From Penn School to Penitentiary-The Attempted Imprisoning of a Gullah/Geechee Community
As I reflected on the numerous community meetings and fundraisers that my family and I have participated in on St. Helena Island over the decades, I could not help, but see images of Frissell Community House at the Penn Center National Landmark Historic District flash through my mind. I gave thanks for the strength of mind to have resisted the indoctrination brought to the Sea Islands under the guise of education which led to many people losing their language, traditions, and their land. The more they assimilated, the more their minds got gated even before the proliferation of gated areas ensued on the coast of the Lowcountry.
Apparently, the mindset of gating has now arrived on St. Helena Island by way of the Executive Director of Penn Center, Inc. and the board of trustees that have voted to do his bidding with the release of funds for a fence to be placed around the historic grounds. The fence is currently being erected in spite of the community’s statements in opposition to this and a call for funds to be directed into programs that will uplift the Gullah/Geechee community that Penn Center is in the center of.
Interestingly enough, I sat in a community meeting in the York W. Bailey Museum a couple years ago in which several of us had to remind the current executive director of the wholesale murdering of Black people at the hands of police. We had to do this because he wanted to make Penn Center a police station location. St. Helena Islanders have policed themselves since the 1700s. Even Mary Means who is an Anglo woman had to point out in her recent letter to Penn Center’s Board of Trustees which she cc’d to the media, “The biggest threats to Penn Center are not from crime but from neglect by its well-meaning but short-sighted leaders, and from losing what remains of its support in the community. Islanders love Penn Center and are saddened by its decline. Fencing the community out will fence Penn Center’s leaders in. Further isolating staff and Board from any hope of repairing relationships that are essential to attracting financial support.”
There has been an on-going opinion at Penn Center that the local community’s voice is not necessary in their decisions because their financial support comes from people that are not on St. Helena Island. It comes from federal funders, grants, and foundations. When I was informing them that people come to the island not simply for a historic site, but to engage with the native Gullah/Geechee community, this was of no consequence because the community members were not seen as the ones that the institution was there to serve.
It appeared that the history of simply using Gullah/Geechee when it was “sellable” was the only “value” ascribed to it at this missionary school even over 100 years since it began. The original missionary founders did NOT want the Gullah language spoken there unless it was when the “Negro children” were singing in it and money was contributed by visitors that wanted to hear them sing. The baskets that were made by the Gullah/Geechee students were sold to people that lived far away up north and meanwhile, the students’ families still had to scrape together their tuition to pay to attend the classes.
In my life time, I have raised tens of thousands of dollars to help insure that Penn would still be standing. However, it was never an easy job because similarly to what took place at Penn State University, the people that had been students there and that were my elders had been trained to be “passive, conscientious, law abiding, responsible, and [socially] ultraconservative.” This conservatism got disrupted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he began staying on St. Helena Island and hosting meetings in Frisell Community House.
One of the campaigns that Dr. King announced at Frisell was his final campaign, “The Poor Peoples’ Campaign.” Interestingly enough, the last march that I led was on behalf of St. Helena Elementary School which is often used as a source of economic data for those studying our island and the educational system. They look at how many live at the financial poverty level without looking at the spiritual poverty that has been brought to our community by people at the missionary school and public schools that told us that we would never get anywhere in life speaking our native tongue-Gullah. They told us that we need to go into trade schools and work in gated areas when they started to arise instead of seeking to go to institutions of higher learning in order to learn how to be entrepreneurs that would come back and finance and operate the businesses and institutions in our community.
Ironically and Divinely, many of us that were students of St. Helena School who also grew up working at, going to programs and meetings, and fighting for Penn did not fall into the school to prison pipeline that has been the outgrowth of the lowering of the Gullah/Geechee students’ self-esteem and the lack of income that is directed toward the educational institutions on St. Helena. In fact, we are revolted by the site of penitentiaries! So, when an Anglo woman asked me last week, “Why is a fence going around Penn Center for it to look like a jail over there?,” I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I visualized what she said and then I actually drove by the historic site yesterday and saw how it was now being caged in. I also knew that I was glad to be free and would remain so because I was not going to let anyone imprison me nor my mind because theirs may be!
I am committed to again marching for and this time on my island-beloved historic St. Helena Island! I know that it is Divinely Ordered that the Concerned Citizens of St. Helena Island are marching from the St. Helena School grounds to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive on Saturday, June 30, 2018. I know that it is time that the Penn Center Board of Trustees and the executive director that they hired and continue to support are abundantly clear that non-profits are mandated to have fiscal responsibility and transparency. They should also have the ability to build up a community not try to think that they are guards over it as if this is a penitentiary. So, hunnuh chillun round de world, we pray sey hunnuh stand up wid de St. Helena Island Gullah/Geechee Famlee and le dem kno ain da no fence fa we! Dey need fa caah um whey dey be! Ain gwine imprison we!
by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com) and Founder, Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition
Come to St. Helena Elementary School at 10 am on Saturday, June 30, 2018 to march with the Concerned Citizens of St. Helena Island. If you cannot march the entire distance, stand with signs at Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Highway 21/Sea Island Parkway.
Sign the petition from all over the world and pass it on to show your support of the Gullah/Geechee community on St. Helena Island against the injustice by Penn Center, Inc:
Tune in here to hear the interview on Gullah/Geechee Riddim Radio about this issue: