St. Helena Island outside Beaufort is among the many unique places along South Carolina’s coast and serves as a major focal point of our nation’s African American history. Union soldiers occupied this part of the state early during the Civil War, and Northern missionaries established about 30 schools on the island as part of the Port Royal Experiment, an attempt to educate formerly enslaved people and prepare them for a new life of freedom.
Penn Center on the island has its roots as the site of one of these schools, and the Penn Normal School gradually evolved into an industrial and agricultural school whose curriculum was developed by Booker T. Washington. After its last class graduated in 1953, the site became a community center that focused on improving life for African Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. was a frequent visitor as he and other civil rights leaders met there to strategize on their movement.
Understanding that history is crucial to appreciating why Beaufort County enacted its St. Helena Island Cultural Protection Overlay in 1999. The big idea was to protect the island’s special history and living culture as a focal point of Gullah-Geechee culture, which stretches from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The overlay prohibits golf courses with nine or more holes, gated communities and resorts (except for any focused on ecotourism).