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During the 1960s the Penn Center, formerly the Penn School, supported school desegregation and voter registration. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held meetings at Penn Center prior to the March on Washington in 1963. Today the mission of Penn Center is to promote and preserve the history and culture of the Sea Islands.
After Union occupation of the Sea Islands in 1861, two northerners, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, came to help the freed blacks of this area, establishing Penn School in 1862. The earliest known black teacher was Charlotte Forten, who traveled all the way from Massachusetts to help her people. One of the first schools for blacks in the South, Penn School opened in 1862 and was reorganized as Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School in 1901. Its program was removed to the Beaufort County school system in 1948.
At a time when public education was poor, Penn School graduates made important contributions to the local community, and the school gained a national reputation. The school closed in 1948, and a non-profit organization was created to continue the community service and cultural preservation activities, the Penn Center.