of our unique culture and our language and degraded the people that spoke Gullah fluently. This is no doubt a concern given that fact that the institution that had a long history of being operated by Gullah/Geechees that volunteered at the space and Gullah/Geechee staff no longer has this. The Board of Trustees for Penn Center, Inc. have heard numerous concerns about what this has caused in regard to relations with the local community and their guests that come to St. Helena Island and to that end, the CRC has been formed to address these concerns and more. The community articulated their concerns via work sessions and came up with this list:
The community also provided input on what should continue or be kept at Penn as well as ideas on what things should begin there:
This input will be compiled and provided to the board at their next board meeting in order for their feedback to be returned to the community at the next CRC meeting. A primary objective of the Community Relations Committee is to establish and maintain two-way communication between Penn Center’s board, staff and community members. The Community Relations Committee will host at a minimum, 1 Community Forum each quarter beginning January 2018, and will also provide leadership and coordination for the Community Sing Program.
The community encompasses the locality of St. Helena Island, as well as surrounding areas; anyone who is interested in the mission of the Penn Center, Inc. has an open invitation to participate in Community Relations Committee activities. The Committee is scheduled to meet at 6 pm in Frissell Community House on Penn’s campus on the following dates in 2018:
• March 21
• May 16
• July 18
• September 19
• November 21
This is an outstanding opportunity for the community to loan their voice to the future of Penn in order to insure that it will be improved and be supported for another over 150 years. The fact that the first meeting was held two days after the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was no doubt Divinely Order since he, too, had gatherings of the community in this community house. Now it will take those that gathered in the house and reasoned together to keep the house standing and to decorated it in a way that will truly honor our Gullah/Geechee ancestors that attended there and that literally built the buildings that stand as a historic treasure in the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Tenk GAWD fa all hunnuh chillun wha taut um not robree fa be een de numba! Keep gwine on!
by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com)
Queen Quet is not only the founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition which has supported numerous programs of Penn for over 20 years and brought hundreds of volunteers to the campus to donate to and work on the campus, she is also an advisor to the Penn Center Board of Trustees. Queen Quet has received numerous awards for her community work including the “Women of Distinction Award” from Penn Center, Inc. From 2013 to 2015, she proudly co-chaired the annual Heritage Days Celebration which is a homecoming for St. Helena Islanders and a major fundraiser for the institution. Admission to that event will be FREE for 2018 according to an announcement made by the Penn Center Executive Director during the first meeting of the Community Relations Committee.