The Penn School on Saint Helena Island, S.C., was founded during the Civil War by northern philanthropists and missionaries for former plantation slaves in an area occupied by the United States Army. Over the years, with continuing philanthropic support, it served as school, health agency, and cooperative society for rural African Americans of the Sea Islands. The first principals were Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray, followed around 1908 by Rossa B. Cooley and Grace B. House, and in 1944 by Howard Kester and Alice Kester. The school became Penn Community Services in 1950, with Courtney Siceloff as the first director, and the Penn Center, Inc. in the 1980s.
The original deposits are papers, mostly 1900-1970, mainly from the Penn School, and primarily correspondence of the directors and of the trustees, treasurers, and publicity workers located elsewhere. Topics include African American education, Reconstruction, political and social change in South Carolina, agricultural extension work, public health issues, damage from hurricanes, World War I, the boll weevil and the cotton industry, the effects of the Great Depression on the school and the local population, changes in the school leading to a greater emphasis on social action in the outer world, and the end of the school and the turn to community service. Volumes include diaries, extracts from letters, recollections, minutes of the board of trustees, ledgers, cashbooks, inventories, financial records, registers of students and teachers, and minutes of various clubs and societies. Printed materials consists of newspapers clippings, pamphlets, promotional literature, school materials, administrative circulars, and annual reports. There are also about 3,000 photographs in the collection, dating from the 1860s to 1962 (bulk 1905-1944), documenting school activities, Island scenes and Islanders, classes and teachers, baptisms, agricultural activities, parades, fairs, and special events at the Penn School. The Addition of November 2012 includes papers, volumes, printed materials, photographs, audio recordings, and film that are similar in scope and content to the original deposit.